Gary and Zachary Witman are father and son with a uniquely close relationship. Gary — who was, ironically, chief of one of the busiest ER’s in the country at the time, credits Zack with saving his life. A freak accident during a placid day at the beach four years ago instantly damaged Gary’s spine and left him a quadriplegic. Not long after the accident, after having been taken to one hospital and then transferred to another, Gary developed a very high fever that the doctors weren’t sure how to treat. Gary says that had his son Zachary not been there applying cold compresses all night, he’s certain he would have died.
Gary has made considerable progress since the accident. He has regained the ability to speak and has had some signs of regained movement in his hands, arms, and shoulders. His family, and particularly his wife, have been tirelessly dedicated to him through it all, and Gary’s positive attitude and fierce determination is nothing short of remarkable. Though he is very limited physically, he still sees patients, acts as an expert medical witness in the judicial system, attends medical meetings at the hospital as well as medical conferences and serves on various Boards, both medical and philanthropic.
I had the pleasure of speaking with both Gary and his son Zack about the way this enormous life-changing accident has affected their relationship.
Can you begin by telling me what happened on the tragic day at the beach?
Gary: First of all, I only go to the beach one to two days a year. And this particular event happened on Aug 31, 2010. I went down to Naraganset. And what happened is that we were in the water about 30 feet from the shore, and I was bending over and I got hit in the back of the neck by a wave. I was immediately paralyzed. I went into a prone position, and I couldn’t move my arms and couldn’t move my legs.
My wife pulled me out of the water with the help of some other people.
Zachary: One of the first things my dad said to my mom after the accident was ‘Call the hospital and tell them I won’t be coming in to work tonight.’ My father’s love for practicing medicine is obvious to all he meets, and not being able to work [like he once did] has affected him tremendously. Even now his passion for medicine remains unwavering, and his work ethic both pre- and post-injury are almost hard to imagine.
Zachary, can you tell me a little about your father?
Zachary: I say this without a hint of hesitation: He’s the hardest working man I’ve ever met. I’ve never come across anyone who committed themselves to their craft quite like my father did.
In the past, I’ve attributed his work ethic to the passing of his mother early in his life. He’s the oldest of four boys, and perhaps he wanted to set an example for his brothers; or he felt it was his obligation as the eldest son to provide for them.
I spend a considerable amount of time thinking not only about how I can help my father but what it must be like to be trapped in your own body like that. To be unable to flip over at night when you can can’t sleep or scratch an itch that has been bothering you all day.
Outside of what we think of as ‘movement,’ there are a million little things we take for granted that he can no longer do for himself; often merely thinking about it keeps me up at night.
It’s been a tremendous relief for our family, however, that even though his body was injured, he didn’t lose a single brain cell.
Here’s an example of just how smart my dad is: When he was in high school, he did a project about a novel solid rocket fuel, which was used on the boosters which detach after the first stage of the launch. It was published in some science journal.
Shortly after publication, his father got a phone call from NASA. They asked if they could speak with Gary Witman, but his father told NASA that his son was in school. Hearing that he was in school, they asked what graduate program he was enrolled in; it was only after a couple of seconds that my grandfather interjected and said ‘No, he’s a sophomore in high school.’
Gary, can you tell me a little about your childhood and how your upbringing impacted the kind of father you are?
Gary: I grew up in New Jersey. But my family settled in California a hundred years ago, and my grandma lived in California. So as my own kids were growing up, we would go to California to visit her, and we’d always go to Disneyland when we went. We must’ve taken our kids to Disneyland over 15 times.
I had special memories of Disneyland from my childhood, though. Actually, more than just special memories. In fact I have a nearly reverential attitude towards the Disney organization and the creation of Disneyland. See, I went to Disneyland on the opening day, July 1, 1955. I was five years old.
My mother’s brother, my uncle Gerald, was a principal in what was called the Hirsch Uniform Company. And they manufactured all of the original Disney costumes. And so my little brother Leonard and I were picked up at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and we took the VIP bus to Disneyland with the original Mouseketeers.
I was sitting right near Annette Funicello. Amazing. I’ll never forget it. We rode the riverboat with Louis Armstrong. And [Fess Parker as] Davy Crocket was there in his coonskin hat. How excited I was. We went on a TWA plane across country to get there. I threw up on the way from New York to St. Louis.
After that first visit in childhood to Disneyland, at age five, I told my parents that I would not visit again until I could bring my own children with me. And I lived up to my promise.
I’ll tell you something: Now I am thankful every day just to wake up and be alive. I was alive to see my daughter get married and alive to see my grandchild. These are things that I did not expect right after the accident. I thought for certain I was going to die.
When I finished my initial hospitalization and I got transferred out of the Intensive Care Unit for the first time in three weeks, I heard birds chirp. I saw sunlight. And I thought, ‘My God, what a beautiful world this is.’
I appreciate, all the time, every day, the fact that I have terrific family support. I wouldn’t have gotten through this without their support. My daughters Samantha and Amanda, my son Zachary, and my wife DeeDee have all been terrific. And DeeDee’s a superstar. She’s my guiding light.
This is all due to a freak-of-nature accident. Why did it happen? Who knows. Gotta live with it. Gotta move forward. Life goes on. I’m not looking for pity.
For more on Gary Witman and to follow his healing process, visit The Life and Spine of Dr. Gary B. Witman.