At 24, Charlie Parkhill began an illustrious career first as president of a venture capital created publishing company, then as a financial officer at an architectural firm. The Bloomfield Township resident went on to establish several companies of his own, primarily offering financial and project management consulting services to architects and engineers nationwide.
However, everything changed following a tragic accident while he and his wife vacationed in Mexico, leaving him a quadriplegic at 43.
“I was in the ocean, walking toward the beach, when I looked back and saw a large wave approaching.”
The water level, recalled Parkhill, came somewhere between his waist and knees.
“I could have ducked under it or jumped over it. Whatever choice I made was the wrong one. It picked me up and dropped me on my head, which bruised my spinal cord,” said Parkhill. “I went dark. I was underwater facedown and realized I couldn’t move anything. Somehow I got myself flipped on my back. The last thing I remember was seeing the sky. That must have been enough time to get oxygen, and then I washed up on the shore.”
The accident could have crushed his spirit and success, but it didn’t. Parkhill stopped working and dedicated the next three years to his rehabilitation, including physical therapy five days a week.
There, he met Polly Swingle, a physical therapist who admired Parkhill’s drive and determination. At the time, she was putting together a high-intensity treatment program to help patients with spinal cord injuries.
“Polly did things with me that had never been done with spinal cord injuries before because then it wasn’t considered effective,” said Parkhill. “Around that time, Polly was going to start her own PT practice, and I didn’t want to lose her. I had the business background, and I had some resources, so I asked if we could partner.”
In 2004, they founded the Recovery Project, now one of the largest non-hospital based outpatient neurological rehabilitation facilities in Michigan.
With locations in Livonia, Clinton Township, and Lansing, the Recovery Project has worked with approximately 10,000 patients, including spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and functional movement disorder.
In 2007 Parkhill, his wife Mary and Swingle created the Mary and Charles A. Parkhill Foundation for Spinal Cord Rehabilitation. So far, they’ve raised over $700,000 to award grants primarily to individuals with spinal cord injuries who are in the critical stages of recovery and lack the resources to either obtain or continue therapy.
Parkhill decided to establish the foundation after observing a patient learn that he had exhausted his insurance benefits and would have to self-fund treatment or give up therapy.
“The client and his family were devastated,” said Parkhill. “If things are improving and you’re getting thrown out, it’s devastating. I’ve seen it happen around me, and I began to think about starting some sort of charitable outlet so this doesn’t have to happen.”
It’s been 23 years since his accident, and Parkhill continues his own physical therapy. He has no functional use of his hands or feet. He can move most of his body and walk short distances without assistance but still relies on a motorized wheelchair. Parkhill said he is relatively independent and very active, particularly in running his business and foundation.
“I think I’m boring outside of this stuff because I’m so absorbed. It’s my whole life. The clinic, the clients, my own therapy, the foundation, it totally consumes me,” said Parkhill, later adding, “The injury was a bit of a life-changer, but you just pick up from there and don’t worry about what you can’t do and go after what you can do.”
Story: Jennifer Lovy
Photo: Laurie Tennent