Officials from UPMC Sports Medicine and a former mine site on the border of Butler/Lawrence counties—Mines and Meadows—started talking last fall about joining forces with spinal-cord injured patients so that they could enjoy all-terrain vehicle (ATV) riding at the RV/ATV resort.
Former Peters Township police Officer Jim Kuzak launched that effort Wednesday.
Kuzak, who was shot in the line of duty in Clairton last year, has been riding ATVs for more than a decade. On Wednesday, he got aboard his own Polaris for the first time since the summer of 2010.
His girlfriend, Cris Okulanis, said he enjoyed riding it so much that he used it to take down and tote their Christmas decorations or to take their two German Shepherds for a spin.
Since his accident, Kuzak has primarily been focused on rehabilitation to where he could function, using a wheelchair and occasionally using a walker. He was eager to get back on his ATV.
Mines and Meadows brought in Tom Mershimer, an ATV safety instructor, to give Kuzak a refresher course out on the starter’s oval and to make sure he was ready to hit a woods trail.
“It’s nice to get back to this,” Kuzak said in a statement. “It felt like I was meant to be here a lot sooner. They told me about this last summer, and I couldn’t come soon enough. I’ll try this, then we can get into something more, I don't want to say ‘daring,’ but … ”
Mershimer was impressed that the sturdy Kuzak still maintained good strength and upper body shifting/movement—the ATV doesn’t need to be adapted because the brakes and accelerators are on the handlebars.
Kuzak put on his lower leg prosthetics to keep his legs firm and on the ATV. His UPMC Sports Medicine physical therapist Chris Venus and Union Orthotics therapist Scott Emler helped him on the ATV.
After mastering turns and figure-8s under Mershimer’s watchful eyes, they headed into the woods for a mud bog and a bumpier trail.
“I’ll try to keep you safe,” Mershimer said. “That’s what we want,” joked Kuzak.
But, Mershimer said after the test run on flat land, “He still has a lot of his ATV skills from before his injury.”
“This is the first normal thing I’ve been able to do," Kuzak said. "I’m having a blast. For people with a spinal-cord injury, this program is wonderful.”