Fairfield Now - Fall 2009
John Tartaglio '09 lost his legs. Now he prepares to run the New York City Marathon.
Several times a week Tartaglio meets his workout partner at the gym for an "endurance day" routine of free weights, pushups, and bench presses.
By Virginia Weir
The date that John Tartaglio '09 lost both of his legs and part of his bicep to a rare bacterial infection is tattooed onto his right shoulder: 8/22/04, along with the words From Tragedy to Triumph.
The motto expresses both his feelings about a near-death experience and the determined, independent attitude that motivated him through four years at Fairfield. This May, Tartaglio crossed the terrace at Bellarmine Hall to receive his bachelor's degree in biology.
"I came to accept what happened to me because I had no choice," he said. "It was either learning how to adapt to a new lifestyle and be independent or live a life depending solely on other people - which I couldn't accept as an option."
During the summer before his senior year in high school in Milford, Conn., Tartaglio, who played football, had been feeling sick for about a month and woke up one morning with severe pain in both legs. Doctors at the hospital discovered Clostridium septicum, a rare infection that only 34 people in medical history have had. Both legs had to be amputated at the hip; Tartaglio was given a 20 percent chance of survival.
Tartaglio's story prompted an outpouring of support from his hometown and beyond. "I was able to keep going and get through tough times because of the support that I had from family, friends, and strangers," he said. "I literally had family and friends by my side every day, on top of thousands of letters from people that I didn't know, telling me to stay strong and positive."
Doctors told him that most individuals at his level of amputation never walk again. But after three weeks in the hospital and six weeks in rehabilitation, Tartaglio became the first bilateral hip disarticulate to be fitted with both a walking and a running prosthesis. About three months after his operation, he walked his first quarter-mile on his C-legs (specialized artificial legs, complete with a microprocessor in the knee to scan terrain ahead for maximum stabilization) and was able to graduate with his high school class in 2005.
Tartaglio had his sights on pre-med and looked at a few other colleges before choosing Fairfield. "I had just recently gone through this life-changing experience, so between Fairfield being convenient and having a solid science program, it was a fairly easy choice," he said. "I remember driving onto the campus and really liking the look of Fairfield."
"Fairfield also did a good job in accommodating me," he added. The University built an accessible shower and bathroom for Tartaglio's residence halls for the three years he lived on campus. "They also did a pretty good job at shoveling when it snowed so I could get around campus."
Science was Tartaglio's focus and steady passion throughout his time at Fairfield. He worked closely with Dr. Shelley Phelan, associate professor of biology, on a three-year research grant from the National Institutes of Health to study antioxidant genes in breast cancer cells. "Shelley definitely had a big influence on me," Tartaglio said. "She is brilliant and knows how to break down complex material in a more easily understood way."
"John is a truly unique individual," Dr. Phelan noted. "He exudes happiness and an incredible zest for life, and I don't believe there is any challenge that could intimidate him. He was the first student ever to approach me in his freshman year with an idea for his own research project. I believe he approached his research with me in the same way he approaches most things - with hard work that appears effortless. He is an inspiration."
Tartaglio is hoping some of that hard work in the academic arena would pay off as he took his MCATs over the summer to get into medical school. He remains "open-minded" about the area of medicine he will study. "I'd like to go to med school in the New England area, but right now I'd be happy just to get in somewhere," he said, matter-of-fact.
His other aspiration right now is to run in the New York City Marathon this fall, and in doing so raise funds for Aspire, a New York-based non-profit organization that helps children and young adults with limb loss get back to an active, healthy lifestyle.
It won't be the first NYC Marathon for Tartaglio. As a sophomore in 2006, he competed in the hand-cycling division and came in 30th out of 101 participants. In the upcoming marathon in November, Tartaglio will be the first individual with bilateral hip disarticulation to compete in the history of the race. Intense upper body training is crucial, as he will propel himself with special titanium lofstrand crutches, and will use his specially designed Flex Foot running leg, which weighs approximately 15 pounds. "My prosthetist says it will definitely be a marathon record for a long, long time," Tartaglio said.
With the MCATs out of the way, Tartaglio has "amped-up" his training regime. "I'll be working in more hill training, speed work, and distance runs." That regime is rigorous: weight-lifting at least four times a week; long swims twice weekly; and practice runs on different courses, for a total of about 25 training hours per week.
Tartaglio is often asked to speak about his experience to youth groups and business organizations, and he centers his motivational talks around the maxim: "How far you fall doesn't determine who you are. It's how hard you work to get back up."
If Tartaglio strains to make his life seem normal, it doesn't show; after a short time spent in his company, he seemed like any other handsome, hip, recent Fairfield graduate with plans and dreams. "It's every day, you know," he said, lifting his prosthetic legs into his sleek black Volvo, "Just an everyday thing."