A Little History
Most people begin by telling some
tragic story about paralysis. The tragic part often happens after the injury.
During high school, I had a teacher who had been injured in Viet Nam. He taught marketing, computer skills and much more about life. He was someone you could just sit around with and kick the bull. Very rarely did he talk about what he'd been through but you just knew it was a lot. When he did reflect back on those days it was kept very brief and it was something you respected. Shortly after my accident, he said to me, "right now is the easiest you'll ever have it." I had just received the biggest blow of my life and was loosing everything and everyone around me. It seemed harsh at the time and I questioned whether he'd gone over the edge or had no clue what I was going through. I was twenty and had spent two years in college. Most of my time there was spent in the gym, being pretty social, drinking and occasionally some class work. I was in the best shape of my life and I had a great time. I lived a very physical life and this had all changed in seconds. Before my injury, I was one of the fortunate ones with a good childhood, loving parents and a couple of longstanding steady girlfriends (one after the other) that really shared what it was like to love and to hurt. This had all changed. So how could he say something so off the wall?
Four days before heading back to school for the fall term a very close friend Ray, had invited me to Youngsville, PA along the Allegheny River in the Allegheny National Forest for a canoe trip down the river. We had driven up to a little town just across the New York state border for some guitar equipment and we grabbed a six pack for the trip. He had lived right along the river most of his life and knew the area well. We paddled down the river a few miles and someone had set up a rope swing. The banks were steep. A series of three railroad ties were stacked end to end with thin wooden blocks nailed to one side for a makeshift ladder and a small platform at the top capped off the launching pad for about what seemed to be 20+ feet off the water. Ray grabbed the rope, climbed to the top and swung away. As soon as the rope retreated back to the bank, I threw it up behind the platform, climbed to the top and kicked off. Feet first first time. (Heard that one before?) Well I did! It was an incredible rush. Ray went up another time and launched himself way out in the water. I had noticed another canoe coming down the river. As cool as it was to be doing what we were doing, its always better to be showing off while doing it! I gripped the rope tight and kicked my legs straight out and gained a lot of air fast. Tucking my knees up in my chest to spin into a few flips, something wasn't right. I lost my bearings and landed head first. That's the last I remembered.
Ray waited for me to surface but began to panic when I didn't. He climbed back up the platform to get a better view and began yelling to the people in the other canoe for help. I had been under for a while before they spotted me below the water. I was drug to the shore unconscious and not breathing with a serious head wound. The guy in the other canoe had been studying medicine and knew life saving skills as did Ray. They sent his girlfriend for help while they tried to get me stable. She was able to find a phone and an ambulance and rescue crews were dispatched to each side of the river to find the best extraction. The only way out was to get back in the canoe and travel back across the river to a more shallow bank. It was there that I was diagnosed with a severe spinal injury and scalp laceration. My situation was grim.They called in Life Flight. The helicopter pulled me from the woods and carried me to a hospital several miles away. I remember only two events after I struck bottom. The girl I had been dating gave me gold necklace months before. I asked Ray to take it off and keep it until I got out of the hospital. I was aware I had been hurt but had no clue how bad. The other moment I recall was being loaded into the rear of the helicopter before waking up to the bright lights of an ICU room in the hospital.
The clinical definition was C6 complete compression fracture causing
quadriplegia. If you view a spinal level chart, it will plot out the sensory nerve active
points. Above the C6 lines I have true sensation. Below the line I don't have real
sensation. One characteristic of paralysis that seems to be relatively unknown by the
general public is that your body sends you signals all the time. Being paralyzed is not
entirely like being numb. Since nerves are damaged in the central nervous system, our
bodies find different ways of telling us pain, pleasure and an array of weird sensations.
My high school teacher was right. After the get well cards, casseroles, constant visitation and newness wears off, life goes on and its up to you to live it. That means physically, financially and socially. There is only one person responsible for you and you have to wear that hat. When things are so different and activity is all around you early on after the injury, you don't have much time to plot out a future. Day to day adjustment is pretty damn important and it can consume all of your time. A little later, this does ease up and you're faced with planning a further down the road. In this situation, people generally follow certain paths. In some of the public speaking I've done, I use an exercise to help make my point. I ask the group to clap. This is something we learn very early in life and use as a form of expression. Its a way we participate socially. Then I request them to hold one arm to their side. Now clap for me again. The group has been forced to make a decision and step outside of doing something the only way they've ever known. Some just figure out what to do, others look around and see who's doing what, some just wait or choose not to participate. This is no different than any struggle we face disabled or not. You can forge ahead and smack the desk, work together and give each other a high-five, witness others doing it and learn from them or again choose not to participate. We all vary between the stages and the task at hand determines the course of action. The things I've done and the places I've been could have never happened without wanting to live, being interdependent rather than independent and accepting help when its necessary. Never has the desire to quit the game been the answer.
I learned early on that we should never feel lucky
because someone else has it worse than us. I feel that there is far more inspiration
found in people that have
great struggles in life yet they seem to accomplish more, survive better and live
Read on in some of my Stories...
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