It’s been nearly five years since local pharmacist Mel Pachino was struck by a car while bicycling on Smith Avenue near his Pikesville residence. On that day, his life changed forever. So did the life of his wife, Judith Jo Pachino, an information systems specialist, novelist, yoga instructor, mother of three daughters and a grandmother.
Mel Pachino was 53 at the time of the accident. He injured his cervical spine at the fifth vertebrae and spent the next 2½ weeks at the University of Maryland Medical Center R Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center, followed by two months at the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute.
In the aftermath of her husband’s miraculous recovery, Judy Pachino wrote, “C5: From Impact to Recovery, A Wife’s Memoir” (ExhaleBooks Publishing), chronicling the couple’s experiences during the year following the accident. The recently published “C5” — the title refers to the type of spinal injury — explores the grim prospects of permanent damage, the grueling surgeries and treatments, the unwavering support of the local Jewish community, and the perseverance and faith of a couple devoted to each other.
Jmore recently spoke with Judy Pachino, whose family belongs to Suburban Orthodox Congregation-Toras Chaim, about the book and her husband’s recovery.
Jmore: Takeaways from your book?
JP: We hope it will encourage anyone facing adversity. When Mel was injured, he couldn’t move anything below his neck. Fortunately, there was only partial damage to his spinal cord. With intensive therapy, hard work and a positive attitude, Mel was able to recover, little by little, day by day.
How did faith play a role?
Mel never lost his faith. Even when he was virtually paralyzed with only the ability to slightly move his left arm, he maintained his faith. Even when he had setbacks, he maintained his faith. He always believed recovery was possible, that if he worked hard, God would see him through.
Being in the hospital and unable to move had cut Mel off from a spiritual part of himself. It was when he was able to put on tefillin again that I realized how important it was for him to put his spirituality into action. He felt like he was rejoining the community and reconnecting to God in the physical sense.
The support of our shul and community were a big part of Mel’s recovery. The outpouring of prayers and kind deeds on his behalf was inspirational. We could actually feel the spiritual energy, and it made a real difference.
I always thought Baltimore was an amazing community, but I had not truly understood the extent of what people do. They taught me what true chesed [loving kindness] is. Providing kosher meals and even a refrigerator, Bikur Cholim [a local organization that helps Jewish patients and families facing medical challenges] brought us food every day for months. When we first came home, Stacey Goldenberg from the Jewish Caring Network brought us just what we needed for Mel’s homecoming.
Other community volunteers helped build a ramp, install chair lifts and attach shower bars to make our home accessible for Mel.
One nurse encouraged you by saying, “This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
Life after a spinal cord injury is ongoing. Mel is still injured. He’s never going to not be injured. Especially in the initial stage after the accident, the nurse was telling me to conserve my energy, take care of myself, so I would be available to help Mel. We had to realize this was for the long haul, and we had to be careful not to get burned out.
Lessons you can share with other caregivers?
One really important thing is to do something for yourself. I had my yoga, and I was able to squeeze in one class a week to teach. Also, accept the help you need. And take it day by day. If you look too far in the future, it won’t work. Wake up in the morning and meet that day.
How’s Mel doing these days?
He’s totally self-sufficient and doing great. Although his recovery plateaued at about 18 months, Mel continues to work out three times a week. Challenges still remain, but he handles these with the same determination he demonstrated during the grueling first year after the accident.
Advice for bicyclists?
Mel did everything right — the clothing, the visibility, all the necessary precautions — but that didn’t change the outcome. I think cyclists need to understand that they can do everything right, but they are still at risk. It takes one second for tragedy to strike.
Drivers can be distracted or in a hurry, they don’t share the road well, and there are no bike areas on most of our streets. Yes, you can have a bike helmet, and that’s probably what saved Mel’s life, but you’re really not protected out there.
I believe everyone should be riding off roads. Find a park or a trail. It’s a beautiful, wonderful exercise, but it’s not for the roads.
Hanni Werner is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.