Joseph Skrzypek knows exactly what he wants to be when he grows up.
After spending countless hours in physical therapy to treat his spina bifidamyelomeningocele, a congenital defect that affects the spinal cord, he figures it's time to give back.
"I've had 10 medical surgeries. I've been on the other side of this physical therapy aspect," said Skrzypek, 18, of East Setauket. "I felt it was my calling that I could help others as I was helped."
He isn't wasting any time pursuing his dream. Skrzypek is heading to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut for a rigorous seven-year dual program in athletic training and physical therapy, culminating in a doctorate of physical therapy.
That kind of ambition doesn't surprise his teachers at Ward Melville, where Skrzypek maintains a 98 GPA and is a member of the varsity golf team, National Honor Society and student government.
Guidance counselor Linda Bergson said Skrzypek's attitude remains positive, despite his health concerns and his intense workload and schedule of activities.
"He's a really appreciative, nice kid," she said. "He will be a physical therapist who cares about his patients."
Spina bifida is a neural tube defect that happens when a fetus' brain, spinal cord or their coverings develop incompletely. In severe cases, people with spina bifida cannot walk.
Skrzypek said his form of the disorder is mild, and he's been able to play sports and study karate. "It affected my back and legs," he said. "There were operations to fix complications and prevent complications. Sometimes, I had some restrictions when it came to activities and sports. I had to give up baseball after foot surgery; I was a catcher."
Skrzypek decided to focus on golf, becoming the only freshman on the varsity team and this year helping the Patriots win the county championships. Despite his accomplishments, Skrzypek insists he's no more special than anyone else. "I walk 18 holes four to five days a week. I'm very active; I have no body limitations."
He also has volunteered at the office of his former physical therapist, Dr. Jeff Schwarz of Smithtown. While volunteer hours are a requirement for Quinnipiac's program, Skrzypek "just kept going with it" and has far exceeded the hours necessary.
"All my patients ask, 'How is Joe doing?' " Schwarz said. "He finished his requirements, and he still comes. It's his passion."
For now, while he has daily medical treatment for his spina bifida, Skrzypek's health is good. "Hopefully as I get older I won't need any more back surgeries," he said. "I'm doing just fine for my age, and my goal is to be as normal as I can. A lot of people don't even know what I'm dealing with."
He is looking forward to college's challenges and stimulations. "I'm looking forward to meeting new people obviously, and just really pursuing my dreams in sports medicine and physical therapy."
As a self-professed Yankees "nut," Skrzypek said he hopes to someday work for an athletic organization -- even the rivals up in Boston.
"I wouldn't turn down the Red Sox," he said with a laugh.
What makes you
extraordinary"One of my priorities is that I'm not special or need special treatment, even when I had operations or stuff."