Dianne Vitkus was just beginning to delve into a new realm of athletic pursuits when tragedy struck last July.
A former lacrosse captain at Brown University and a standout three-sport athlete during her high school years in the Syracuse, N.Y., area, Vitkus was taking in a sunset from the roof of her New York apartment after a long shift as a physician’s assistant when she fell while climbing down a ladder and suffered a severe spinal cord injury.
The 28-year-old said she immediately knew the implications of her injury and began to consider the things she would lose as a quadriplegic, including being able to pursie her love of hiking and outdoor sports, developed during the early months of the pandemic.
“With my medical background, I knew exactly what happened,” said Vitkus, who majored in biology at Brown University.
“I just lay there in that moment, knowing my life would never be the same. Knowing I couldn’t [run in road races or hike] that was the hardest pill to swallow. But now I can.”
After a month in intensive care at a Syracuse hospital, Vitkus moved to Charlestown so she could recover at the world-renowned Spaulding Rehabilitation Center in Cambridge and Canton.
While in the Boston area, she got a chance to try out a new all-terrain wheelchair developed by Global Research Innovation and Technology, a company founded by MIT graduates Tish Scolnik and Ben Judge.
The GRIT Freedom Chair can go where regular wheelchairs can’t, including on grass, mud, or rocky terrain. For athletes who use wheelchairs, it offers the opportunity to compete in events such as a Spartan Race, or the ability to join friends on a hike or a beach day.
“This chair will allow me to expand where I can go,” Vitkus said. “Which is something I’m learning is a real privilege. And it shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t have to be so thankful to be able to walk where everyone else walks. It should be the standard.
“The more people see that disabled people are doing what everyone else can do, and pushing themselves on strenuous activities and sports, the more they see how strong the disabled community can be.”
Since they are still in the early phases of development and production, the chairs are expensive, but the Challenged Athletes Foundation partnered with GRIT to award grants for more than 80 individuals, including Vitkus. On April 27, the companies also announced grant recipients of the first 20 GRIT Junior chairs, including one for Ben Chisholm, a 5-year-old from Wayland.
Before vacationing in the Berkshires over April break, the Chisholm family reached out to GRIT chief executive Mike Halpert, and he was able to loan a demo chair for Ben to use on several hikes with his family.
“For a Boston company to go out of their way to do that, I’m so proud,” said Ben’s mother, Becky. “Ben plays things pretty close to the vest, but I saw him bombing down a hill with his dad, and he had the biggest smile on his face. It makes him so happy. He’s getting muddy and getting that outdoor experience that every kid loves.”
Funding has been building for GRIT over the past decade, with the company raising more than $1 million from investors in the Boston area and from the United States-India Science & Technology Endowment Fund.
With help from the CAF, a foundation that distributed more than 3,000 grants worth upward of $5.1 million in support of Paralympic athletes this year, GRIT has been able to help families and individuals across the country. Vitkus and Chisolm should receive their chairs within the next few months.
“These CAF grants are a huge milestone as they include the first round of kids receiving the GRIT Junior, and we are so excited to allow kids to just be kids,” Scolnik said.
“Awarding these athletes the GRIT Junior and GRIT Freedom Chair gives them the opportunity to reach more places, find new interests, participate in a wider range of activities, and engage with their peers and families. Some riders want to adventure outdoors, some just don’t want to be limited to what they can do outside, and we are proud to give them a way to be active how they want.”