Swartz helps others after defying odds

August 25, 2006|by JANET HEIM

Editor's note: There are a lot of people you see around town that you recognize, but don't know anything about. People like ...

Gary Swartz

Age: 63

Hometown: Hagerstown

What is Swartz's story? Just over three years ago, Swartz's life took an unexpected turn. He went to get some rope out of the trunk of his car as he helped his adult daughter, Cory, and her four children move to their new home.

While standing at the back of his car, Swartz was struck by a drunken driver. The accident cost him his right leg from the knee down.

Through faith and sheer will, Swartz endured four surgeries in four days and three weeks of rehabilitation before returning to his Indiana Avenue home. Throughout his recovery, Swartz achieved goals months ahead of what the doctors predicted.


"It's drastically changed our lives here," Swartz said.

A ramp was installed by friends and family after Swartz's return home.

Two and a half months after the accident, Swartz said he returned to volunteering at the Washington County Detention Center, where he had two occasions to counsel the man who had caused the accident, who was 24 at the time.

"I'm not bitter, but if it doesn't teach somebody something ..." said Swartz, who is the brother of Hagerstown City Councilwoman Penny M. Nigh.

Swartz, a Hagerstown native, was a member of the North Hagerstown High School class of 1960, although he joined the service in April 1960 and didn't graduate. He said he feels he can help inmates because he's been through some of the same things they've been through.

After months of physical therapy at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., with a temporary prosthesis and walker, Swartz received a permanent prosthesis.

He learned during his rehabilitation that the doctors and therapists didn't expect him to walk again - Swartz credits his faith in God for giving him the strength to persevere and prove them wrong. His left side already was weakened by muscular dystrophy, which was diagnosed in his early 30s.

Swartz also was told he wouldn't be able to drive, but again defied the odds. He drives his car, using his left foot to control both pedals, as long as someone can help him secure his wheelchair to the car.

His wish list includes a van with a lift, so he wouldn't have to depend on anyone to get around.

Swartz admits it's a struggle to use his prosthesis because he doesn't feel stable. He continues to work with it every day.

He said that amputations above the knee are harder to rehabilitate, and that it requires four to five times more energy to walk than a "normal person" if the amputation is above the knee.

"It's an ongoing process," said Swartz, who mostly relies on his wheelchair for mobility.

The Swartzs' home has required some modifications. First came the ramp, installed by friends and family after Swartz's return home.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been a big help, Swartz said. They recently provided a scooter, and just finished remodeling a bathroom in the home Swartz shares with Linda, his wife of 40 years. The couple have two adult daughters and eight grandchildren.

Swartz chronicled his experience in a religious tract he wrote called "All Things Work Together for Good." A member of the Church of God on Buchanan Trail West outside Mercersburg, Pa., Swartz wrote it as a way to share his faith experience with others.

Swartz retired from Pangborn in 1999 after 33 years of service. He was a union representative most of those years, serving as a steward and plant chairman, and handled benefits for the union.

He was president of UAW Local 842 and recording secretary for UAW State of Maryland CAP from 1990 to 1993. From 1988 to 1999, Swartz also worked at Primary Financial Services as a senior regional manager.

Swartz has used his negotiating skills to work as he continues to deal with insurance companies and Medicare with regards to his accident. He has become an advocate for the disabled and for stricter legislation for drunken driving.

Swartz is also a board member of the Washington County Disabilities Advisory Committee, an appointed position where members advise the County Commissioners on issues relating to people with disabilities.

"I dealt with things as a union rep, so I can put up a fight," Swartz said. "... I'm limited as to what I can do, but I do what I can."

What does Swartz like best about Washington County? "I don't know - it's just home," Swartz said. "There's a homey feeling. Everything's accessible - family and friends are here. In spite of things, it's a close-knit community."

If you know anyone in the community who might make an interesting Our Town feature, call Janet Heim at 301-733-5131, ext. 2024, or send an e-mail to

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