Living Without My Legs

I still remember the date: Oct. 24, 2003. At first it seemed like any normal day. I worked at my job as a high-school assistant principal, played nine holes of golf with my buddy Checko and returned to the school to supervise the home football game that night. I felt fine until I got home around 10:30, when my back began to ache. Neither a hot shower nor pain reliever brought any relief. By 11:15 the pain was so bad that my wife called 911. When the ambulance arrived, I stood up and walked over to the gurney. I have not been able to stand or walk since.

Five weeks later I returned to my home as a 48-year-old paraplegic. The blood clot that had compressed my spine that night, causing me such pain, came out of nowhere and left me completely paralyzed from the chest down. In a day my world and that of my family turned upside down.

In the last few years I've learned a new set of skills that I never could have imagined. A paraplegic has to learn everything over again in a process of adaptation. You first learn how to sit up without passing out or falling over, because your center of gravity is so high and your blood pressure is so low (without any muscles contracting below the level of injury, there is nothing to pump the blood back to the heart). You discover how to use the restroom in ways that you never thought possible. You learn how to shave, shower, dress, and transfer to a wheelchair. You learn that negotiating curbs, sidewalks, and ramps is best in a wheelie position. You learn to drive a car using hand controls and spinner knobs, and bristle at the countless numbers of able-bodied individuals who insist on using handicapped parking spaces.

In the summer of 2004 I was invited to go on a cruise, and I sought out the weight room on my first day at sea. As I rolled from machine to machine, I began to get very frustrated. "This one can't work; I can't use that one" and so on. The next day I went back to the weight room, but with a different mind-set. "If I move to this side I can do this; if I turn this equipment around I can do that." By the end of my workout I realized I could use virtually every machine in the gym if I kept an open mind and thought creatively. The same was true of my first visit to the golf course. After several unsuccessful attempts on the driving range, I became very frustrated and told myself, "I can't do this." Then I thought a bit, made a few adjustments and realized the real question was "How will I do this?" So I traded in my old TaylorMades for a shorter, lighter, junior set of clubs, and before long I was happily hitting balls out on the range. How many times have we given up on something because we only tried it one way and one time? I learned that in many respects life is all about adaptation: plain old figuring things out.

While life as a paraplegic is physically very demanding, the mental aspects are even more challenging. You dream of walking in various places. You stare at your lower limbs for hours, trying to coax some movement from your legs—movement other than the frequent spasms that violently grab and twist your body. You remember the things you used to do and wonder if you'll ever be able to do them again. And just about the time that you're ready to give up, you look around and consider the needs of others who are even less fortunate. And you think to yourself, "You know, it could be worse."

I have learned that every day is a blessing, and an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of others. I feel fortunate to work in a profession and position that I can do in a wheelchair. I never knew how much I loved and appreciated my wife and family for everything they do.

When you are dealing with a life-changing event such as this, you have to laugh, or else you spend a great deal of time crying. Every day is a constant struggle to maintain an optimistic attitude and seek out the positive aspects of your life. I have learned not to be afraid to try something because I might fail. We learn by our failures and our mistakes. And those of us who try to do something and fail are infinitely better off than those who try to do nothing.

Three years ago I received a letter from a gentleman in South Dakota who read about my circumstances in an article in my community newspaper. His letter concluded with the following comment: "Sometimes we are so busy adding up our troubles that we forget to count our blessings. Sorrow looks behind. Worry looks around. Faith looks up." My life will go on, and I will make the best of this hand that I have been dealt.

And the next time I go golfing with Checko, he'd better give me strokes.