May 24, 2013 11:32 AM by AP(PHOTO COURTESY: MGN ONLINE)
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Sixteen months after his son lost the use of his legs, Chandler Loupe is embarking on a 167-mile walk across northern Spain.
"It's not a vacation," Loupe said prior to his departure last week.
Rather, he said, it's a pilgrimage, from Pamplona to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, that he will do alone.
"I'm going to go there and complete the journey and come back a better person," the 50-year-old Baton Rouge metro councilman said. "I don't really want to talk a whole lot. I just want to spend the next 14 to 16 days thinking about the past year, which has been very hard on my whole family."
On Feb. 3, 2012, Loupe's son Thomas - only 15 at the time - was shot during an alleged drug deal-turned-armed robbery in the Mayfair subdivision. Thomas survived the shooting, but is paralyzed below his naval.
Doctors told the family that Thomas will never walk again.
Loupe said he's traveling a path called El Camino de Santiago in an attempt to find some peace after what he described as the most difficult year of his life.
He was to begin his journey after arriving in Pamplona on Sunday.
Loupe said he hopes to walk about 15 miles a day beginning at 7 a.m. every morning, staying at a series of hostels and guest houses that line the famous trail.
Loupe said he plans to carry only a small backpack with a couple of pairs of shorts and shirts, a rain jacket, a water bottle and some toiletries.
"It's going to be hard. It's going to be something I'm probably going to struggle with due to my age and the fact that I'm probably not in the best of shape," he said. "It will make me appreciate what's really important in my life, which is not necessarily wealth or power or some of the things I do in my job."
Loupe's public status - he's served as a councilman for four and half years, and as chairman of the council since the beginning of this year - thrust his family's story into the spotlight.
The toll the shooting has taken on Loupe and his entire family is something he's only recently grown comfortable talking about. He has previously declined interviews on behalf of his family members.
Loupe said he was encouraged to take the pilgrimage by a close friend who is a Jesuit priest.
He said the trek also was inspired in part by the 2010 movie "The Way," which is about a father who walks the El Camino de Santiago with his son's ashes after his son died attempting the trail.
"With the injury to my son and him not being able to walk, and this being a walking pilgrimage - it just called out to me," Loupe said.
It was still daylight the day Loupe and his wife received the phone call that his son had been involved in a shooting. Thomas was supposed to have been at a Catholic High School basketball game.
"They said, 'Your son's been shot,' " Loupe recalled of the initial phone call. "I said, 'Is he alive?' And they said, 'I can't tell you that. You have to get here now.' "
When they reached Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center, Thomas "reached out his arm on the way to get his CT scan and said, 'Dad, I'm sorry and I'm paralyzed,' " Loupe said.
Thomas would spend his 16th birthday, just two days after the shooting, in the hospital.
Thomas' next stop was at the Shepard Center, a clinic in Atlanta specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injuries. Jim Bernhard, founder of the Shaw Group, offered a private jet to Loupe's family for the trip.
Thomas spent the next two and a half months at the Shepard Center, Loupe said, while he and his wife, Mary, stayed in a 600-square-foot apartment nearby.
In December, Loupe and Thomas took a four-week trip to China for an experimental procedure using Schwann cells.
Thomas hasn't demonstrated any noticeable improvement since undergoing the procedure, Loupe said. But he said he has no regrets about the trip with his son.
"We laughed, we cried, we got into fights. I have videos where he's hurting from the surgery, but neither one of us can stop laughing because none of the nurses know what the heck we're talking about," he said. "Spend four weeks with someone in a foreign country. You learn everything about them again. The things you hate. The things you love. The things that remind you of you, because he is mine."
Part of the pilgrimage in Spain, Loupe said, is about trying to shed some of the guilt about what he could have done differently as a father.
Loupe said Thomas seems to have grown braver and stronger throughout the experience.
"I never really would have said before that Thomas is the bravest kid I know, but now it's like, I've never met any kid like him," Loupe said. "His cup is always half full."
Thomas is 17 now and a junior in high school. He wants to go to college, but may take a couple years after school to join the Paralympic water skiing team.
Loupe said his son tried out and was invited to join, but will finish school first.
This September, the alleged shooters responsible for Thomas's injury will go on trial. Loupe and his wife filed a civil suit in February against the alleged shooters, the driver of the car Thomas was in, the passenger of the car and their families.
The civil suit, Loupe said, is geared toward recovering insurance money that will go toward Thomas's future medical bills.
The next step, depending on doctor's recommendations, could be stem cells, Loupe said. He's determined to give his son every treatment or therapy available to improve his condition and is encouraged by new treatments and breakthroughs in spinal cord research.
"I made a promise to Thomas that he'd walk before I died," Loupe said. "I really believe that."