Monday, April 26, 2010

art of living

Gailard Sartain's painting benefits a center that saved his son

Gailard Sartain stands with his son Ben Sartain in the fitness center at the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges. Gailard Sartain painted a piece that has been made into a poster to advertise the center's big fundraiser, the Bartlett Regatta. Ben Sartain is paralyzed and frequents the center. DARYL WILSON/Tulsa World

Ben Sartain pointed his black Honda Accord down the North Dallas Tollway on his way to meet friends in the winter of 2003.

At the time, the native Tulsan was still learning his way around the city, so he needed written driving directions to arrive on time. When the directions blew off his dashboard, Sartain took his eyes off the road to retrieve the errant piece of paper in the passenger-side floorboard. It wasn't hard for him to reach; he wasn't wearing his seat belt.

In that brief moment — one that separated one life from another — Sartain didn't see a blue minivan pull in front of him as he sped down the highway.

It all happened so fast. He remembers slamming on his breaks and jerking the steering wheel to the right.

During the crash, Sartain's spinal cord gave way, leaving him paralyzed from just below the rib cage on down.

"It's weird talking about it," a now 33-year-old Sartain said, emotion tinging his words more than six years after the accident.

His doctors told him the accident severed his spinal cord at the T7 level, meaning he'd never walk again. However, he has since learned the spinal cord is not
completely severed because he can move his hips and legs to an extent.

Months after the accident, a physical therapist at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa told Sartain about the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges, 815 S. Utica Ave.

Founded in 1957, the center specializes in rehabilitative services, adaptive recreation and community reintegration. The center's largest fundraiser, the 25th Annual Bartlett Regatta, is June 5 and the event's launch party is June 2.

To raise awareness about the fundraiser, Ben Sartain's father, Gailard Sartain, painted an acrylic piece that finds 10 regattas of all colors easing their way over blue lake water.

Gailard Sartain is known for his iconic Tulsa comedy series "The Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting" — or "Mazeppa" as it's often called. He also spent two decades on "Hee-Haw" and appeared in such films as "Mississippi Burning," "Fried Green Tomatoes" and "Elizabethtown."

Over the years, Gailard Sartain has painted two pieces made into Mayfest posters and other pieces for various charities.

His Bartlett Regatta painting is featured on posters and T-shirts. Signed, and unsigned, copies of the poster will be sold at the launch party, where the original painting will be auctioned.

Seated in a Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges conference room with his wife and son, Gailard Sartain said, "I don't know if Ben would have done as well if it weren't for this facility. What happens here is remarkable."

Ben Sartain, too, wondered where he would be today if it weren't for the center.

"I honestly don't think I would be alive," he said. "It was so bad. I couldn't handle it. This place gave me a purpose. I didn't have a purpose before. I was isolated in my house not doing anything. It was hell. I was too uncomfortable to go outside. I didn't want people to see me. I guess I couldn't face the facts."

Once Ben Sartain arrived at the center some four years ago, he made great use of its Ergys 2 Rehabilitation System bike. It essentially uses electrical stimulation to allow him to pedal a stationary leg-cycle ergometer. In the process, it increases muscle mass, strength, and endurance, among other benefits.

To pass the time during his hour-long stints on the bike several days a week, Ben Sartain finds his stepmother, Mary Jo Sartain, online. Together, they play Words With Friends, a Scrabble-like game on their iPhones. Mary Jo Sartain almost always wins.

Speaking of the Ergys 2, she said: "It has been amazing how it's kept Ben's muscle tone up, which is important, because we're always ready for some miracle to come down the pike. And Ben will be ready for it physically."

Four or five days a week, Ben Sartain usually drives himself to the center around 9 a.m. and stays until about 4 p.m.

He spends most of his time at the center — along with workout time spent at CrossFit Jenks — following exercise routines in his Project Walk manual. Project Walk is a California-based nonprofit that aims to strengthen his dormant muscles so that he may one day walk.

Away from the center, Ben Sartain regularly travels to an Oklahoma City rehab facility at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, where he uses a Locomat, a machine that simulates walking. While there, he also dons leg braces that, with the assistance of an aluminum walker, allows him to walk down a hallway on his own power.

"I doubt (I'll walk again) all the time," he said, "but I guess I've got to push until I can't push anymore. I don't know if it's going to happen, but I'm proud of myself that I've gotten to the point I have."

Around the center, Sherry Setters, director of community relations, said Ben Sartain is "very much an inspiration to some of the members."

But it was Ben Sartain who fought back tears as he talked about some of the inspirational people he's met at the center.

"They're fighting," he said, "And this place gives you that. It gives you a place to fight and to try and win."

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