Bob Jester grimaces with each movement. His hands clutch two parallel bars at waist height positioned at the end of a trainer’s table at Peconic Landing’s rehabilitation center in Greenport. Seated in front of him, therapist and exercise physiologist Betty Carlson positions a band around his waist and holds with each hand to help Mr. Jester steady himself as he slowly stands away from the edge of the table.
It’s a recent Tuesday morning, and Mr. Jester has already spent an hour on a bike machine and just completed a lap around the room while standing with his legs secured in two large, cumbersome braces. More exercises on a step machine and weight lifting are still to come — all part of his four-hour workout routine.
With Ms. Carlson’s assistance, Mr. Jester stands, sits and repeats the exercise, occasionally wiping sweat from his forehead. A stimulator attached to his legs helps spark the muscles, creating a spasm-like effect. Suddenly, he shuffles his feet as he stands, lifting his heel ever-so-slightly. Ms. Carlson looks on with astonishment.
“I cannot believe you!” she exclaims. “This is really amazing. It gives me so much optimism.”
Mr. Jester smiles through the pain.
“This is a great day,” adds Kathryn Park, an occupational therapist.
A revered science teacher at Riverhead High School for 39 years and a 52-year member of the Greenport Fire Department, Mr. Jester now spends his retirement fighting to regain the use of his legs. It’s not how anyone envisions retirement, and if Mr. Jester had his way, he’d still be in the classroom teaching every day. But this has become his reality ever since he fell from a ladder in August 2016 and was paralyzed from the waist down.
“I’ve said over and over to my own children, to every kid in my classroom: It’s easy to be a good person on good days, but how you handle these dark days will define who you are,” Mr. Jester said during an interview at his Greenport home.
Mr. Jester, 70, firmly believes he will walk again one day, defying the doctors who prepared him for a life in a wheelchair after the accident. He’s already exceeded expectations, regaining small movement in his legs. His mind races with the possibilities of stem cell research, always thinking like a science teacher, and he hopes to “become an experiment for someone.” He thinks back to all the science lessons he taught over the decades, when he would hold up a piece of chalk and compare it to the human spinal cord. One break leads to paralysis, he would say.
“I would tell the story about how the secret to making [the spine] grow back together is locked in the starfish,” he said. “Starfish can grow back missing arms, but more importantly, the arm can grow back a missing starfish.”
To those around him, Mr. Jester is the embodiment of determination, a constant source of inspiration.
“He’s very vivacious and passionate about anything he does,” said his youngest daughter, Amanda Sanders, who followed in her father’s footsteps to become a fourth-grade teacher at Phillips Avenue Elementary School. (Another daughter, Alison Riddell, teaches in the Greenport School District.) “He does everything he can to help other people.”
His wife, Diane, added: “He’s a hard worker and he’s always been upbeat. He jokes all the time.”
That sense of humor has never wavered.
The back of a brace he wears has two pieces of paper taped to it. On the bottom, it says: “KEEP BACK — 500 FEET.” The top sheet, posted upside down, says: “If you can read this, please turn me over and pick me up!”
The morning of Aug. 8, 2016, began on a somber note for Mr. Jester as he attended the funeral of a close friend. He came home after the services and sat around for a while. He told his wife he needed to change the oil in his truck, but first, he had a job to do.
He’d been booked to clean the chimney at a Southold home, a side job he had been doing for decades, mostly on weekends and during the summer when school was closed. It was a job he stumbled into with longtime friend Ray McKeighan. He had gotten a call one day years ago from Mr. McKeighan, who was frantically describing a glowing pipe attached to his wood-burning stove. Mr. Jester told him he had a chimney fire. He raced from his home on Champlin Place over to Mr. McKeighan’s house on Albertson Lane. They chopped a hole in the living room ceiling, revealing insulation that had caught fire in the attic. They extinguished the small fire. But the chimney still needed cleaning.
And just like that, they became chimney sweeps. They bought a Volkswagen van for $200 and took out an advertisement in The Suffolk Times. Across the North Fork, residents would come to rely on Mr. Jester and Mr. McKeighan, who also taught in Riverhead, to clean their chimneys. Their business ultimately took off after they received a call from Troy Gustavson, former publisher of The Suffolk Times, who needed his chimney cleaned in Orient. Wearing a black top hat, Mr. Jester climbed the 40-foot chimney with ease as Mr. McKeighan, who died in 2011 at age 76, manned a vacuum on ground level. Mr. Gustavson snapped photos of Mr. Jester atop the chimney, which ran in the Dec. 6, 1979, edition.
Business boomed ever since, he said.
“The people I met over the years, it’s phenomenal,” said Mr. Jester, who dazzled a generation of children by pulling an old, soot-filled Santa hat out of chimneys. He always kept one in the van.
When Mr. Jester reflects back on the accident, he admits he made a crucial mistake. He had needed an 18-foot ladder, but only had a 16-foot ladder.
“First time I took a short cut,” he said.
He climbed onto the top rung of the ladder. There should have been at least three rungs above the roof, he said. He could feel the ladder go out from underneath him and he plummeted to the ground. The homeowner came out and asked if he was OK. Instantly, he couldn’t feel anything from the waist down. He directed the woman to call 911. About a minute later, the pain struck.
“I couldn’t believe the human body could feel that pain,” he said.
Mr. Jester was airlifted to Stony Brook University Medical Center, where he spent the night in surgery.
“My world shattered immediately when I first heard about it,” said Ms. Sanders.
He had broken 19 bones. Two rods were implanted in his back with 16 bolts going down his vertebrae. He’ll never be able to bend. He spent a week at Stony Brook, then three weeks at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine in New York City. He cried when three firefighters — Chief Susano Jimenez, Chris Hanold and Ed Sieben — visited him in the city. He remembers asking them how they got in. They said they were family.
“It was the first time I ever thought, they really are,” Mr. Jester said.
Chief Jimenez said it was painful to see Mr. Jester in that condition.
“I’ve known his family for quite some time and I think of Bob as a brother, not just a brother fireman, my real brother,” he said. “His mom, I love her to death, she’s gone, but she was like my grandmother.”
When he made it home, Mr. Jester discovered his fellow firefighters had installed a ramp at his home to accommodate his wheelchair, alleviating one of his initial concerns.
After the accident, Mr. Jester had his wife gather his firefighting equipment into a bag. They brought it to the fire department for the first meeting he could attend so he could resign.
“We didn’t let him do that,” Chief Jimenez said.
Instead, they offered him a deal: He can have his equipment back when he walks in and takes it. His equipment still hangs in his locker today.
“There’s a challenge,” Mr. Jester said.
The occasional ring of the fire scanner still sounds in Mr. Jester’s home, alerting him to another call. He heads down to the fire department when he can to answer a call, even if he can’t actually respond, Chief Jimenez said. As Mr. Jester sat in his wheelchair in his living room toward the end of an interview last week, his wife rushed in to turn on the television.
A report on Channel 2 news had just started that he needed to see, she said.
It detailed how virtual reality is used to help patients dealing with chronic pain.
“I’ll be darned,” Mr. Jester said.
He’s become an expert in the field after connecting with a company called AppliedVR, which supplied him with a headset he can wear to transport him to anywhere in the world. In late August, the company published a video highlighting Mr. Jester and his use of virtual reality. The company is primarily geared toward alleviating anxiety in young people, he said.
He once became so immersed in a video that he swatted his hand, knocking over his dinner plate. One of his favorites is a video of flying aboard a Wright brothers plane.
“I’ve always been fascinated with flying,” he said.
He’s excited to think how virtual reality could help people he meets every day at Peconic Landing. He hopes to see more technology developed specifically for older people.
He was asked to participate in a conference in California in March run by AppliedVR.
He remains committed to teaching in whatever way he can. Last week, he hosted fire safety programs at the firehouse for local children. He plans to lead a training class on chimney fires this week in Hampton Bays.
“He doesn’t know the word quit,” Chief Jimenez said.
The pain he feels is still constant, attacking in waves every few hours in his back and down his legs; a full night’s sleep is impossible.
“It’s so violent, you can’t believe it,” he said.
It’s the kind of pain that would make anyone consider giving up. In those worst moments, he thinks back to all the people who have stood by his side and encouraged him.
He can’t let down his wife, five children and other family members, he can’t let down the therapists who dedicate so much time to his recovery, he can’t let down the former students who years later tell stories of how he never gave up on them, he can’t let down the Rev. Richard Hoerning at St. Agnes Church, who’s become like a family member, he can’t let down all the people he’s helped introduce to virtual reality, he can’t let down his neighbors, who are always willing to lend a hand, and he can’t let down his fellow firefighters, who are waiting for him to take back his gear.
“I want to get well enough that I can walk on the ladder again and call those people at the house where I fell and tell them I want to come and finish, because I never leave a job undone,” he said.
Top photo: Bob Jester of Greenport wears heavy, specially designed boots that keep him stable as he completes a short lap around the rehab room at Peconic Landing with the help of therapist Betty Carlson (center) and his wife, Diane. (Credit: Joe Werkmeister)