INDIANAPOLIS, IND. Less than a year ago, Gary Longo was on top of the world. The former U.S. Marine had a full time ride in the newest American Sportscar to challenge the Trans-Am field, he was developing the skills, reputation and relationships that help a young driver become a fan favorite, and he had a supportive family to cheer him on. The future was bright.
But the turn Longo took at the end of Mosport's front stretch on a beautiful May Sunday ended up being a turn for the worst when his car slammed into another that had spun out, coming to rest directly in his path. By the end of the day, Longo's family and team huddled in prayer at a Toronto hospital while doctors worked to stabilize his seriously injured neck.
For nine months, Longo's full time job has been to recover from the devastation of a broken neck. The struggle is beginning to pay off as his physical condition improves, but he and his wife, Molly, now face huge medical bills and other expenses related to his recuperation. That's why Kerry Alexander, owner of LAC Motorsports, the team Longo was driving for, has developed the Gary Longo Relief Fund.
"This has been very hard on all of the LAC Motorsports team, to see Gary on top of the world at 25 and then in one split second everything is changed. I know one day Gary will be okay and completely healed. That is the day we all are praying for," says Alexander, adding, "His recovery is going well, but it's slow. And as always, money becomes an issue."
Because Gary needed assistance with personal care, eating and communicating, Molly left her teaching job to be by his side. Without income from either, the bills are quickly mounting and Alexander feels it's time for the tight-knit Trans-Am and racing community to rally around the young couple.
"I set up this fund so we could show how much we care about helping Gary and Molly through this. We all have been praying for Gary. This is an opportunity to take some action on our prayers," says Alexander, adding, "It will be great to see everyone in Miami at our first race of the 2002 season. But it will be an even more meaningful season opener if we can band together and find a way to make a difference for one of our bright young stars."
After the horrific accident that claimed the life of Mike Gagliardo, Longo was rushed to Sunnybrook Medical Center in Toronto, where he spent the next 10 days and underwent two surgical procedures to stabilize the fractured vertebrae in his neck. The Longos were warmed by visits from Trans-Am drivers and an overwhelming number of cards and letters. But the most powerful event for Gary at the Trauma Center was the challenge of standing on his own two feet for the first time, and finally realizing he wouldn't be fully paralyzed.
On May 31 he was transferred to Northwestern Hospital in his hometown of Chicago, where he underwent additional surgery for paralyzed vocal cords and other complications. "At Northwestern, we first realized this was even more serious." says Molly The nerve damage from the trauma left Gary unable to eat or speak. Severely malnourished, his body began to shut down, yet he underwent four more operations.
One of the procedures was to implant a feeding tube directly into his digestive system to deliver the nutrition necessary to regain the 55 pounds he'd lost along with the resources needed to rebuild a strong body. "After all the procedures were done, they left me with the ability to eat food and drink thickened liquids, but I still have no voice," Gary whispers.
Over the months, the Longos have learned more then a young couple needs to know about medicine, but they've been blessed by outstanding care along the way. Mosport's track rescue personnel saved Gary's life when one of the workers climbed into his mangled car and held his neck for several minutes until he could be safely moved. Medications he initially received prevented permanent paralysis from damage to his spinal cord. "We have been blessed with fabulous doctors who want nothing but the best for Gary, They still expect a full recovery and are impressed with his progress." says Molly, noting that the final neck surgery in October revealed the fusion of his vertebra was a huge success.
After transferring from Northwestern Hospital to a rehabilitation center for ten days, he was allowed to return home. But the relief of being home soon turned to depression. "Seeing all the pictures around my house of my 'normal' life and how drastically it had changed really struck me then."
Working through the depression is part of his full time job now at a rehabilitation program he attends daily to work on endurance, balance, strength, flexibility and range of motion. Since December 20, when he passed his swallow test, he's been able to eat whatever he wants, and with his mounting strength, he returned to gym workouts in January to prepare for a driver's evaluation.
Through it all he was assessing the way his life had changed and as he began cataloging his assets, and one person Molly stood out at the top of his list. "Molly took leave from her job and has been by my side every step of the way, which made things easier to deal with. We expect a full recovery, but as they say, it just takes time. We have our share of good days and bad, but with the help of our family and friends, the good days outnumber the bad," he adds.
Molly's perspective on the past seven months intertwines with Gary's so completely it's difficult to distinguish his emotions and thoughts from hers. A bright young woman with a quick wit, Molly discovered reserves she never realized she had. "There have been many hardships along the way, but we truly believe God does not give us what we can't handle."
There are driver's schools, mechanic's schools, and business schools that teach the skills necessary to make it in racing. But there are no schools that teach you to cope with the horror of watching your husband's car explode into the air on impact. There are no schools that teach you how to stay strong in the face of nine surgeries, three months of hospitalization, more than six months of rehabilitation and months of not hearing your husband's voice. But Molly is learning some important lessons from her own husband.
"Gary has been amazing through this entire fight. He is truly an inspiration. I wake up every morning praying God gives me the strength he has blessed Gary with. He is a fighter and winner and he won't stop until he achieves it all," she says.
After everything the Longos have been through over the past eight months, they wake up every day thankful for finding ways to make the best of a tragic situation. "We wait for the day when this is all over and we return to our normal life. Although we have encountered almost every complication in the medical world, there will be a day when it is all over. But for now we just keep moving on, no matter what obstacles we face, because Gary wants to keep his dream of racing alive." says Molly.
Contributions, payable to the Gary Longo Relief Fund, should be sent to
Gary Longo Relief Fund
c/o National City Bank
9168 Otis Avenue
Indianapolis, IN. 46216
Attn: Steve Silas, Office Manager