Finding the Way Back
After sustaining a spinal cord injury, Vincenzo Piscopo relearns the basics in new ways to widen his world and help others on their journeys.
Vincenzo Piscopo, 52, has a warm personality with a matching grin, a combination that instantly turns strangers into friends. And once you’re friends, call him Enzo.
A family man, he travels the world for his job and lives in Milton, Georgia, with his wife, Gabriela, and their four children. In addition to his day job, he and his wife Gabriela have gone from overcoming his own injury, sustained in 2010, to helping people around the world overcome their own obstacles. He and Gabriela founded Wheels of Happiness, a nonprofit organization that helps people with motor disabilities in underdeveloped countries. It all started in 2010.
THE FALL BEFORE HIS RISE
Like so many people with back pain, Enzo had a herniated disc.
“I would take medicine and do therapy, and it would go away,” he says. “I was feeling great. My alarm went off, and I woke up to get ready for work. On the way to the bathroom, I had the most agonizing pain I could ever imagine, and it knocked me down. The pain was unbearable.”
Emergency responders brought Enzo to his community hospital, where it was determined that his herniated disc had ruptured. He was transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for surgery to remove embedded shards from his spine. The surgeon said there was a 20 percent risk of paralysis.
“Optimistically, you never you think you’ll be in that 20 percent,” Enzo says.
Because of surgical complications, Enzo was paralyzed from the waist down. He transferred to Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program, where he spent three months as a rehabilitation inpatient and continued outpatient therapy twice a week in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Day Program.
“I will go back to work,” he would say to himself repeatedly.
A RETURN TO WORK AND HOME
Enzo doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on what he can’t do. He is quick to credit his family; the leadership team and colleagues at his employer, The Coca-Cola Company, as well as his Shepherd care team with helping him focus on what he can do.
To get back to work, Enzo and his therapists visited his workplace to retrace familiar territory in a wheelchair. He learned to drive with adaptive equipment with the support of Shepherd’s Adaptive Driving Program. And, Enzo says an air travel tour and training session by Shepherd Center, in partnership with Delta Air Lines, was useful. Nine years after his injury, Enzo travels for both pleasure and business as often as he did before. He serves as the community and stakeholder relations director for The Coca-Cola Company.
He also learned to do things that may seem simple on the surface that would have a significant impact on his emotional state.
“They taught me how I could play baseball with my son,” he says. “They taught me how to dance because dance was important for me and my wife. Shepherd is just an amazing place.”
ASSISTING OTHERS ON THEIR JOURNEYS
While he was still in rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Enzo met a priest from Uganda. Before his rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, the priest had been in bed for a year with little hope for the future. Fortunately, the priest was able to come to Shepherd for rehabilitation. With that encounter, Enzo decided he wanted to help meet others’ medical needs.
Enzo and Gabriela founded Wheels of Happiness, a nonprofit that provides medical supplies and equipment, offers scholarships and funds mobility-related surgeries for people around the world, and Enzo says he is as happy as he’s ever been.
“You don’t have to measure your happiness based on how everybody measures their happiness,” he says. “Happiness is that I can do things that make me happy, which may be different from friends who can walk.”
To learn more about Wheels of Happiness, visit wheelsofhappiness.org.
Written by Christy Rosell
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 740 inpatients, nearly 280 day program patients and more than 7,100 outpatients each year in more than 46,000 visits.