Three years ago Michael Virtudes had his third heart attack. While at work he was found unconscious and woke up in the hospital after being in a medically induced coma for two days. Shortly after Michael and his wife received confirmation that his heart problems were hereditary. In order to avoid another heart attack, doctors changed his high blood pressure medication. This medication change would severely alter Michaels’ life and his ability to walk forever.
A burning sensation infused his body, as if he were on fire. Days later Michael would find out he was completely paralyzed from his mid torso down due to a hematoma, or solid swelling of clotted blood with the tissues. The blood clot pinched the femoral nerve, a nerve in the thigh that supplies the upper thigh and inner leg, and the muscles that extend to the knee.
After being paralyzed Michael was admitted into a rehabilitation center and put on a wheelchair. He had to relearn all of the basic traits we take for granted every day; learning how to use the bathroom, put on clothes, or how to stand. After two short months, Michael proved to all the doctors and his family his inner strength and perseverance to try and walk again. It was a miracle that Michael was able to start using a walker for assistance. When asked how he was able to recover so quickly Michael says he “couldn’t stand to feel that helpless” His mind and body were in a constant battle but he “wouldn’t accept the fact that [he] was in a wheelchair.”
For both Michael and his wife, the entire experience “opened [their] eyes to the hardships that would come”. After the rehabilitation center, Michael spent another month in physical therapy before coming to the Nu’uanu YMCA to further his treatment. Michael has been a member at our YMCA for over 35 years now, but when the accident happened, his experience and outlook on the YMCA completely changed.
Michael began utilizing the pool area to practice all the strength training he had learned in therapy. He use to come to the Y to run or lift weights, but to come back and see familiar faces after the accident left him in a vulnerable state of mind. His wife, Claudia Virtudes, mentioned how not only was it “a struggle for his pride, but [the Y is] not accessible to utilize the facility. It was a fight we had to learn to overcome.”
Every step at the Nu’uanu YMCA was a new accomplishment. Obtaining chairs for the family locker room so that Michael could take a shower was the first step. Even being able to go to the bathroom due to accessibility issues was a challenge. Michael set a goal—being able to overcome and walk up those large stairs at the entrance of the Nu’uanu YMCA.
Although the Nu’uanu branch faces limitations with accessibility, Claudia mentioned that “the Y is the one that kept him going, he was fighting for it. He fought here.” Both Michael and Claudia spoke highly of all the members and staff that “became like family” at our branch. “So many people offered assistance any chance they could” Claudia recalls. Now our Nu’uanu branch utilizes one of its pool lanes as a therapeutic lane for those in rehabilitation, after the push from Claudia for equity.
It’s been three years since the accident, and after working out at our branch five times a week, Michael has amazed all doctors in his ability to walk with a cane or no support at all. Michael credits the strength in his life as his wife. “The hardest part for me was not accepting the fact that I couldn’t walk with her on the beach, because I couldn’t adjust to the sand. Little things like just holding her hand on the beach was what pushed me to be better—for her.” Claudia admits the journey was just as hard for her because she couldn’t accept the wheelchair. “I just thought ‘he’s so young, this shouldn’t be happening to us yet.’ So I pushed him to be stronger. I asked him to do the impossible.” Married for over 36 years, Claudia was there for every step of the way, supporting him through every obstacle and every accomplishment.
Michael's journey still continues with us at the Nu’uanu YMCA, as a basketball coach. He use to volunteer in the community teaching youth basketball, but since the incident held him back for a few years he’s now made a comeback reliving his passion—helping others. Being able to teach basketball again was one of the reasons for him to get out of the wheelchair. “You have to have a strong mind. For me being a coach I told myself, ‘I got to get myself up and moving. I coach kids how to do this. If I can teach the kids, I can teach myself.’”
Even though there will be setbacks along the way, Michaels’ advice for all of us is “to be a fighter. And remember there are people out there that love you and believe in you. You can get stronger. A lot of people give up, that’s one thing you cannot do. Don’t give up.”
Why The Y: We Are More Than Just a Gym