Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2014

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A LONG WAY GONE, A LONG WAY TO GO

Life is no longer an abstract concept for Tom Urbanski.

In four explosive flashes on an early Las Vegas morning, life became immediate, fleeting. It happened, he said, as he was falling to the ground.

In the next microsecond came the realization that his legs had died, and in the next moment, he cried out for someone to call his wife, Kathy. Soon, everything went black.

Urbanski was the manager shot repeatedly outside the Minxx strip club after an altercation inside involving professional football player Adam "Pacman" Jones that February morning after the NBA All-Star game.

Doctors kept Urbanski in a drug-induced coma for three weeks. When he awoke, he asked his father to please, just let him die.

The shooting is now two months old. It's April and Urbanski is about halfway through his two-month stay in Denver's Craig Hospital, a top spinal cord injury rehabilitation center. His life balances at this moment on his left hand , which bears an 8-inch scar from surgery to repair damage from a bullet.

His fingers are more nimble today, able to close more tightly, so he uses a regular fork, not one outfitted with a cushion around the handle.

Slowly, he picks up the flatware with long fingers. It drops. He steadies his left hand with his right and picks it up again.

His brow furrowed in concentration, he pushes the fork into a leaf of lettuce. Just as slowly, his arm trembling, he lifts it to his mouth.

"He's come a long way," Urbanski's father, Don, says in a thick Long Island, N.Y., accent. "Even a few days ago, he couldn't do that."

Lunch is done. Urbanski, 44, pushes the joy stick of his motorized wheelchair, then zigs, zags, bumps into things and finally makes his way out the door to today's class, a half-hour consisting of using scissors to cut photos from magazines.

Seven others in wheelchairs surround a table, all with differing degrees of injury. Some hold specially designed scissors to work with hands that only weeks ago lost their agility after spinal injuries from a snowboard accident or a fall from a ladder or a car accident.

Don Urbanski is talking, when something about his son, wheeling away from him, makes his throat catch. His eyes redden and tears begin to well. The retired fishing guide says nothing for a long time. Then he whispers that he lost two children in the past five years, one to suicide, the other to peritonitis.

"I thought I was going to lose Tommy, too."

He remembers the moment his son awoke from the coma, which doctors induced to keep his body still so it could heal. Bleary from the morphine and whatever other drugs and painkillers that coursed through his body, Tom saw his dad and said what came to mind.

"Why didn't you let me die?"

Tommy wheels back near his father. He says he remembers waking, finding himself strapped down and terrified, believing he was being held by some evil power against his will, calling out that he wanted to talk to someone in the American Embassy.

"He was out of it," Don says. "That's all that was."

But the immobility was real and especially tough for a man who for decades had parlayed his immense physical size into jobs as a bouncer at strip clubs. Though he grew to nearly 400 pounds in recent years, as a younger man he was cut as if from stone.

In the 1980s he toured the world as a professional wrestler. He was "The Mad Russian," or whatever other stereotype promoters dreamed up to draw on the hostility of fans who wanted to see the latest enemy of the state in the flesh, pounded into submission.

On the night he was shot, he was working with George Petraski, a long time friend and fellow wrestler who toured as "The Russian Brute."

Urbanski fills his hospital bed, but he's only a glimmer of that younger physical specimen. Two months in bed has stolen much of his size. He's lost 100 pounds. Skin that used to hold that bulk hangs like chicken flesh from his arms, under his chin.

Do the memories eat at him, knowing that for the rest of his life, the wheelchair will be his home?

"That's not constructive to think back," he says. "I'm dealing with what I have now and moving forward. That's what I have to do."

The past is gone. The present is hard enough to face. He has constant pain in the ribs - one was shattered by a bullet and remains so infected it might have to be removed. Every 30 minutes or so, someone with a tray of hypos injects antibiotics or pain killers into one of two catheters sticking out of his arm. He still can't put weight on his right hand , which broke his fall outside Minxx.

Then there's the nagging thought that the person who changed Urbanski's life remains free. Las Vegas police give no indication that an arrest is near.

And he knows that the melee that led to the shooting may have stemmed from something as mindless and prideful as an athlete throwing money on the stage at the strip club, then becoming upset because the dancers dove for the money before being given permission.

Paralyzed. For that?

Other thoughts crowd in. Friends who are real friends, and those who fell to the side. Those who want to help, and the others who want to capitalize on the Urbanski s' misfortune.

In disbelief, the Urbanski s tell of learning about a Web site that offered stickers for $3, with the money going to help pay Urbanski's medical costs.

No one who set up that site has sent them any money . The Las Vegas Sun tried to track down the Web site operator . It is registered with two domain companies, one in Scottsdale, Ariz., the other in Tallahassee, Fla. Neither company would identify the owner of the site, because the registration is "private."

That's the kind of thing happening, the kind of thing that could tear at a man who for a while carried on his lap a trayful of the puss that was continually sucked from a hardened ball of infection in one of his lungs.

Urbanski has workers' compensation to pay his medical bills right now, but that won't last the lifetime that he'll be in a wheelchair . It won't pay all the costs needed to retrofit his Las Vegas home for someone who can't walk.

A sling lifts him out of his wheelchair and lowers him onto a 10-by-6-foot raised mat . A therapist stretches his legs, then his feet.

His wife , Kathy, says the stretching serves two purposes. It keeps his legs limber enough to allow him to conform to the wheelchair. It's also to keep his feet and legs healthy enough in case he ever recovers feeling. She says one doctor early on said he has a 6 percent to 10 percent chance of walking again.

Now he's on his back, perfectly still.

Then come the orders.

"Let's go, Tom, come on."

His arms jutting toward the ceiling, he rocks to one side, builds some momentum, then rocks to the other, then with a big grunt, his eyebrows furrowed in intensity, he rocks one more time and rolls onto his stomach.

"Good!" the therapist says.

"Good, honey," Kathy says.

"This is amazing," his dad says.

This moment is Tom Urbanski's life.

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