Paralyzed veteran advocates for high-risk Americans during COVID-19 crisis

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U.S. Navy veteran Tom Wheaton, who has been living with paralysis since 1988 and has worked tirelessly to raise awareness for paralyzed veterans, is now aiming his efforts at people with serious disabilities who are facing mounting risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“A lot of us in the community have paralysis and PTSD, which is a challenge under normal circumstances to try to live a fulfilling life,” Wheaton told Fox News. “The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated everything, so living with paralysis during these times has left a lot of us trapped and terrified in our homes.”

Wheaton became paralyzed after getting hit by a drunk driver while docked in Perth, Australia, with the U.S. Navy. Since then he’s been advocating for visibility, legislation and awareness of the pressing needs of disabled and paralyzed Americans. He currently serves as national treasurer of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), the only congressionally chartered veterans service organization dedicated solely to the benefit and representation of veterans with spinal cord injury or disease.

Wheaton broke down two specific areas where the needs of paralyzed veterans, and others with disabilities, are falling short.

Mobility

The Navy veteran explained to Fox News that wheelchair mobility has always been an obstacle for Americans with spinal cord injuries or diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), but COVID-19 has brought on new challenges. Instead of being isolated in the square footage of your home, paralyzed individuals face being stranded in their beds.

“If we need wheelchair repair with a manual chair or a motorized wheelchair, we don't have the access to a wheelchair repair that we normally have,” said Wheaton. “And if we don't have that repair, then we're actually bedbound and not with our devices enabling us to move around our houses like everybody else.”

Caregivers

Wheaton said that he’s fortunate when it comes to caregivers because his wife is his full-time caregiver who helps facilitate everything from getting dressed to buying groceries and administering medications. Not every paralyzed person, however, has a spouse or family member to rely on and depends on caretakers to constantly assist them.

“Now so many paralyzed veterans don't have access to caregivers because they’re afraid they might contract the virus, and they might be fearful of contracting themselves,” said Wheaton. “That happened to a close friend of mine in St. Louis just a few weeks ago.”

Wheaton told Fox News that he’s been working with the PVA to ask Congress and the Department of Veteran Affairs to continue to keep all paralyzed Americans in mind when it comes to access to health care.

“It's a lot of extra, specialized, unfortunate, complex conditions we have with paralysis,” said Wheaton. “So we're a special group that has unique, sophisticated needs, and we need to make sure that comprehensive health care is more readily available to us both during and after the pandemic.”

For more with U.S. Navy veteran Tom Wheaton, watch the full interview above.

Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio.

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