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Full throttle: life on wheels

Enrique “Ike” Ampo, person with spinal cord injury (SCI). Photo by CONG B. CORRALES.Enrique “Ike” Ampo, person with spinal cord injury (SCI). Photo by CONG B. CORRALES.

By Cong B. Corrales, VERA Files

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY— As a young dentist who just passed the board exams in 1983, Enrique "Ike" Ampo lived life in the fast lane.

He had a booming dental practice in Makati City, was a fabulous, chic yuppie like his clients, and was headed for the top of his field. Until it all came crashing down, literally.

The crash happened one fateful Saturday—February 18, 1984—in Baguio City. Ampo, the passenger, survived the accident but his dentist-friend who was driving died instantly.

"Nag-wish kong unta patay pud ko (I wished, I too, died in that crash)," said Ampo who, after the crash, barely left the house and thought that going out four times in a year was "already too much."

"Murag end na ang tanan (I really felt it was the end for me)," he said, sulking at the thought that he would "never ever need shoes."

Ampo, now 52, is Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) level functionality T4. This means that he is completely paralyzed in his lower body and legs, and needs a wheelchair for long distance independent travel or uneven outdoor surfaces. He has full use of all upper body limbs, full head and neck movement, and normal shoulder movement. In his spine,  he has a Harrington rod—a stainless steel surgical device that is traditionally used to treat coronal-plane curvature of the spine or scoliosis.

"I'm paralyzed from the chest down. I cannot feel my stomach. I cannot sit without a backrest. I cannot feel pain from the chest down. I cannot control my urination," he said.

Injury not a disease

Caused by injury rather than disease, SCI is defined by the location and severity of the damage in the spinal cord and nerve roots, according to the American SCI Society.

Vehicular accidents also remain the most common cause of SCIs. Other causes include slips, work-related accidents, sports injuries, and penetrations such as stab or gunshot wounds.

Ampo underwent rehabilitation therapy at the Capitol Medical Center in Quezon City for three months after the accident.  He was placed in the spinal ward where a nurse looked after him 24/7, as he had no relatives with him. He then transferred to the Capitol University Hospital in Cagayan de Oro City. He continues to do rehabilitation exercises on his own up to now.

A 1996 research done by Dr. Robert L. Waters, Chief Medical Officer of Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center and Clinical Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Southern California, said that persons with SCI who sustained  complete injuries, like Ampo, recover very little lost function.

Dr. Waters' research concluded, "the majority of motor recovery that can be expected occurs within the first six to nine months. At approximately nine months the rate of recovery plateaus."

Ready, get set

After battling depression for two years and a half, Ampo's friend Jerry Bas introduced him to Jovencio Concha.  Bas also uses a wheelchair to get around. Ampo and Bas call themselves "wheelchair users." Concha—also a person with SCI—hails from Cebu.

"That afternoon when he (Concha) visited, he was able to get me out of the house. We spent the entire afternoon strolling and chatting. We even checked out the night life, threw darts in pubs and sang at the Melting Pot (a local bar)," said Ampo.

Shortly after that, Ampo decided to leave the "comfort of home" and stayed for a year in the Cainta branch of Tahanang Walang Hagdanan (TWH), a nongovernment organization that helps the orthopedically impaired.

TWH has a rehabilitation and skills training center with workshops for people with disabilities. It was founded by Sr. Ma. Paula Valeriana Baerts, a Belgian nun from the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary assigned in the Philippine Orthopedic Center (POC) in 1965.

When Ampo was in Capitol Med, Sr. Baerts came to visit.  She told Ampo, "Hindi ka nag-iisa (You are not alone)." She left Ampo a sketch of the directions how to go to TWH.

"I started with a very minimum salary, assigned at the cards packing group and then later to computing the salary of my group. Later, I became the personnel officer," Ampo recalled.

He said he would have wanted to stay there for good but the drinking water did not agree with his stomach.

In 1986, Ampo joined "Servant of the Lord." It was only when he was with this religious community that he was able to visit the island province of Camiguin right next door to Cagayan de Oro. He said this was "ironic" because he was only able to visit the island after he became a wheelchair-user.

In the early 90s, Ampo decided to continue his dental practice at the Negros Occidental Rehabilitation Center for Persons with Disability.  It was also during this time that his friend Concha, together with other officers of the Handicappeds' Anchor is Christ, Inc. of Cebu (Haci Cebu) visited Cagayan de Oro City and met with a core group of PWDs.

Later that year, Ampo, together with friends Bas and Concha organized a Haci of Cagayan de Oro (Haci D Oro, Inc.) and took oath as founding members.

Haci D Oro's mission statement is "to develop among PWDs a deeper consciousness of their rights, foster closer relationship, understanding, unity and cooperation; assist in attaining the right education and information campaign; and encourage PWD to organize themselves."

The group has since launched initiatives and campaign advocacy to promote equality and rights issues of the PWD sector.

"As far as I know, there are more or less 20 persons with SCI in our organization," Ampo said.

Haci D Oro has a weekly radio program on Radio Mindanao Network-Cagayan de Oro every Sunday morning.  The program is dubbed "Kamusta ka ig soon(How are you brother)?" Here they discuss and monitor updates on the implementation of RA 7277 or the Magna Carta for Disabled Persons and BP 344, the Accessibility Law.

Through Kabalikat ng Mamamayang Pilipino (Kampi) and the Danish Society of Polio and Accident Victims (PTU) as its funding partners, the organization initiated the Rehabilitation for Indigent Disabled Kids, in CDO. Haci D Oro also provides capital for livelihood to its members and parents of children with disabilities. In coordination with the Land Transportation Office (LTO 10) and the city's Road and Traffic Administration (RTA), the group implemented posting of access decals on public utility vehicles.

The organization also manages the public facilities at Cagayan de Oro city's main park, Gaston Park and recently opened a metal-iron and carpentry shops.

PWD advocacy

His active engagement in the local PWD movement and the religious community, Ampo said, "has greatly improved my self-esteem since the movement has inspired me something worth fighting for."

He ran as an independent candidate for City Councilor in the May 2010 National Synchronized Elections.

Though he did not win, Ampo said: "I enjoyed the experience but I will not go through with it again because it is physically exhausting."

Ampo described his entire campaign as "multi-tasking." He borrowed a friend's multicab and solicited funds from friends.He was his own barker and campaign manager.

Among his unforgettable experiences during the campaign included being "allowed to talk for five minutes in one particular local sortie of Eddie Villanueva" and having been mentioned in President Benigno Aquino III's meeting de avance in the city.

"The absence of PWD representation in the City Council drove me to run," said Ampo.

He bemoans the dismal participation of the PWD sector in the region in the last elections.

If possible, PWD registration must be brought to them to ensure higher participation among especially the wheelchair-users and the blind, he said adding that the PWD registration problem areas are the remote rural areas in the region.

Ampo is currently the executive director of Haci D Oro, Inc. and vice chairperson of the Regional Council on Disability Affairs (RCDA 10).

At 52, wheelchair-user, single, and living with his 81-year old mother, he describes himself as "full-cylindered fired up" in advancing equality and rights issues of the PWD sector.

He is, more than ever, at the top of his game. "Life is good. God is good," Ampo said.

(VERA Files is a partner of the "Fully Abled Nation" campaign that seeks to increase participation of PWDs in the 2013 elections and other democratic process. Fully Abled Nation is supported by The Asia Foundation and the Australian Agency for International Development. VERA Files is put out by senior journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for "true.")

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