PHILADELPHIA -- "I found my calling in occupational therapy," said Amanda Parezo. "And it was really challenging to put myself into my patients' shoes."
The 36-year-old from Old City, Philadelphia, still finds joy in caring for patients with traumatic brain injuries. But now, she has a brand-new perspective on their circumstances.
"It made me feel really good to see them living their life the way it was before their injury," she said. "But I never knew I'd be on the flip side of my career."
In May 2021, Parezo, an innocent bystander, was struck in the back by a shooter at Hancock Park. She and her friends had just finished a weekly kickball match.
"I didn't even have time to react," she said. "I immediately lost sensation of my legs."
Parezo sustained a T11 complete spinal cord injury, leading to a loss of sensation and mobility from the waist down. Her spleen was ruptured, her diaphragm was damaged, and her rib was fractured.
But soon enough, she was ready to take a stand.
"I started to pursue a robotic exoskeleton through different fundraising avenues," she said. "And it also gives me that sense of normalcy again to be upright with everybody else."
The device, designed by ReWalk Robotics, allows Parezo to put one foot in front of the other again. With the newfound ability, she was determined to flex her athletic muscles and participate in a 5K walk once more.
She decided to sign up for the Gritty 5K, which took place at the Wells Fargo Center in October. Her decision was influenced by her excitement for Philadelphia sports, the mostly flat terrain, and the color orange, which is closely associated with anti-gun violence advocacy.
"My physical therapist, she's been training with me, and it's mind blowing to me," she said. "I can't believe that I'm going to be able to do a 5K."
The Flyers-centric event is filled with fun activities across the 3.1 mile course. The event is presented by Penn Medicine and supports Flyers Charities. Parezo was presented with a custom jersey at the event before completing the walk at her own pace.
"For decades, Flyers Charities has supported worthy causes throughout the Philadelphia region. We conceptualized the Gritty 5K as a fun way to involve Flyers fans with a love for Gritty to join in on Flyers Charities' funding efforts," said Cindy Stutman, Executive Director of Flyers Charities, in an email. "Creating a race with the help of Gritty and featuring all of his favorite things became a hit with Flyers fans and took off year after year. We are excited to share that this year's Gritty 5K is completely sold out with nearly 3,500 participants, and because of our fan's dedication and the funds raised by Gritty 5K, we will be able to support our community in bigger ways than ever before."
Parezo hopes her resiliency causes everyone to keep the cause of anti-gun violence at the front of their minds.
"I still have shrapnel in my body and I have severe pain every day," she said. "That is a reminder of this bullet that just exploded inside of me."
But regardless of the robot, Parezo has found a way to mentally take steps towards a brighter future.
"I've been able to reflect back on what happened and be grateful for what I have," she said. "Especially the support from my family and friends. All the therapists, my rehab therapists, everybody in my community. It's really been very special."