In August 2009, Keith Gurgui had a lot to be thankful for. Varsity Crew Team Captain. Kingston High School Graduate. Active Lifeguard. Headed to Philadelphia University in the fall to begin his freshman year of college. To celebrate, Gurgui went on vacation to Bethany Beach, MD. Two days later, as he went for his final dive of the day, his landing changed his life forever.
Now 2012, with a home elevator, handicap-accessible vehicle, and daily OT and PT, Gurgui is paralyzed from the neck down. Still, Gurgui said, he “has a lot to be thankful for”.
“Through my accident and rehabilitation I have learned first-hand about the complex lives individuals with disabilities are forced to live, and the programs out there to support them. One of my goals is to advocate for the issues and concerns of this group to encourage support, equality, and research among politicians, doctors, scientists, social service organizations, schools, and anyone else who can help make life as equal and accessible for all,” said Gurgui, who is working to earn his Bachelor of Science in Communication & Political Science at SUNY Empire State College.
Gurgui realized that to be a more effective advocate, he would need education, training, and experience. He knew he’d benefit from college courses, however travel and attendance in a traditional classroom on a regular basis would be a challenging task, for both Keith and his family.
“After being introduced to Empire State College, I realized I could still earn my bachelor’s degree without the transportation or accessibility issues of a campus-based program. With a SUNY name and courses delivered completely online, I knew I found my opportunity. I was accepted to Empire State College in 2010, and enrolled in my first class called ‘Disabled in America’,” he said.
Speaking his assignments into Dragon NaturallySpeaking, a voice-to-computer translator, and clicking through a reflective dot on a head mouse, Gurgui has successfully completed five classes to date, and is actively engaged in his summer coursework.
“I go to school for what’s in my head, not in my hand…For the knowledge, not the piece of paper. I have a personal stake in laws and regulations and the people they serve,” Gurgui said. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos recognized this and selected Gurgui to be a member of the New York State Department of Health’s Spinal Cord Injury Research Board, which distributes grants to qualifying researchers around the state interested in specifically treating spinal cord injuries.
And that’s not all. In addition to a part-time course load, Gurgui works his day job as a Systems Advocate at the Resource Center for Accessible Living (RCAL). This is the same independent living center in Ulster County that assisted him back in 2009. He also attended the World Stem Cell Summit in Detroit, MI to learn about regenerative medicine’s research trends and treatment programs.
What’s next for Gurgui? He has aspirations to start a fundraising organization to raise money for spinal cord injury research. However, he quickly added, “I keep busy. But the ultimate goal I work for every day is to get out of this chair.” And based on his accomplishments, there’s no doubt he has the motivation, commitment, and perseverance to accomplish it!