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Giving Him the Lift He Needed

The Region

Ventura quadriplegic has new freedom after a TV show changes his three-story home.

April 09, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

It was an extreme request, even for a show called "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."

What could a team of designers and builders do to help 23-year-old quadriplegic Robert Gil move around his family's Ventura home with the same freedom as before his life-altering accident?

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 16, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Home makeover -- An April 9 article in the California section about the television show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" said that Concord Elevator, which donated a $30,000 elevator to a Ventura couple whose son is paralyzed, is based in Connecticut. It is based in Toronto.

As it turned out, quite a lot. Using donated materials, the TV crew installed a variety of high-tech gizmos that make Gil's life easier.

They also widened doorways, installed a wheelchair ramp and lowered the dining table for Gil's wheelchair.

But the biggest lift came from a Connecticut company. Concord Elevator donated, and installed, a $30,000 custom elevator to allow Gil to move around all three stories of his home for the first time in nearly three years.

"This is where the magic happens," Gil said as he rolled into the elevator Thursday. "It's almost like I don't need my legs in this house."

Raised in West Covina and Ventura, Gil's life as the oldest of three children of Pat and Lon Zitek was that of an ordinary suburban youth. He loved music, favoring the rap of Tupac Shakur, had lots of friends and worked as a pool assistant at the upscale Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

But Gil's life of blithe advantage changed the day after America's did.

On Sept. 12, 2001, Gil was on his way to work when the truck he was a passenger in rolled over on the Ventura Freeway, throwing him into the northbound lanes.

He broke his neck and arm and severed his spine. After months of rehabilitation, he returned home.

His mother quit her real estate job to provide full-time care. But Gil was still confined to the first floor of his tri-level home by stairs and narrow doorways.

"When you're paralyzed, sometimes it's overwhelming," said the quiet young man with close-cropped black hair. "You have moments where you want to crawl in bed and not wake up."

Gil's sister, Nisia, wrote a letter to the producers of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," asking them to help. The reality TV show identifies families with a compelling story and overhauls their homes in seven days.

The show's producers took up the challenge and, from the start, decided to give the family an in-home elevator. But that was a surprise.

On Feb. 25, the family was sent on a weeklong vacation while more than 100 designers, carpenters, landscapers and others worked day and night to transform the home.

Concord was able to complete the job on time only by doing a lot of advance preparation, said company President Dave Chaimowitz.

"Our normal lead time on this type of job is five weeks," he said. "We did that in three days. The challenge was getting it to the site within a week."

Because the episode will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC, the show's producers didn't want to give away too much about all of the conveniences Gil now benefits from. They also didn't want to show too much of the refurbished home.

As the prime beneficiary, Gil said he hoped the show would demonstrate how much could be done to help people in his situation.

"There is so much technology out there that I didn't know about. I am thankful for the little independence I got back."

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