(If you enjoy his article, don’t forget to check out Dr. Louis Profeta in his appearance in episode 4 of our video series, Conversations with Shem, starring Samuel Shem – the author of The House of God – as host! Find it here.)
Can an autograph reclaim a life? Can a simple smile, a handshake, or a hug change our destiny or alter the course of a child’s existence? Can a kind gesture give one more sunset to the living or comfort the dying? Think not? Then let me tell you a story!
In 1981, I was a seventeen-year-old gymnast for a local high school men’s team. How much potential did I have? Who knows. I certainly did not lack dedication, work ethic, or love for gymnastics, and I could reasonably envision myself competing at the collegiate level and perhaps beyond. I followed the national and international gymnastics’ scene with undaunted fervor, taping every segment the national media aired. The walls of my bedroom were plastered with cutouts of the U.S men’s and women’s teams, and I kept a video library of all the greats, studying their routines in detail. I followed the careers of Bart Conner, Kurt Thomas, Mark Caso, Jim Hartung, Scott Johnson, Mitch Gaylord, Peter Vidmar, Tim Daggett, and Phil Cahoy with the same degree of enthusiasm that many of my friends followed baseball—and to this day I can recall many of their routines, each twist and each turn. There was, however, one gymnast with whom I was especially captivated: Ron Galimore.
Anyone who knows the sport, will tell you that in 1980 Ron Galimore was perhaps the finest vaulter and floor performer in the world. He was one of the first to do a full-twisting layout Tsukahara vault in competition. According to 1996 Olympic coach Peter Kormann, no one has yet to do it as well. The height and power that he would obtain off the horse were phenomenal. It was a classic study in the conversion of momentum. There were times that the vault would literally disappear from the TV screen. His power, grace, and air time were unmatched.
But there was also a mystique about Ron. His father, Willie Galimore, was a famous running back for the Chicago Bears, whose time was cut short by his death in an auto accident. Ron was only six years old at the time and he tells me that, while he can remember the frigid temperatures of the games, his own image of his father’s gridiron play is more a product of other people’s memories than of his own. To this day, fans still remind him about his father’s greatness.
Football, however, took a backseat to another sport when Ron became enamored with gymnastics. In time, he accomplished what no other African-American had achieved in the sport. He became a member of the 1980 Olympic gymnastics team, one of the finest American men’s teams ever assembled.
There was little doubt in my mind that Ron Galimore would take gold on the vault and perhaps a medal on the floor exercise. But then the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan: Politics and sports came to a screaming collision in 1980 as President Carter announced a U.S. boycott of the Summer Games. In the blink of an eye, a door closed, a dream faded, and the world changed for him.
About a year and a half later, a professional gymnastics tour, featuring Ron and others, was scheduled to come to Indianapolis. During an evening practice, I bravely asked Kelly, a young lady and secret crush, who competed in the same gym, to be my date for the event. She surprisingly said yes.
One hour later, I was fighting for my life from a fall on the trampoline. In the blink of an eye, a door closed, a dream faded, and the world changed for me.
When you are young, nothing bad ever happens for the best. It’s just bad. I remember lying paralyzed from the neck down, blood filling my mouth, and breathing being harder than anything I had ever attempted. I knew in that instant my life would never be the same. I caught Kelly’s eye as I was transferred into the ambulance: a look of concern melting into a mask of despair. Soon I was in the emergency room, the very same ER I now work as a physician, strapped to a bed as metal spikes were drilled into my head. I could hear the bones cracking in my skull as weighted traction was applied to stabilize the shattered bones of my spine.
I was never as distraught as I was then. I was never so lost. The only constant in my life, outside of my family, was gone forever.
Gymnastics at that time was my identity, kind of like sports is for a lot of young people these days; it was who I was. As the pain of the injury dragged on unabated, I began to reflect more and more on my predicament. Fortunately, I soon regained the use of my extremities as the swelling in my spinal cord decreased. However, as days of traction became weeks, I came to the stark realization that I was nothing more than a “C-” student with no real skills outside of gymnastics. Depression kind of blinded me to any possible alternative path to the future. But on the evening of the professional tour, I had a revelation and my life started to change, a change that sent me off on another journey of self-discovery and fulfillment.
A teammate of mine went to the professional gymnastics’ tour; somehow, he made his way to the floor and told Ron Galimore of my predicament. He relayed to Ron that I was perhaps his biggest fan and that a phone call from him might do me some good. So, Ron called me at the hospital.
Neither Ron nor I remember much of the discussion, but I recall tears filled my eyes and a tremendous sense of self-worth took hold. I asked him to get a “10” on the vault that night and he did. His words of encouragement were priceless, but more than what he said, it was the simple fact that a stranger whom I held in such high esteem would extend a helping hand to a lost seventeen-year-old, someone he had never met. For the first time in weeks, I was smiling for real, not just pretend smiles for my parents.
A door opened, a kind gesture turned the knob, and in the blink of an eye, a dream was born. This former “C-” high school student was going to become a doctor and reach out to others, as Ron had reached out to me.
At the beginning, I found college impossible. I had to learn how to be a student. I really had little in the way of academic skills, other than just being smart. I had no test-taking skills, had never taken notes in my life, and I really had no idea how to study. I cruised by in high school, an afterthought in the back of the class. I didn’t care about grades, studying, or the SATS. I did just enough to graduate and to get into college.
To this day, I consider the lack of effort I put forth in high school as my biggest mistake. It has, however, made for good comedy, especially early in my career. I returned to Indianapolis and cared for old high school friends, who would look up at me from their hospital beds and exclaim, “You’re a doctor? I thought you were like . . . learning disabled or something!” Funny the things you recall over a career that spans decades. One memory is particularly vivid though.
In 1997, an eleven-month-old Grant Costakis was brought to the emergency department, a very special child. Who turned out to be incredibly ill.
I recall the ER was absolute pandemonium that evening and I was exhausted. We had admitted car accident victims, drunks, assaults, heart attacks—it was nonstop, controlled chaos. A young couple, Julie and Tom Costakis, brought in their son, Grant. They were concerned that he was looking weak and fatigued and was perhaps breathing a little fast. During the preceding week, they had been to their family physician three times, went to another local immediate care center once, and had spoken numerous times by phone with other healthcare providers. The consensus of all involved was that the child had an ear infection that would need to run its course.
That evening in the ER the parents seemed more concerned about being reassured that nothing else was wrong. They spent a lot of energy apologizing for taking up my time and for being “alarmists.” I almost fell into the trap of just agreeing. The child was resting quietly in the dad’s arms. For the most part, at first glance, I could not find much wrong. He looked tired and perhaps a bit dehydrated but otherwise healthy. I paced the hall for a time trying to figure out what was bothering me about the child . . . then it hit me. He wasn’t crying, he wasn’t smiling, he wasn’t acting like a normal sick child, or for that matter, a normal well infant. Fifteen minutes later, I discovered he was dying of diabetes. His blood sugar was off the charts and his blood was horribly acidic. He was the youngest diabetic I had ever seen, and later went on to become the youngest patient at Riley Children’s Hospital to be put on an insulin pump.
Grant Costakis Age 2
I have saved many lives, and it is incredibly rewarding. This was different. I had come within a heartbeat of reassuring this boy’s parents and sending them home, which may have led them to finding their son dead in his crib the next day. It would have devastated both of us.
Grant Costakis (age 24) and I
Certainly, another ER physician may have had the same hunch with the same results, or maybe not. I thank God, every day, for giving me the patience to look a little closer that evening. Later that month, I received a letter from the boy’s parents filled with emotion. They poured their hearts out, thanking me for saving their child’s life. I found myself suddenly needing to contact those people who played a crucial role in my medical education, which allowed me—as it has allowed countless physicians before me—to be in a position to help a child, to save a life. Ron Galimore was the first on my list.
In an ironic twist, it just so happened that the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Federation had recently moved its headquarters to Indianapolis. It was very easy to track Ron down since it turned out that he now lived in my city and had become director of the U.S. Men’s Olympic program. So, I just called him.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Profeta, one of the ER physicians from St. Vincent Hospital. I’d like to speak with Mr. Ron Galimore.”
“Certainly sir . . . right away,” came the soft feminine voice on the other end of the line. I figured she must have thought it was a medical emergency since she put me right through.
“Hello, this is Ron . . . can I help you?”
“Ron, my name is Louis Profeta . . . you don’t know me . . . I’m an ER physician here in Indianapolis and I want to tell you a story . . .”
Ron stayed quiet on the phone for the next twenty minutes while I rehashed the last eighteen years of my life, and most importantly the previous week’s event. “So, Ron, I’d like to take you and your wife to dinner to say thanks.”
“Absolutely . . . absolutely.”
I now consider Ron to be one of my closest friends. He and his wife, Loree, are fixtures in our home for most holidays. In a weird way, for me it’s like having Michael Jordan or Sandy Kofax as one of your best friends. After all, he is one of my childhood heroes.
So many things shape our destinies. Why are we here, what is our role in life? In 1980 Ron Galimore became the first African American member of the United States Olympic Gymnast Squad and is one of the most decorated collegiate athletes in American history. I even reached out to the Museum of African American History in DC to tell his story (never heard back from them). However, his place in history was lost amidst the political fervor and subsequent boycott of those same games. This is perhaps my attempt to put it back, to give my friend the recognition he deserves.
In 1982 a simple act of kindness lifted the spirits of a lost young man, and gave him hope and direction. In 1997 a small child lived to see many more sunsets, to dream many more dreams, and to open many more doors. I’m sure that Ron would consider that perhaps his greatest legacy.