Greetings! If you’re a first-time visitor, you might be wondering what this blog is all about. I promise to clue you in, but it will take some time. You see, we’re going on a journey together—one that could span weeks, months, or maybe years. It’s my sincere hope that you’ll learn something useful along the way. A little about the important things in life; about the call of the open road and the things we can discover in this beautiful country of ours. And I especially hope you’ll discover something about independence, about accepting what we’re given in life and making the most of it.
I’m an eternal optimist. Life is pretty good, even though I haven’t walked in more than twenty-two years. Not one step. Yep, I’m a paraplegic—and I’m lucky.
On the 27th of December, 1988, I spent 14 hours on an operating table in Bethesda Naval Hospital while a team of neurosurgeons tried to eradicate a malignant tumor that had been growing for months inside my spinal cord. They did a wonderful job, but there was no possibility of removing such an insidious growth without harming the ultra-delicate nerves inside that narrow space. Between the surgery and follow-up radiation treatments, many root nerves were irreparably damaged, leaving me permanently paralyzed below the T-10 level. To those well-versed in the language of spinal cord injuries, I’m a “para.” Many people in the general population think of me as confined to a wheelchair, and I’ve even been described that way by the press. It’s a blunt and outdated expression, but it’s also partially true. I sleep in a bed just like most folks, and I can get in or out of my wheelchair whenever I want, but I must perpetually accept an important fact: without the assisted mobility of a wheelchair or some other conveyance, I am going nowhere. Strictly on my own, I could crawl or drag myself for a matter of yards, at most.
I would guess that a great majority of you reading this blog have rarely, if ever, given a second thought to your ability to walk. Let’s say you are sitting in your favorite recliner and you want something in another room—a snack from the kitchen, perhaps. You just get up and fetch it. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom, you’re back in your easy chair. But for people who have lost the ability to walk due to paralysis, such a simple activity is either a major challenge or downright impossible. In my case, I would first transfer from said recliner into my wheelchair, then maneuver the wheelchair into the kitchen and fix a snack while sitting down. To carry my treat back into the living room, I’d have to put it on a tray and balance it on my lap while wheeling to the recliner. After setting down the tray, I’d transfer back into the recliner and enjoy the fruits of my effort. Such effort, especially the transfers, requires considerable upper body strength. Jake Sully, the paraplegic Marine in the movie Avatar (played by Sam Worthington), made transferring look easy—but for many people with paralysis, it’s not.
Which brings me to the reason why I’m fortunate to be a paraplegic. During the months I spent in a VA hospital while undergoing rehabilitation, I was on a spinal cord injury ward with numerous quadriplegics, or “quads.” Their paralysis began at the cervical level, and although some with low-level quadriplegia had limited mobility in their shoulders and arms, they were still dependent on some form of human assistance to conduct the majority of their daily activities. Those with high cervical injuries—think Christopher Reeve—could only move their head. It’s all relative. Without the use of your legs, you can still be independent—a factor that allows one to enjoy a most rewarding quality of life. Lose the use of your arms as well, and you are at least partially dependent on other people for virtually all of your daily needs and activities.
Now you can understand why I feel lucky: in a very selfish way, I’m grateful that I’m not a quad.
And so, good readers, perhaps you can appreciate the importance of my lightweight, specially-fitted wheelchair. It’s much more than a tool. It enables me to enjoy an essential element of life that many of us take for granted: independence. I don’t think of it as a thing of confinement, like a punishment or a prison cell. To the contrary, it represents my freedom to come and go as I please. It’s the foremost of my Sweet Chariots.
Coming soon: The Essence of Independence—Rubber on the Road