Being a quadriplegic (aka tetraplegic) is a learning opportunity. I found my opportunity when a confluence of events left me prostrate. Actually, I don’t remember being on the floor, I learned it later from my wife. She also told me I repeatedly asked if I’d had a heart attack while in the local ER. I don’t remember that either, but I’m not surprised. After all, I was an overweight, hypertensive, diabetic, chain-smoking CPA working on a deadline.
The first thing I clearly remember is the voice of an EMT talking to his ambulance driver as we arrived at a bigger hospital. I wasn’t sure why I was in the ambulance, but I knew something very strange was happening. I learned a good deal about myself over the following months.
- Paralyzed means: Crap, I can’t move and I don’t mean immobile.
There’s a big difference between the two. Immobile means I can’t move right now because I’m drugged, strapped down or really-really sleepy, perhaps all three. Paralysis means so much more.
- Disrespect or abuse of a good woman’s love and support deserves retribution.
If I’ve done either, shame on me. The memory of ICU, day one, is vague, but real. My teary-eyed wife held my hand, which I could not feel, and said, ‘I have your heart and your mind, that’s all I need.’ To this day, it’s our motto.
- Well-wishers are at a loss when confronted by a devastating injury.
Friends visited a few days after my ICU incarceration.
I could talk, smile and turn my head side to side—nothing else. My friends were kind and sympathetic and certainly hoped I’d get better. Some offered to pray, others made awkward attempts at humor. But, their eyes carried the message “Poor bastard!” What else could they think?
- Sufferers of a devastating injury are at a loss when confronted by well-wishers.
I appreciated seeing friends, but in some ways it troubled me. I wanted to make it easier for them—they were so uncomfortable. Their shell of invincibility had been cracked. You know the shell, it allows you to drive on roads full of idiots, fly in 875,000-pound planes, and eat at Taco Bell. The unpredictability of the situation scared the hell out of them. I knew it, but couldn’t help them.
- ICU nurses are angels.
They didn’t focus on my injury or paperwork to the exclusion of my person. One of the wonderful things they did was scratch my nose without complaint. Prior to my spinal cord injury, I itched constantly. Sun-deprived parts of my body forcefully demanded the attention of my fingernails in private moments. After my injury, all the itchy demands of my epidermis moved to my nose. It drove me nuts for a time but the nurses bravely stepped up to the challenge. I learned to live with the itch—they had enough to do.
- Embarrassment dies a quick death.
Mom taught me to cover my private parts and not allow others to see them, unless it was she or they wore a white coat. Of course, I modified the doctrine for gym showers and my wedding night, but still, I was adverse to inappropriate nakedness. My embarrassment lasted a few seconds, maybe. I figured I could live with it. After all, I needed the help. (The nurses had seen it all before, and they didn’t laugh at me, at least not in my presence.)
- Rehabilitation is not what I thought.
The dictionary definition is, “To help somebody return to good health or a normal life by providing training or therapy.” That was in mind when my doctors talked about a Rehabilitation Hospital. They recommended a distant facility that specialized in spinal cord injuries over a closer more generalized facility. We chose the distant facility, although it greatly inconvenienced my wife. We didn’t know that the medical definition of rehabilitation is, “To get somebody live with their infirmary and make their loved ones put up with it as quickly as possible.” Rehab is about getting by, not about getting better.
- Insurance is not my friend but I do love it.
Not so many years ago, patients stayed in Rehab for months on end until there was no reasonable expectation of improvement. The new criteria seemed to be, you’re out of here in five weeks unless you’re about to demonstrate a miracle recovery—it looks good on performance reports.I wanted to go home, but I honestly thought I would benefit from another month. At $7,000 a week, the insurance company didn’t agree and I went home. On the other hand, my wife and I would be bankrupt without insurance. So if you want to complain about insurance, go for it, but pay the premiums.
- All social groups have a caste system.
Rehab’s system reflects the nature of an injury and the prospects for functional recovery. The top, and by far the smallest, caste are the Temps. These few suffer a severe spinal cord injury but are likely to have a full or almost full recovery. Next are the paraplegics. They’ve lost the use of their legs, but have functioning hands and arms. The quads lost the most function and had the worst prognosis, so they sunk to the bottom.
I shared a room with three others. They were para’s. At quiet times, we talked, at first about how we got there, and then about the inane things all people discuss at social gatherings. I sensed a feeling of pity from the others.
Roommates changed over the weeks. But feeling pitied continued, it was as if every sentence ended with “Poor bastard!” I understood that attitude from the able-bodied, but not from these guys.
A new roommate joined us. He had suffered an injury the previous year and was recovering from several surgeries. He was anxious to start Rehab as soon as a bedsore healed. A few days later, he was transferred to a convalescent hospital because the bedsore refused to heal.
As I said goodbye, I thought, “Poor bastard!” Suddenly, I understood the whole caste system. I felt pity for his plight, and as a result, felt better about my own.
- I’d rather be happy.
It was 2009 when I collapsed and stenosis caused my injury. I’ve recovered many functions, bladder and bowel control being two very important ones, but nose itching was close. With the help of my wonderful wife, I have a good life. I’m healthier in many ways, although still overweight and I’ve discovered writing, which brings me joy.
People said I was an inspiration to them. I said thank you, and to be honest felt proud. But I didn’t understand how I could be an inspiration. All I did was to be positive about the future and not focus on the negative of the past.
A fellow physical therapy patient recently greeted me with, “How are you?” I responded, “I’m good, actually I’m great.” She said, “You’re so happy?” she said. I said, “I’d rather be happy than not. There’s no joy in the alterative.” Then it dawned on me. It wasn’t inspiration I was instilling; it was awe at being happy.
So, I think the most important thing I’ve learned as a quadriplegic is: I’d rather be happy. Don’t expect others to create it for you. Don’t expect good fortune to bring it to you. Happiness is within you. If you need help finding it, ask for it. When you find it, you won’t be disappointed.
David P. Cantrell is an author and member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.