Before my accident, I felt like my life was full of purpose. I had a terrific family and a wonderful job -- one which made me feel like I was making a difference. My accident changed everything. I was completely helpless physically, relying on others for literally everything. Unable to work, my life consisted of lying in bed all day, watching the wasteland that is daytime TV. I remember a phone
conversation at the time with an old friend. He asked if I had ever wished I had died from my accident. I somewhat surprised myself by saying “sometimes,” but I felt it was an honest answer. I couldn’t discuss it in detail, because someone was holding the phone to my ear just so I could have the conversation.
In order to understand my answer and state of mind, perhaps you need to close your eyes and picture yourself in that situation. Imagine losing your independence, your job, your sense of purpose and even your dignity, all in the blink of an eye. Imagine not being able to envision a future that held hope for regaining any of this. Imagine a future that seemed to lack hope of any sort. In that state of mind, it is pretty easy to envision saying “sometimes” or even “yes” to such a question. About one year after my accident, there was a young man who had incurred an injury similar to mine, and was recovering at Baylor Rehab Hospital. He was finding it hard to assimilate because there was no one there with his level of injury. He told Baylor that his goal in life was to convince the Texas legislature to approve an assisted suicide measure. He was depressed because he was unable to do it himself. Baylor called and asked if I would be willing to speak with him. They figured he would better relate to me because the extent of our injuries was very similar, we were both paralyzed at the C4 level. The only difference is that my paralysis was complete, (no feeling and/or movement below the point of injury) and his was incomplete. We went down to Baylor and spent the afternoon with Eugene and his wife. He and I spoke with each other in private for a couple of hours, and there was an instant connection born out of shared loss. By the time of that conversation, I no longer felt as I had earlier, but I completely understood his perspective. Eugene and I stayed in touch over the next six months or so, and I sensed his life view was beginning to change. Then one day I received an email from his wife. Eugene was on a pain patch similar to those utilized by cancer patients. He had developed a fever, which reportedly caused his body to draw more medicine from the patch than intended. He passed away in his sleep on a Sunday night, hopefully at last finding the peace that was so elusive in this world.
What had changed for me? It was pretty simple actually. I had gained both a purpose in life and a perspective about it, neither of which were present in the immediate aftermath of my accident. From the standpoint of perspective, I remembered that I was still both a father and husband. Unlike the unimaginable sense of loss experienced by so many whose spouse abandons them after an accident like mine, my wife doubled down in her love and devotion for me. It was simply unacceptable for me to do anything but the same for her. Likewise, I was still a father whose job was not yet complete, if it ever is. The primary job of helping your children realize adult life as an independent, productive, happy and responsible citizen of the world may end, but the secondary job of just being available for them never does. I had also found renewed purpose for my life by starting up our 501(c)(3) foundation. I had always wanted to engage in philanthropic work following my career in the construction trades. My life now existed in the union of those two ideas, a purpose fueled by a newly found perspective. After my accident, people found it easier to share their difficulties with me, perhaps sensing kinship with my wheelchair. Those conversations helped me realize that many people are dealing with loss in their lives, either directly or of people very close to them. Their stories helped me see that many people are worse off than I am, and that can be said for virtually everyone on the planet. It is only when we take the focus off ourselves and look outward that we can truly begin to understand that perspective, and act upon its meaning.
Noticeably absent when we all left rehab was the instruction manual for dealing with the myriad of situations we would find ourselves in. Ask This Old Quad articles serve to fill in that vacuum, because we have all learned things that we believe would be valuable for others. Share your ideas and experience with us at firstname.lastname@example.org