Local teacher takes it step by step


On Nov. 9, 2010, Rebecca Levenberg mounted her bicycle to travel roughly four miles from her South Philadelphia home to Center City’s Russell Byers Charter School where she is a special education teacher. But, that day’s ride would be anything but normal.

“I was riding my regular route [along] Washington, in the bike lane, and at Fifth Street I was crossing over, and a trash truck suddenly made a right turn into the bike lane,” Levenberg, who had been riding that route for four years, said. “So he ran me over.”

Levenberg suffered multiple injuries, including a collapsed lung, five broken ribs and what would eventually leave her left leg amputated above the knee.

“I began wearing a prosthesis. Well, I was fitted back in the spring for a prosthesis and I began training at McGee Rehab and walking on my prosthesis at the end of April,” the 42-year-old said.

The short time with her new edition hasn’t held back the determined Levenberg and she has already set a 1,000-mile goal to be reached by Nov. 9, 2012, which will be the two-year anniversary of her accident.

“That’s my own person goal. I was trying to come up with a goal that would allow me to measure my progress, to be able to measure in degrees to see how far I was coming,” she said. “At night, since I was staying with my parents, my dad [David] and I would go out walking.

“At first, we could only make it to our next-door neighbor’s house and back. For my dad, it was barely worth putting shoes on. But little by little we made it past four houses, then six houses. And eventually we stopped counting houses and I tried to get around the block.”

Motivated by hitting these milestones, Levenberg purchased a pedometer and began thinking about adding up the steps.

“When I was awake in the hospital, my aunt and uncle had given me a necklace that said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.’ It was special to me then and it had more and more meaning,” Levenberg said. “I began walking farther and farther and it was a long-term goal. I came up with the idea late spring/early summer to start on July 9, which is exactly eight months after the accident date.”

Though Levenberg clocks steps daily, she had plenty of people cheering her on her one-year anniversary Friday. Clinical nurse specialist for surgery/trauma, Deborah A. Gardiner, from Center 7, the unit that was responsible for the majority of her recovery care, organized her Mile No. 160 around Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. She hit the pavement again Saturday with about 100 friends and family for a walk from the accident site to her home.

“It was such a traumatic day, I was dreading the first anniversary of my accident. I thought it was going to be difficult to face it,” Levenberg said. “[The Jefferson staff] made this day easier, too.”

Born in Ambler, Levenberg attended Chicago’s Northwestern University, where she earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s in learning disability education in 1992.

“I taught out in Chicago for a year before I moved back to the Philadelphia area, since this is where most of my family is,” Levenberg said. “I’ve been teaching for about 20 years now.”

Her most recent role has been at Russell Byers, where she was the special education coordinator, which had her aiding classroom teachers with special needs children as well as overseeing other aspects of the school’s special education program such as compliance. Since the accident, she has moved into a part-time role — one she started this school year — where she oversees two new faculty members.

“I’ve gone around to all the classrooms and shown it to the kids, my leg. I call it a robot leg to them sometimes. They have been really fascinated by it,” Levenberg said. “They make all kinds of connections of what they see in my leg and what they see around them.”

A consummate educator, Levenberg takes all of the setbacks of the accident in stride, but admits there are daily “ups and downs” that she battles.

“I can’t say there was one time I was depressed and now I’m over that,” she said. “It’s a spiral process that I have been going through. I try to focus on the positive in any situation.”

The seven-year resident of the area has a determination anyone can envy and while she has just started the steps toward recovery, she has her sights set on bigger things.

“I look forward to doing a lot of things that I used to do. I was in an inline-skating club in the city and I’m just starting to get back on my skates,” Levenberg, who is one of six children, said. “It’s very, very difficult. I’ve been on my skates five or six times now, under the supervision my prosthetist or a friend of mine who is an inline skate instructor. I’m starting to resemble a very beginning skater. It’s strange to be starting at the beginning since I have been skating since I was a little kid.”

Another item on her to-do list is traveling, as Levenberg spent two summers in home exchanges with European families in the past.

“The way I do things might look different like I may not go by myself or I need to get a certain home to exchange, but I’m hoping I will still do it all. And bike riding, of course, also,” she said.

The ambitious outlook did not come easy, as a trauma of the nature that Levenberg suffered cannot be overstated.

“Having gone through a trauma like getting hit unexpectedly by a truck, it takes a lot to recover just from that incident itself. I was afraid to walk on the street or sidewalk where there were cars, that was difficult at first,” Levenberg said.

Levenberg, however, has a huge support team in her corner, including her father; mother, Patti; siblings; the Jefferson medical staff; and her prosthetist, Tim Rayer, who Levenberg said has been a “major cheerleader for me.” These supporters, along with friends, has allowed her to take steps — physically and metaphorically — she wasn’t sure were possible at this stage.

“I think with any life-changing event, especially a traumatic one that happens all at once, there’s a grieving process you go through were you have to give up the world and the life you were used to and then accepting the new one. You have to take parts of the old and who you used to be and meld them together with who you are now,” she said. “It’s been baby steps, literally, but I’ve made a lot of progress so far.” SPR

Photos provided by Thomas Jefferson Hospital and Rebecca Levenberg

Contact the South Philly Review at editor@southphillyreview.com.