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When I Realized I Don't Need to Walk to Be Happy

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On March 27, 2014, as my two young sons and I were driving to visit family, I turned my head briefly to check on them in the back seat. When I looked back at the road, I had drifted onto the shoulder. I over corrected, spun across the highway, hit the concrete barrier, spun back across the highway, and hit the grass where my car flipped 5 times before coming to a stop upside down. My boys, then 3 and 5, were fine; I was not. At 30 years old, in the space of about 30 seconds, I had become a quadriplegic. My arms work, but my fingers do not and, of course, I use a wheelchair to get around.

A few weeks after the accident when I first went to TIRR Memorial Hermann, the rehab hospital I stayed in, during my entrance evaluation a therapist asked me what my goals were while there. I’m pretty sure I said something like, “Uhhh, well, I mean, I want to walk again.” I was still pretty fresh from the wreck. I had a neck brace and a very fractured scapula, and I had no real idea of my prognosis. I had heard of spinal cord injuries, but I couldn’t really resolve in my mind that that’s what I had. It hadn’t clicked that the thing that keeps people in wheelchairs their whole lives, that was what had happened. My friends and family all said they were sure I’d be up and walking soon, and I thought for sure they were right.

In the three weeks I was at TIRR, my therapists very kindly but plainly let me know that I had the kind of injury that could take up to two years to heal if it was going to, but which might never heal at all. My job was to “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.” I learned that while physical  therapy is awesome, it’s limited. Therapists can work any muscle that has return (some function restored to it), but when there’s no return naturally, there is very little a therapist can do to force it. Some research suggests that electro-stimulation can help as well as bearing weight on the paralyzed muscles, but it’s far from a guarantee.

After my first stay at TIRR, I went to my mom’s house for four months to give my neck and scapula time to heal enough to allow me to bear weight. While I was there, I watched my family taking care of me while I sat around feeling virtually useless, unable even to sit up unsupported on my bed. Worst of all, I had to sit back and watch my sister and mother do my job, getting food for my boys, helping them when they called, and comforting them when they were upset. It broke my heart.

When I went back to TIRR, I had a very different set of goals in mind. I wanted to learn how to transfer with a slide board, dress myself, manage my own bodily functions, push a manual chair, cook, and get on with the functions of daily life. I wanted to build my arm strength and practice using my hands. I wanted — needed — to learn how to use my body as it was, not as I wanted or hoped it would be. My amazing occupational therapist Katie and physical therapist Adele worked their butts off with me, and though I didn’t leave TIRR completely able to do everything I needed to do, I had the building blocks. I can never show them the gratitude I feel for all they did. All it took from there was practice (and a lot of patience on my husband’s part!)

The question I get asked most by old friends who don’t see me often is something along the lines of, “So how’s physical therapy going? Can you walk yet?” The answer is no, and barring some serious medical advances, I probably never will. What’s more, I’m not actively trying to do so. From being unable to sit up, now I can prepare my own food, get myself dressed, do my own hair, handle our family’s laundry, help cook dinners, go to school events, help my boys with their homework, and be the mom and wife I want to be.

I have a husband and two little boys who need me now, not just at some theoretical future time when I can walk again. If I could get all my friends and family to understand anything about me, it would be this: I am OK with my disability. There are things I miss from before and a few things I regret I won’t be able to do, but overall, I know there are more possibilities than impossibilities.

So would it be great to walk again? Sure. But I’ve got more important things to do.

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Originally published: April 3, 2017
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