When Tony St. Onge cleaves the water, you see a man in his element. His strokes are smooth and even, his breathing is effortless, and it’s clear he loves to swim. He loves it so much that he gets up at 5 a.m. three times a week to go to the pool.
If you were watching St. Onge swim, you’d also notice that his legs are paralyzed, the result of a devastating car accident at age 22 in 1977. The accident didn’t stop him from becoming the health and physical education teacher at Moses Lake High School, however. In fact, even though St. Onge recently retired, he’s still coaching the school swim team, as he’s done for 42 years.
“I need purpose, a reason to get up out of bed in the morning,” says St. Onge. “Swimming and coaching kids — they give me that purpose.”
Sink or swim
St. Onge remembers feeling invincible the day he and two friends set off for Anchorage in the middle of a snowstorm. But they never made it. Their car went over a cliff, falling about 200 feet. While his friends were flung from the vehicle unharmed, St. Onge’s legs were pinned under the seat, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.
Undeterred by his accident, St. Onge moved on with his life. He married his fiancée and accepted a teaching job at Moses Lake High School, where he started the swim program, teaching thousands of young women and men how to swim. His philosophy: Never cut anyone from the team.
“In my swim program, anybody can participate and fulfill whatever goals they have,” says St. Onge.
However, 26 years after his car accident, St. Onge began to feel pain, which grew steadily worse. Unsure what was happening, doctors in Moses Lake referred him to the UW Medicine Spine Center at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Finding your team
“When I went to Harborview, the second I walked in the door, it felt so professional,” says St. Onge. “I felt confident.” That confidence was rewarded. A doctor immediately diagnosed him with a rare degenerative condition called Charcot spine, a complication from his long-ago spinal cord injury. It would require major surgery.
In a 13-hour operation, St. Onge was fitted with an internal brace of titanium rods and screws that ran from his T9 joint (roughly mid-back) all the way to his hips. He felt better immediately, and he was impressed by the team approach taken by his doctors.
“I didn’t just meet one doctor — I met a team of doctors,” he says. “After my surgery, it was a team of doctors and nurses.” And for a few years after that, the team continued to take care of St. Onge when he traveled back to Seattle for spine-related check-ins.
The quality of care that St. Onge received is the norm at Harborview. From routine care to complex surgeries like St. Onge’s, the hospital provides an unmatched level of care to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay.
In that way, Harborview is much like St. Onge’s swim team. No one is turned away.
Though St. Onge no longer needs to go to Harborview, UW Medicine is still part of his life. It turns out that urinary tract infections cause significant illness, even death, in paraplegic patients, and St. Onge needed a urologist. Today, he sees UW School of Medicine graduate Jeffrey Monda, MD ’90, who practices in Wenatchee.
And today, the pool where St. Onge teaches has its own special name, one that’s emblazoned on the outside of the high-school gym and at both entrances. This name is also imprinted on the wall next to the pool. It says: “Tony St. Onge Pool of Dreams.”
“They kind of went overboard,” says St. Onge affectionately. Still, the Pool of Dreams is a testament to his ability to form strong connections — with his swimming students, with the school board, with the entire community — and it’s something he doesn’t take for granted.
“I have been very lucky to have all of these positive relationships in my life: my parents, my wife, my kids, and the people at Harborview,” says St. Onge. “Life is all about relationships. They help keep a person going.”