Doctors said he’d never walk again – now he runs marathons

Posted 8/2/19

David Scarpello running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. (Photo by Benni Mosakowski) by Sue Ann Rybak Roxborough resident David Scarpello, now 52, remembers almost nothing about the car …

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Doctors said he’d never walk again – now he runs marathons


David Scarpello running up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. (Photo by Benni Mosakowski)

by Sue Ann Rybak

Roxborough resident David Scarpello, now 52, remembers almost nothing about the car accident in September 2003 that left him permanently disabled.

“One minute I was waiting for the light to turn green at Stenton and Willow Grove avenues, and the next I woke up in the trauma center,” he said.

Scarpello recalled waking up to a blinding light and a nurse coming into his field of vision telling him he had been in a car accident, but that he was going to be OK. Scarpello, who had already had three back surgeries from being assaulted in an armed robbery in the ‘90s, said doctors told him later that day, “Unfortunately, due to your prior injuries and surgeries, you will not be able to walk again.”

“And I said, ‘Oh, I am walking out of here.’ And they said, ‘It’s great to have a positive attitude, but you have to be realistic.’ And I said, ‘No! You don’t know me. I guarantee you I am walking out of here.’ And they kind of blew me off.

“Later that afternoon, they actually came in with a wheelchair catalog, which is something I didn’t even know existed. And I threw it on the floor. I refused to look at it. I actually ended up apologizing because I felt so bad. The idea of picking out a wheelchair to take home and what it represented was too much.”

After an 11-day hospital stay and countless hours of intensive physical therapy, Scarpello was able to walk slowly with a walker. Prior to becoming permanently disabled by the accident, he owned his own company – ILLadelph Entertainment, Inc. Under that umbrella, he ran podcasts, and promoted and hosted rap concerts.

Unable to work or run his business, Scarpello had a new goal – to walk again without a walker or cane. The journey was a long one. For years, he walked with a cane and every day woke up in pain.

“There were times I would just pray, ‘God, I don’t want to kill myself, but can you just let me die in my sleep?’” Scarpello said. “The doctors kept giving me more and more pain medicine, and slowly and gradually you don’t realize that you kind of turn into a zombie. I slept a lot. My diet was terrible. I gained weight. I didn’t leave the house. I was a hermit. I wasn’t really living. I was really just barely existing.

“I remember one morning I went into the bathroom to take a shower, and I looked into the mirror and saw my face. That was the moment I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. One way or another, something is going to change. I can’t go on like this.’”

That’s when he contacted the pain clinic and told them he wanted to slowly wean himself off the narcotics.

“It took several months, and it was really, really hard,” Scarpello said.

To help with the chronic pain, he started using a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) unit for electronic muscle stimulation, and a neck traction machine.

Doctors told Scarpello, who has six herniated discs in his neck, degenerative disc disease, sciatica and arthritis, that if he could stand the pain, movement would actually help.

“It’s actually the opposite of what most people might think,” he said. “If I don’t move, I get stiff. So I am constantly in motion. I stretch for at least an hour a day and sometimes more. I have tried yoga countless times, but because I have PTSD, I can’t close my eyes around people I don’t know. While most people find their center when they are calm, I am the opposite. Because of my PTSD, it’s hard to turn my brain off. I found out I get my center from movement.”

Scarpello runs past the Valley Green Inn.

Doctors suggested he walk or do water jogging, so he joined the YMCA. Besides becoming more active, Scarpello changed his diet drastically.

“I started following the ‘Eat Right 4 Your Type’ diet plan. It’s a diet based on your blood type. Since I am blood type O, I eat a lot of protein, fruits and vegetables. I eat almost no wheat.”

Scarpello became a runner by accident. The Roxborough YMCA was hosting a 5K run on Forbidden Drive, and he decided to sign up.

“I thought I would try and run some of it and then just walk the rest,” he said. “It was just supposed to be a one-and-done situation. It was something I wasn’t supposed to be able to do. Well, I ended up running the whole thing. The feeling I got when I crossed the finish line in front of Valley Green was so good that I just started crying. I thought, ‘I need this feeling again.’ So I signed up for another 5K. Later, I signed up for the Rocky Run.”

At that point people were suggesting, “Maybe you can run a marathon,” so Scarpello signed up for the New York City Marathon on a whim, never thinking he would actually get in.

“It was like in the movies when you get an acceptance letter into a college you didn’t think you were going to make it into,” he said. “Then you read it three times, and you’re like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in!’

“I actually signed up for the Philadelphia Marathon before I got the confirmation that I got into the New York Marathon. When I got in, I said, ‘I guess I’m running two marathons in two weeks,’ because I thought if I put in all these months of training, two weeks should be enough time to recover and train for a marathon again. And my running friends said, ‘You’re crazy. You have no idea what you’re doing to your body.’

“My mindset at the time was that this would help me stay loose to help with the physical pain,” but Scarpello never expected it would also help him with his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. “I really like sharing my story because I hate the stigma associated with mental illness. I don’t want people to think I’m embarrassed by it. When I’m telling my story, it seems like it happened from point A to point B, but it really happened over several years. It’s a process. People often think that’s great that you got to this point; you beat it. No, I struggle with chronic pain every day. The pain didn’t stop. I just keep fighting. That’s kind of a misconception.

“People only focus on the positives because they think I’ve beat it. I haven’t beaten it. I just continue to deal with it. When people see me running on Forbidden Drive, I look good because I’m out and about. But what they don’t see is the half-hour it took just to get out of bed with heating pads on my back, followed by an hour of stretching just to get out the front door. People don’t see the days when it rains and my back locks up. I don’t have pain-free days. I have days with varying degrees of pain.”

Scarpello may not be a hero in the everyday sense of the word, but he is the hero of his story.

When asked what message he wanted to tell people, he replied, “It’s never too late. I was in so much pain I had given up. I was truly ready to die. There’s nothing special about me. I was just literally sick and tired of being a victim. I knew I had to endure the pain and put in the work to make my goals become real.”

He doesn’t expect everyone to run marathons, but hopes everyone discovers something that makes them feel alive and happy. Whether that dream is walking a few feet by themselves to receive their diploma or finishing a marathon, he hopes that nobody refuses to give up on their goals.

In 2016, Scarpello completed both the New York City Marathon and the Philadelphia Marathon.

In 2017, he ran the Philadelphia half-marathon and the full marathon. In 2018, despite having foot surgery a few months before the Philadelphia Marathon, he finished in 5:38. Recently, he ran the 2019 Delaware Marathon in 5:09:58. This year, he hopes to finish the 2019 marathon in under five hours in the hopes of becoming one of the 30,000 champions running that day.