DIAMOND POINT - Friday, former Warrensburg high school football star Mason Hamilton lifted himself out of his car with his muscular arms and settled into a wheelchair in front of his home.
He wheeled up a ramp that was built by his friends while he was spending about three weeks in Schenectady's Sunnyview Rehabilitation Hospital to regain his strength and mobility.
He rolled through his new, widened front door, installed by friends - contractors and tradesmen who donated their time and talents. They renovated his home for wheelchair access while Hamilton was either in Sunnyview, or undergoing operations at Albany Medical Center several weeks before to reconstruct his back. The operations followed a Feb. 6 snowmobile racing accident on Echo Lake that shattered his spine and tore up his spinal cord.
"It's nice that you're in your home now," Mason's Mother Shelly said, watching him smile as he inspected the renovations to his home. She and Mason's father live not far away off East Schroon River Rd.
"I have mixed feelings at this point," he replied. "There's a lot of security being in the hospital, but it's so nice to have the freedom to come home - it's been a while since I slept in my own bed and watched my own t.v."
Therapy dominated his days
For weeks, Mason's been dreaming of getting back to ordinary life, even if it's merely mowing the lawn or accomplishing spring cleanup chores in his back yard, he said.
Just days earlier, he had been in Sunnyview, undergoing the daily routine of physical therapy to learn how to walk with his paralyzed lower half.
In one of those sessions, Hamilton had walked about 30 feet, back and forth, with the help of a walker.
"This was a workout," Hamilton had said. "It feels good to be back amongst the standing."
"Nice job," the Sunnyview therapist responded.
Hamilton explained his therapy routine as he wheeled back to his room. The walking practice occurs in the morning, and "Occupational Therapy," or learning how to get from a bed or mat into a wheelchair, is offered in the afternoons.
"All this is to develop my balance, which is difficult without feeling in my legs or controlling their movement," he said. "It's amazing how quickly you pick up how to use a wheelchair - I've been in it about three weeks but I'm getting pretty savvy to it."
Not only was Hamilton achieving mobility during that early-March session, but his body was beginning to heal, regaining some of the control in his legs that he lost in the crash.
He looked down at his thigh, and made his right quadricep twitch, then he smiled broadly.
"It's minimal, but it's a start," he said. "Any improvement, as small as they seem, are forward progress - I'll take it and keep going."
Outpouring of support from friends
His solid improvement in mobility, plus the immense support he's gotten from family and friends, are crucial as he reorients his life, he said.
This support includes 1,026 friends on Facebook checking into his progress, waiting for intermittent messages from Hamilton.
Such an outpouring of caring and concern is almost overwhelming, Hamilton said.
"I appreciate each and everyone on Facebook supporting me," he said. "This group includes people I haven't seen in years, or people I don't even know - it's really crazy. People are going far beyond anything I'd ever think of."
Brought home from Sunnyview hospital Friday were dozens of cards, photos and letters that earlier were plastered over the walls. Gifts had lined the floor of his room. One gift bag contained a Nerf bazooka that friend Craig House brought to him, so they could blast each other with foam balls for laughs.
"People have been so thoughtful," Hamilton said in that session in Sunnyview. "I've changed some - I appreciate the little things in life more now."
That includes appreciating a kind gesture, or a thoughtful comment, he said.
Tackling the new 'normal'
Then there's the goal of taking camping and fishing trips like he used to do, with a dozen or more guys from Warrensburg and Thurman, up to Lincoln Pond.
"I'd like to figure out how to get back to doing stuff the way it was as much as possible," he said. "But normal is going to take on a whole new face."
While Hamilton was recovering, dozens of his friends worked to update his home so it's barrier-free and can accommodate a wheelchair.
Hamilton said he can't wait to see all those who were hard at work fixing up his place.
"It's going to be emotional for me to get back to see people who jumped into this thing with both feet," he said. "I hope one day I can help out people like they have helped me. It drives me crazy to not be able to give back right now."
At this point, Hamilton is already giving back, but to others who have undergone similar injuries.
While he is now returning to Sunnyview several times per week for further therapy, he's volunteered to be a mentor to the new Sunnyview patients. Hamilton was chosen because of his positive cheerful attitude that persists despite substantial challenges, his friends said.
When Hamilton officially gave up residence in Sunnyview Friday morning, dozens of nurses and therapists gave him lots of hugs. He also got encouragement from Warrensburg High 1994 graduate Darrin Rafferty, who is Sunnyview's Director of Wellness.
After he wheeled through his home hours later, inspecting a huge tiled shower, conveniently positioned appliances and widened doorways, Hamilton talked about the future.
"From here on out it's about adapting, and I'm going to keep working forward," he said of his new mobility challenges. "My goal is to get out of this chair and be mobile again - but in the meantime, we'll do the best we can with what we've got."