He ended up in a wheelchair because he broke his neck while trying to help a child retrieve a kite lost in the ocean. Now, friends are raising money to buy a special wheelchair to help him retrieve another outdoor joy he lost to paralysis.
O’Ree Crittenden, 43, a quadriplegic for 15 years, will go on a hike again if fellow Shaw High School alumni Lee Griffith and Chad Pepper reach their goal. They want to collect $15,000 for a Black Diamond TrailRider and other equipment Crittenden would need to participate in the 78.6-mile trek that comprises the Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail.
Before his accident, Crittenden spent as much time as he could in nature. He hiked and biked. He canoed and kayaked. Each summer, he joined friends on camping trips along the Flint River.
“Some of the best meals and conversations I've had happened around a campfire,” he said.
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He hiked the Pine Mountain Trail so many times, he said, “there would be a joke that we could do it in the dark.”
Crittenden also had a reputation for helping others. He kept a floor jack and four-way lug wrench in his car for the several times he changed a tire for folks stranded by the roadside.
“He’s got the best attitude,” said Griffith, an ecologist in Dacula, Ga. “If you knew O’Ree beforehand and now, the only thing that changed is his stature.”
“He’s laidback and compassionate,” said Pepper, owner of Columbus-based Greek Key Services, which constructs fraternity and sorority houses. “He’s not soured about his condition.”
Around Christmas last year, Griffith posted Facebook photos of himself backpacking with his children, and Crittenden commented, “I miss that.”
Griffith messaged Pepper, “We’ve got to make this happen.”
Pepper agreed, but they had to convince Crittenden.
“O’Ree is not one to complain,” Pepper said, “but I know he wants to get out there.”
They broached the idea during lunch at Locos Grill & Pub. Crittenden hesitated at first, but he relented.
“I don't like to ask for others to monetarily support my dreams,” he said. “The reality is that, if not for a fundraiser, this would not be a possibility.”
Crittenden is considered a high-functioning quadriplegic, meaning he has partial use of his arms and hands. He lives alone, but a caregiver through Medicaid helps him at home in the mornings and evenings five days per week. Since he was paralyzed, he has kayaked, water skied, jet skied, rode on an ATV and played on a nationally ranked wheelchair rugby team, but hiking has been an elusive wish.
He drives his adapted car to gaze over the Chattahoochee Valley from Pine Mountain vistas. He enjoys the view and the fresh air, but his disability blocks his desire to be on the trail. In fact, he said, he gets his outdoor fix now mostly by just grilling on his deck.
So receiving the special wheelchair, he said, “would be life affirming for me. … It'd be the return to nature and seeing sites that only those who venture into backcountry can see and appreciate.”
Although helping their friend sparked this fundraiser, the TrailRider would be for not only Crittenden.
“We’ve got disabled veterans used to being outdoors, and that’s been taken away from them,” Griffith said. “There are city parks they can go to, but places like the Pine Mountain Trail would not be accessible for them without this special wheelchair.”
“Up there in Canada,” Pepper said, “people buy this chair and donate it to parks so it can be rented.”
The TrailRider, developed by the British Columbia Mobility Opportunities Society, is a cross between a wheelbarrow and a rickshaw. It has one tire and requires able-bodied guides in the front and rear to pull and push the disabled rider.
“I’ve dragged people out into the woods and carried all the gear,” Crittenden said with a laugh, “so it’s kind of the same thing.”
Pepper estimates it will take at least 10 guides rotating on and off the TrailRider to take Crittenden on the hike because “there’s never a slack spot. You’re either going up a hill or down a hill. There’s rarely 50 yards of flat.”
Crittenden has worked the past five years for Access 2 Independence, which helps the disabled live independently. He is assistant director of the Columbus office. He also serves on the Mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities executive board and the Georgia Tools For Life League advisory board.
“He helps himself,” Pepper said. “He’s out there doing something with his life and for other people.”
No wonder Crittenden tells his clients, “I’m a home owner. I drive. I have a job. I help other people with disabilities. I’m a quadriplegic. Tell me what you can’t do now and tell me why you can’t do it.”
Fifteen years ago, Crittenden was the mobile installation manager for HiFi Buys in Atlanta. The 1990 Shaw High graduate was a drummer in the school’s band when the Raiders marched in the 1989 inauguration of President George H.W. Bush.
Crittenden was planning to return to college to finish his bachelor’s degree in music at Columbus State University, where he studied for three years before pursuing his custom car stereo career full time.
He joined a bunch of friends from Columbus on a weekend trip to Pensacola, Fla. While on the beach, he saw a boy, about 7 years old, struggling to fly a kite.
The scene prompted Crittenden to remember the fun he had flying a kite when he was a kid. So with permission from the boy’s mother, he escorted him and his younger sister to the end of the pier, where the wind was better for flying a kite.
The boy’s smile turned to a frown when the kite plunged into the breaking surf.
Crittenden looked over the railing. The water was somewhat murky, but the area looked clear of rocks and debris. Besides, he was a strong swimmer, and he had performed open-water rescues, including the time he saved his mother when he was 10.
So he jumped, feet first.
A wooden post from the old pier was submerged out of view but too near enough the surface. Crittenden landed on it and was knocked unconscious in the waves.
A sign alerting swimmers to the danger was erected after his accident, Crittenden noted.
“I was the second person who got injured in that fashion at that very spot,” he said.
One of the children ran back to the beach to get their mother. She and a friend tried but couldn’t rescue Crittenden. His buddies noticed the commotion and pulled him from the ocean. He had been under water for 5-10 minutes.
A U.S. Army nurse from Fort Benning just so happened to be walking on the beach then and performed CPR to revive him.
Crittenden was airlifted to Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, where he underwent an eight-hour surgery to repair his damaged spine, fractured C3-4 vertebrae, disintegrated C5 vertebra and shattered C6 vertebra. Then he spent 11 days in a medically induced coma.
The date of his accident was Sept. 9, 2001 – two days before the terrorist attacks on America.
“I have no memory of 9/11,” he said and added with a smile, “I tell people that I had other things going on.”
The grandparents who raised him, Earnestine and William Crittenden, were in his hospital room when he awoke. He wanted to tell them, “Don’t worry about it. Everything will be OK.” But he couldn’t speak because he was intubated, and the frustration made him cry.
Crittenden, however, didn’t spend much time feeling sorry for himself. He chuckled at the memory of seeing the medical staff walking around with American flags on their uniforms and wondering, “How did I end up in a military hospital?” The TV in his room kept showing a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, and he figured “some new Bruckheimer movie” must have come out.
“One nurse, every time I tried to talk, she thought I was getting upset, so she hit me with more morphine, but I just wanted to know what was going on,” he recalled. “… They said I was combative because I snatched a nurse. Yeah, I believe that; I was trying to ask, ‘Why can’t I move?’”
Finally, 11 days after the accident, he learned what happened. The tube was removed and he could speak with one of his visiting friends, Scott Kimbrough.
“Hey, man,” he told Kimbrough, “we’ve got to go home.”
“No, buddy,” Kimbrough replied. “You can’t go anywhere. You’re going to have to stay a while.”
Even before his formal rehabilitation, Crittenden put himself through his own exercise regimen. It started with an itch on his head during his second week in the hospital.
He somehow managed to inch his hand up his body, but it got stuck in the halo bracing his neck. Nonetheless, it was a good sign; he was regaining some function as his spinal swelling subsided.
After 3½ weeks in that hospital, Crittenden was transferred to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for rehabilitation.
In hindsight, Crittenden believes past hardships prepared him to persevere through this one. The year before, in October 2010, Crittenden woke up in an Atlanta hospital after falling asleep while driving home from work. He had broken his clavicle, needed more than 100 stitches to reattach his ear and was temporarily paralyzed.
Then at Shepherd, the music major’s vocal training helped him fight off pneumonia as he did breathing exercises to strengthen is his lungs. He used the respiratory training he learned in a health science class at CSU to dislodge mucus buildup instead of waiting for a nurse to draw it out.
“I had all the background and history to deal with this injury and overcome it,” he said. “I didn’t wait around for anybody to do anything for me.”
In the spring of 2002, Crittenden went to the independent living program at the Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation. He stayed there until he returned to Columbus State in August.
A Warm Springs counselor insisted during a group therapy session that Crittenden never would earn enough money to live on his own. Asked whether he was motivated to prove him wrong, he said, “My motivation was that day on the beach. I could have died then. If you aren’t going to die, you move on in life.”
Crittenden graduated from CSU three years later, in 2005, thanks to accommodations from staff members and assistance from his grandmother, who came to his dorm room and helped him get ready for class each morning.
“If I did it by myself then,” he said with a laugh, “it would have taken four hours and then I would have needed to take a nap.”
When he dreams, Crittenden said, he often envisions himself hiking through the woods. In 2005, upon his graduation from CSU, the Ledger-Enquirer quoted him as saying, “I think the Appalachian Trail is probably out.”
But now, with help from friends and other donors, that dream could become a reality.
“That is huge, man,” he said. “That’s a big deal. ... Wow. It could be finally coming around to fruition.”
HOW TO DONATE
To help raise money to buy a special wheelchair and other equipment so Shaw High School and Columbus State University graduate O’Ree Crittenden, a quadriplegic, can hike the 78.6-mile Georgia section of the Appalachian Trail, donations are being accepted at https://www.gofundme.com/pamg2jhh. As of last week, 31 people have contributed a total of $1,725 in two months on the way to the $15,000 goal. Follow the effort on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ORee480/. On that page, Lee Griffith posted a video in which, while hiking, he says, “We can help so many people experience the simple pleasure of getting out in nature. … But you’ve got to get there.”