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Wednesday, December 15, 1999     6 Tevet 5760   Updated Wed., Dec. 15 14:12


 

Slice of Life - Devotion to motion
By Sara Sherbill
(December 15) - Scott Chesney leans back comfortably in an overstuffed armchair, his legs crossed casually at the knee. With his frat-boy good looks, well-muscled arms and white polo shirt, he fits the portrait of your typical American jock. Next to him sits his wife, Pratiksha, her shiny brown hair reaching the shoulders of her pink sweater twin-set, a modest diamond ring on her finger.

Married less than a year, they look like your typical glowing newlywed couple, touring a foreign country on vacation.

But they are not your typical couple. And this is not your typical vacation.

Just a few short months ago, Scott, 29, and Pratiksha, 27, terminated the lease on their apartment in Verona, New Jersey, donated most of their clothes and furniture to the Salvation Army, and embarked on a 14-month worldwide personal crusade that has already taken them to England, France, Spain, Italy, Greece, and India, and will continue on to Egypt, Africa, South America, Germany, Turkey, Russia, China, Indonesia, and Australia. As they travel, they research the complementary medicine practices of each country, while evaluating and promoting travel for the disabled.

Improved quality of life for the disabled is not just a pet cause the couple has adopted. Since contracting a spinal-cord illness at age 15, Scott has been paralyzed from the waist down. As the three of us chat over drinks in a Jerusalem hotel lobby, his wheelchair stands nearby.

Scott, who was born and raised in New Jersey, and Pratiksha, whose family emigrated to the US from India when she was nine years old, call their crusade Devotion to Motion. It is a multi-faceted project that includes raising awareness through public speaking engagements, research papers, and their website, www.d2motion.com. They share their findings and experiences in each country with the 40,000-plus people who receive their e-mail newsletter. They are also working to raise funds for Friends of Toby, a supporter of the Miami Project, the largest spinal-cord-injury research center in the world. Although this is Scott's second such worldwide tour, it's his first with Pratiksha.

The couple met in March 1997, at a physical-therapy conference in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Scott was a featured speaker and Pratiksha - a physical therapy student at the time - a member of the audience. "It was like, 'let's see what this poor man is going to say about what it's like to be in a wheelchair,'" recalls Pratiksha with a laugh. "But as soon as I saw him, I said to my friend sitting next to me, 'that's the man I'm going to marry.'"

Although the auditorium was filled with 400 people, Scott says he noticed Pratiksha from the podium. "He was staring at me the whole time," she admits.

Scott, however, was scheduled to leave for his trip around the world 10 days later. "We kept in touch through e-mail and postcards," remembers Pratiksha. "We built a foundation while he was traveling." Scott returned to the US in June 1998, and they were engaged six months later.

"You see people all the time who aren't physically paralyzed, but they are emotionally paralyzed," says Pratiksha. "Scott is the most mentally free person I have ever met." Indeed, the couple focus their attention not just on physical paralysis, but on emotional paralysis - which they believe affects us all. "Whether disabled or not, a person must realize that fulfilling one's destiny is a continuous journey without boundaries," says Scott.

They acknowledge that things have not always been smooth - especially when dealing with other people's perceptions of their marriage. "When we were just friends," says Pratiksha, "my mom liked him. But when it became romantic, the protective nature kicked in...They thought I'd be working for him, like a servant. Like, she's a therapist, and he'll get free therapy. It's a stereotype based on ignorance. It took time for my family to get to know him," she continues, "to realize he's a good person who happens not to walk."

After their marriage, Pratiksha worked as a physical therapist and Scott lectured at businesses, universities and hospitals. Buoyed by people's encouragement, Scott and Pratiksha began researching corporate grants in an effort to spread their message further. They found Tyco International Limited, a $23 billion company based in New Hampshire, that agreed to sponsor their travel and research. Scott and Pratiksha put the rest of the package together, according to need: Continental Airlines sponsors many of their flights and Webway designed their website.

THE CHESNEYS' arrival in Israel in early November coincided with the disabled community's protest in front of the Finance Ministry. Was this coincidence intentional? "It was the first thing we read about in the papers [when we arrived]," said Scott. "It took us by surprise... we were so impressed."

The couple's guide, Eli Meiri, who specializes in tours for the disabled, took them to the protest. "I have been angry before," says Scott, "but this made me sad. Though I have many challenges, I felt spoiled by what we [persons with disabilities] have in the US."

"Everyone was admiring his wheelchair," adds Pat. "We thought they'd be resentful, but they were very welcoming."

Indeed, the disparity between rights and services afforded to disabled persons living in the US and those living in other countries is something Scott and Pat are learning all too quickly. While their initial goal was to raise awareness about making cities more accessible for disabled tourists, they soon realized that such changes also benefit the city's own disabled residents.

This is not the only way in which their vision has expanded. "Ramps benefit mothers with strollers," says Scott, "and the elderly who have difficulty climbing stairs."

While the Chesneys are advocates of ensuring accessibility wherever possible, they also advocate flexibility on the part of disabled persons. "I would love to get around by myself," Scott says, "but I can't." Scott has been carried along the Great Wall of China and up the stairs of the Taj Mahal. "Who carried you?" I ask, shooting a tentative glance at Pratiksha, who gives me a look that says, "No way."

"I just asked people," Scott answers, laughing.

Scott was 15 years old when he awoke one morning unable to feel his toes. Within 48 hours, the numbness had spread to his legs. "My doctor told me to 'take a hot bath,'" Scott recalls. Within three weeks, doctors told him he would never walk again. It turned out that Scott was born with a malformation of blood vessels lodged in his spinal cord - a condition that today can be caught immediately, averting any lasting effects.

"I was a kid who played basketball, baseball," says Scott, "you'd think I'd be depressed, but I wasn't. I was so concerned for my family and friends that I swallowed my pain and any questions of 'why me?' and put a smile on my face."

With his family's support, Scott missed only four months of school, a regular high school, where he was president of his class.

After earning a degree in communications and political science from Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey, he worked with the Miami Project as a fund-raiser and public speaker. He was working as the director of research at a public-relations firm in New York City, when he was presented with what he calls "the opportunity of a lifetime."

A close friend of his, a private philanthropist whom he will refer to only as "R.C.," asked Scott how he would like to take a trip around the world. R.C. suggested Scott use the trip to study various kinds of complementary medicine - and to find himself. "He saw right through me," Scott says. "He saw past my smile."

Scott departed in March 1997, covering 15 countries in 15 months. Psychic surgery in the Philippines, Ayurvedic medicine in India, Aboriginal healing in Australia, acupuncture in China, crystal-bowl healing in Bali and swimming with wild dolphins in Hawaii, are just a few of the many modalities Scott studied during his travels. "Complementary medicine, alternative medicine, whatever you want to call it - it is all about learning to love yourself and giving ownership back to the self," he says.

The couple has also met with faith healers and spiritual leaders around the world. Having "watched people being healed," all over the map, Scott balances his reverence with a bit of skepticism. "Some say it's magic, some say it's placebo, some call it a miracle, or just a way to better health," he says. Armed with his extensive knowledge, he is not a proponent of any one system, urging people to go with whatever method "grabs them."

An integral aspect of such healing, Scott claims, is belief. "Belief is so powerful," he says. "In cases where people heal, it's because they believe - and are committed to their own healing."

Perhaps in finding each other, Scott and Pratiksha have found their own recipe for healing. "I am more of a free spirit," Scott says. "Pratiksha keeps me grounded, but I've taught her how to fly."

   
 
 
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