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Fore He's a Truly Jolly Good Fellow ... and an Inspiration

November 9, 2006 By:
Frank Rosci
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Jerry Segal (right) and Capt. Brian La Freda, a pilot whose road to recovery from spinal-cord damage was shown in a video at the Jerry Segal Classic.

What began as an operating room mishap in 1988 has evolved into one man and one organization's triumphant story of courage, success and hope.

The man is well-known local attorney Jerry Segal, who was left paralyzed from the neck down, the unintentional result of a surgical procedure gone terribly wrong. The organization is Magee Rehabilitation, the nationally-renowned Philadelphia hospital that gave Segal a new lease on life.

Together they have joined forces for the last 16 years to raise money for research and treatment through the Jerry Segal Classic, a one-day golf tournament, dinner, auction and raffle held in September or October annually. The event benefits Magee and raises awareness about people living with spinal cord, brain, stroke and other disabilities, while offering them the promise of a brighter future.

Since the event, founded by Segal, began in 1990, more than $5 million has been raised for Magee -- this year the total was more than $1 million, Segal confirmed. The first year just $56,000 was raised.

"The Classic is by far Magee's biggest fundraiser of the year and is immensely important because it provides resources for our patients -- services, programs and equipment," acknowledged Ron Siggs, vice president of development and public relations, Magee.

"Jerry Segal is a winner, who always tries to surpass the previous year's total. He's an outstanding example of someone who's been through our doors as a patient, and who has given back so much through his energy and enthusiasm."

With the 17th-annual event having been played Sept. 29 at Green Valley Country Club and ACE Golf Club, Lafayette Hill -- 360 golfers participated and 500 guests were in attendance for the dinner and auction afterwards -- the 65-year-old Segal, who began his Center City law firm in 1968, talked about his journey from debilitating accident to a more normal life, and about the Magee cause and golf tournament that bears his name.

"I was in San Francisco on Nov. 22, 1988, for spinal surgery because a ligament had become wrapped around my spinal cord. Two days before I had played golf and shot an 80," the score of a very good golfer, incidentally.

"The surgery was performed by the number one neurosurgeon in the world, but during the operation my spinal cord got nicked and I was left paralyzed from the neck down. I could blink and stick out my tongue, but that was it."

Enter Magee, where Segal arrived in early December 1988 and where he spent four-and-a-half months. He was also there for neck surgery in 1998, spending 10 days in the hospital then. "Magee is a wonderful place; they put me back together, and helped me regain my independence and self respect," he said

Following his discharges, Segal returned to Magee, not just for range of motion treatments -- ongoing to this day -- but, in the exemplary and enduring Jewish tradition of mitzvot and of giving back, by establishing the golf outing, and by visiting and talking with Magee's patients at least once a week.

"There is no greater feeling in the world than to help at Magee every week, to be part of the process, especially when a patient makes that first effort to stand up out of a wheelchair. I tell you, it's a better feeling and more satisfying than any positive courtroom verdict," he said.

"I kibitz with them and encourage them to never, never give up. My job is to give the patients hope."

Segal, who described himself as "a cockeyed optimist, who loves life," was philosophical about what happened to him.

"I'm not angry about it. I'm the happiest, luckiest Jew alive. And I'm not bitter about it either. Hey, everybody can have a bad day. The bottom line is I can't do anything about yesterday, but I can do a lot about today and tomorrow," the affable Segal explained.

And he does just that with spirit, determination and unfailing commitment every day, despite having quadriplegia, which means he has no feeling from the neck down, and despite being told by doctors he'd never walk again.

"As an ambulatory person, I took walking for granted as most people do. Now I walk with the aid of two crutches and can play golf again, and always try [to] help myself. And if I can't do something one way I find another way.

"Somehow I get it done because the mind is an amazing thing. You know there is more than one way to skin a cat. You have got to believe that if you work hard, it's going to happen. I hope my grandkids" -- he has five, from 4 to 17 years old -- "see this," Segal said.

At home, with the love and support of his wife Carolyn, whom he calls his angel, Segal said he tries to strengthen himself by running, while wearing a life vest, for 45 minutes in the deep end of his swimming pool daily.

Of the golf tournament, run by the Friends of Jerry Segal, and an event which he called, "truly a labor of love for all involved," he noted, "It reminds me of the way it was where I grew up, at 54th and Berks in Wynnefield where the entire neighborhood was a family. That's what the tournament and its cause is like, a family helping each other.

"You'll see people from all walks of life helping out, bank presidents, for example, carrying someone's golf clubs, doing whatever it takes to makes things work."

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