Maggie Rinehart, the physical therapist, is a young redhead with freckles galore. Today she had a white flower in her hair, and summer was in her smile. She swirled into Room 911, stopping to see Sam Boulmetis Jr., and what she saw was a dark deed being done by Cyd Snellings, the jockey's fiance.
Cyd was holding a milkshake's straw to Sammy's lips.
"That glass," Maggie said, iron in her smile now. "What are you doing holding that for Sam?"
Cyd fell silent, caught in the act of loving her man too much.
"Sam holds his own glass," Maggie said.
It's a long road back, and it begins by holding your own milkshake, but Sam Boulmetis is ready.
"Doing good," he said.
He lay flat in bed. Next to the bed is a three-foot tall sign made up by the jockeys at Pimlico. "Sammy Boulmetis, The Class of Athletes, A Jockey's Jockey," says the sign autographed by 200 race trackers.A sign from backsiders is at the foot of the bed. Stacks of get-well cards are on the window sill. "Owners, trainers, riders, everybody -- even people I don't know -- are writing to me," Boulmetis said.
A month ago, at age 24, a rider seven years, Sammy Boulmetis was a strong man in a brave man's game. Now he lay flat against a bed, and he wore a molded plastic brace around his back, and he seemed so very weak, so very far from the man who rode 1,000-pound horses 40 mph in traffic.
But his smile still worked, always the Sammy smile that Cyd once called irresistible.
In Room 911, Sammy said today, "I've got no complaints."
What he has is a broken spine put back together by doctors at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital three weeks ago, a week after the jockey went down in the ninth race at Laurel. The doctors took bone from his hip to rebuild a vertebra. They put pins and screws in there to hold the new vertebra between two of the lumbar originals.
"You ought to see the X-ray," Boulmetis said. "You can't believe the hardware they've got in there."
The best he hopes for is to walk with braces.
"Anything good that happens, great," he said. "It could always be worse."
Jockeys are the bravest little men in sports, kewpie dolls in bright silks perched atop flying horses. When Sam's horse went down, another tripped over it and fell onto the jockey. Boulmetis' spine was ripped in two just below the belt.
The little man might have been killed. An 18-year-old jockey in Arizona died Wednesday of a skull fracture. Ron Turcotte, who rode the great Secretariat to his Triple Crown victories, is in a wheelchair forever. Cyd Snellings' sister, Julie, was the best woman rider in the country in 1977 when a careless jockey tripped her horse. She is in a wheelchair.
As terrible as Boulmetis' injury was, he was lucky. Had the crushed vertebra been the next one up the spine he likely would have been paralyzed permanently. Because the injury was below the spinal cord, and because it involved nerves capable of regeneration Boulmetis will regain use of some muscles.
"With what nerves and muscle use he has at this moment, he could walk with crutches and braces," said Dr. John Ditunno Jr., chairman of the Jefferson department of rehabilitation medicine. "We expect further recovery, but we can't say how much and when." Within three years, the doctor said, the full extent of recovery will be known.
"Right now I have feeling that is almost normal in my right leg down to the knee," Boulmetis said. "And on the inside of my right calf, I have some sensation. In the left leg, I could flicker a muscle until about a week ago but then I had some kind of little infection and the leg blew up. I haven't been able to flicker the muscle since."
After the surgery three weeks ago, Boulemtis thought he might start intensive rehabilitation work as soon as the molded plastic brace was made. The brace would enable him to sit up in a wheelchair.
The intensive rehabilitation will have to wait.
"There has been a little shift of the spine after the surgery," Boulmetis said. "They want to keep me up here on the ninth floor so they can keep a closer eye on me. It'll be another week or two before I can go down to the third floor."
The problem, according to Ditunno, is that in Boulmetis' kind of operation it takes six to 12 weeks before the doctors can be certain the newly built vertebra has fused properly with the originals. More surgery could be required if fusion fails.
Even on the ninth floor, though, Boulmetis is doing rehabilitation exercises under the watchful eye of the dear red-headed Maggie.
"Rumor has it," Cyd Snellings said to Sammy, "that Maggie carries a whip."
Boulmetis tugs at a rubber thingamajig to keep the muscle tone in his arms and upper body. Therapists move his legs and bend his knees to keep them mobile. Because the injury was so low in his spine, the plastic brace doesn't allow Boulmetis to sit up at more than a 45-degree angle. After only four days in a wheelchair, he now sits up two hours a day, which is very good, Ditunno said.
Boulmetis doesn't remember his spill.
"All I remember is going up on the filly's ears," he said. "I remember being kind of sideways, being up on her head."
"You weren't on her head for long," Cyd Snellings said.
The little brave man has no regrets.
"Regrets?" he said, fairly shouting. "You kidding me? I loved riding, I enjoyed the life. If I didn't, I wouldn't have been out there. I had a good time, I met nice people, I rode nice horses, I had a great experience."
That irresistible smile came from flat off the bed in Room 911.
"I have no room for regrets," Sammy Boulmetis said.