Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Forward of Sorts

As this is my first post to the Beginners Guide for Quadriplegics, I suppose I should write a forward of sorts: who I am, how I got injured, and why I decided to start this blog.

I was born in Alexandria and 1955 and raised in Arlington, Virginia. My dad was photographer who ran his own company, Central Photo; he took pictures of school groups visiting Washington with the US Capitol building in the background. Copies of the photos were sold to the students as souvenirs. My Uncle ran White House Sightseeing, a tour bus company in Washington, and when I old enough (around 10) I worked for him during the summers running the souvenir stand in his office. In high school, I worked after school in the lab at Central Photo printing pictures. In the long run, it gave me a good work ethic, though at the time I would have rather been doing something else. I didn't mind the money, though. After graduating high school, I went to work for my father full-time.

Working for my dad had its ups and downs, as any job does, but I think working for one's parent puts a greater strain on the employee-employer relationship, and my dad was a pretty tough boss to begin with.

At first it was great, though. I worked up at the Capitol with either my dad, or one of the other employees. It was their job to arrange the group, and I operated the camera. It was a No. 10 Cirkut Camera, a panoramic camera that can take in very wide views by sweeping from left to right in exposing the film in increments. It is the only type of camera that will allow one to photograph the same person twice in the same picture so that they show up on both ends of the group in the photo.

This is how it works: the camera starts photographing the left-hand side of the group first and then sweeps around until it gets to the other end of the group. The "runner" runs from the left-hand side of the group after the camera photographs it and takes a position on the right hand side of the group before the camera gets there. It is a unique effect and quite popular with the school kids. Everyone wants to be a "runner."

After a couple of years working up at the Capitol, it was decided that I would start running the office. Back then, part of running the office was overseeing the running of the photography lab. During the off-season things were fine, but when it got to the busy season it was my job to hire additional help to accommodate the extra business. Now, I'm basically a pretty shy guy, introverted you might say, so when it came time to hire people and be their boss, I was pretty much at a loss. It was pretty stressful, and after nearly a decade of doing that, I wanted a change badly.

My father was from Texas, and he had family there, so in 1985 I worked it out with my dad to move down to Dallas to set up a branch of Central Photo there. I would have a Cirkut camera with which to take the photographs, and I would send the exposed film back to Washington. They would make the prints and mail them back to me in Dallas to sell. I was to take pictures of high school graduations, reunions, and other large groups, but I would have to drum up the business.

My cousin James lived in Dallas at the time, and we knew each other and got along well, and he agreed to let me move in with him. I was 30, and he was 29, and we had a fun time together with him showing me around Dallas.

James had taken photography in college and had hopes of establishing a photography business of his own. He was a studio photographer specializing in advertising photography. As I needed an office to work out of and he a studio, we decided to rent a small warehouse. He knew of such a warehouse, but it was in rather poor repair. The rent was right, but it was going to require a lot of work to get it ready for us to work out of.

The previous tenants had been a rock band who had used it as a practice area. They had attached old remnants of carpet all over the walls for acoustic dampening and left the place a terrible mess, as you might expect a rock group to do. Some previous tenant before them had built an office area in the front of the warehouse that you enter as you walk in the door, and the office's ceiling served as a floor for a makeshift storage area above it. A wooden ladder was permanently attached to it for the purpose of accessing the area.

Now, I had always been afraid of heights and was particularly afraid of ladders. Going up wasn't bad, but coming back down was the part that scared me. Backing off of a ledge and blindly trying to find my footing made me feel that I might fall. I always had a hard time getting that first step or two. After that, I was okay. We had to do a lot of work up on the storage area—we wanted to fix it up as a living area—so day after day I had to climb up and down that ladder. But after going up and down enough times, I slowly began to build up confidence. After a few weeks, my fear of coming back down the ladder had completely disappeared and for all practical purposes my fear of heights was gone. It was a revelation for me, and I began to get cocky, walking down the ladder instead of climbing down. I was proud of myself.

Then came time to replace some of the storage area's floor beams. It was on a fateful Saturday afternoon, September 14, 1985 to be exact, that James and I went to Home Depot (or whatever they had back then) and picked up some two by fours and some tools to accomplish the task.

Getting back to the warehouse, I climbed up to the storage area and pulled up some of the flooring, which consisted of pieces of plywood. This left the floor beams and the office below exposed. Undaunted, I sat with my legs hanging down towards the floor below. I pulled up a floor beam with the help of James, and he handed it down to a fellow below who cut a new two by four to length. He handed it up to James, and we placed it into position for nailing back in. It was a reach to get to the two by four, so with hammer and nail in hand I leaned forward to nail it in. I hit the nail, and it bent. I went to pull the bent nail out, and it pulled the two by four up off the narrow ledge it sat on causing it to slip of and fall. I lost my balance and began to fall towards the floor below.

The day before, James and I had pulled down some old ceiling tiles from the office leaving wooden slats with nails sticking up out of them. So as I fell forward, I instinctively covered my face to protect myself from those nails. If it hadn't been for that, I would've had my arms out to break the fall. As it was, I did a kind of somersault on the way down and landed on my head and left shoulder. Luckily, the ceiling tiles were still laying down there, or else I might have cracked my head open on the concrete floor.

I lay there unable to move thinking that I had had the wind knocked out of me. I had never had the wind knocked out of me before, but I had heard that it could paralyze you momentarily. But after a couple of minutes, and I still couldn't move, I began to get worried.

Immediately after the fall, James had called down to ask if I were okay, and I said, " Yes, I think so". I thought that maybe I had broken something and was bleeding. James came down off the storage area to assist me, and I asked him if I were bleeding. He told me no, and for the moment I was reassured. But the worry set in, and when James asked me if I wanted him to call an ambulance, I told him yes.

It took a long time for the ambulance to get there, some 20 minutes, long enough for me to get plenty scared. I had no idea what was wrong. When the paramedics finally arrived, they cut off my shirt (which strangely enough irritated me considering the gravity of the situation), put a neck collar on me, and strapped me onto their stretcher. They transferred me to the ambulance, and on the ride to the hospital the paramedic who sat in the back with me reassured me that it was probably only a pinched nerve, that he had had it happen to him. I hoped he was right, but I had a bad feeling about it.

We got to the hospital, and x-rays were taken. When the doctor came in to give me the news, and I wasn't ready for what he had to say. He told me I had fractured my spinal column (between my fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae) and severed my spinal cord. I would be a quadriplegic for the rest of my life. I was devastated, to say the least. I wanted to die, and I believe that I if they had given me the option of euthanasia that I would've taken it.

Not long after, a nurse told me that a catheter needed to be inserted into my penis so that I could urinate, and I just knew it was going to hurt. Theoretically, I knew I wouldn't be able to feel it, but I was sure that I would. When the procedure was done, however, it was the first time that I was glad that I couldn't feel below my shoulders.

The next thing they did was to put my spine into tong traction, which consisted of attaching a tong-like instrument onto my head. Its sharp pointed ends went through my scalp and into both sides of my skull. They put me on me on a Stryker frame , and a weight attached by a cable to the tongs put tension on my spine with the hopeful effect of pulling my broken vertebrae back into alignment. As painful as it sounds, it didn't really hurt much at all even when they actually attached the tongs to my skull.

The tong traction didn't have the desired effect, though, and I was given the choice of wearing a halo brace or undergoing fusion surgery on my spine. I opted for the surgery, as a halo brace looked terribly uncomfortable.

After my medical condition was stabilized, which took about a month, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. There I underwent physical and occupational therapy. Physical therapy consisted of exercising the muscles that I could still use and in occupational therapy I tried to relearn basic skills such as feeding myself.

The only thing I really accomplished was to learn how to drive a sip-and-puff wheelchair. I operated the sip-and-puff wheelchair by my sipping and puffing (which is a nice way of saying sucking and blowing) on a tube that I held in my mouth. A single puff would start the chair moving forwards. After that, a continuous puff turned the chair right, and a continuous sip would turn the chair left. After one stopped continually sipping or puffing, the chair would begin to go straight again. A single sip would stop the chair. Up to this point I had had to be pushed in a manual chair. It was a liberating experience to finally be able to do something on my own!

While in the rehab hospital, I also saw a psychologist who told me that it usually took about five years before a person begins to come to terms with his or her catastrophic injury such as mine. I didn't see myself as ever coming to grips with this thing, this horrible thing that had happened to me.

While there, I also took tests to determine my cognitive abilities so as to determine the best course of action as far as my learning a new skill. I did pretty well, and it was decided that I be taught computer programming, and my insurance company agreed to foot the bill. (At the time, I think they were training all of the quadriplegics that they could to be computer programmers.)

As I was hurt on the job (I had still been working for Central Photo at the time of my injury), I was covered by Worker's Compensation insurance, which turned out to be a godsend. The insurance carrier was obligated to take care of my needs for the rest of my life, as I was considered completely disabled. As I've found out from years of talking to others who have been catastrophically injured, without good insurance or a healthy bank balance, it is nearly impossible to live by one own means. Many people end up on Medicaid, which to qualify for requires you to be practically destitute, and Medicaid benefits are not very good.

I was sent to Woodrow Wilson Rehabilitation Center (WW RC) in Fishersville, Virginia (established for injured soldiers coming back from World War I) to go to their (Woodrow Wilson's) computer programming school. For some reason, I just didn't take to learning computer programming, so they put me in their business school that consisted of an accounting class, a typing class and several shorter classes such as filing and office skills. The best thing that came out of it all was that I learned how to type with a mouth-stick (a wand with a rubber tip on one end and a U-shaped piece on the other with which one can grasp with one's teeth). I got up to a steady rate of 15 words per minute. Not bad for a gimp with a stick.

After a little over two years, I graduated from WW RC and was sent out into the cruel world to fend for myself. While my insurance company paid the rent on an apartment and provided funds for attendant care, I didn't have a clue. I just wasn't ready to make the transition to living independently. By my own choice, I went into a nursing home that luckily enough had a rehab unit in it for people needing rehab before going home after coming out of the hospital. Although I was in a nursing home, where depressing old people inhabited the place, I was in a cocoon of sanity. I was able to stay on the rehab unit. I had a double room that I shared with various people as they transitioned between hospital and home. I met some very interesting people that way.

Over the eight years in the nursing home, I slowly began to feel more comfortable about my being handicapped, slowly gaining courage to get back into the real world. It took many years for me to get to where I could go to a shopping mall alone, about 10 years, but once I made that step that I had feared most, that of going out alone, things really started to click. It was not long before I wanted to get out of the place and to get a place of my own. I had some money saved up, and, besides, the insurance company had paid for me to be in an apartment before. Serendipitously, it wasn't long before my insurance company approached me with an offer for me to live in a place of my own. Of course, I eagerly said yes. My claims manager found a condo, which met my approval, and the insurance company purchased it. It is mine to use for as long as I like, and it's a pretty nice condo. Not a bad deal.

Switching to the present, I have lived in this condo since 1997. It will be will be nine years in October. Since I've been living independently, with the help of personal care attendants (PCA's), my quality-of-life has become incredibly better than what it once in the nursing home. Having worked through the process of coming to terms with my injury, I believe I have matured much more that I might have had I not had my accident. Don't get me wrong; everything is not all hunky-dory. But I can honestly say that I am enjoying life.

In the following posts, I will try, through my own experience, to give the recently spinal cord injured (and perhaps as equally important an insight for the families of said individuals) a sense that they are not alone, that it's okay to feel despair, hopeless, insignificant, shameful, angry, resentful and any host of emotions. For me, it was a truly horrible experience, and I would never want to go through that again. My heart goes out to anyone recently experiencing a spinal cord injury.

This post created with Dragon NaturallySpeaking


At 10:04 PM, Blogger Rosa said...

Wow. We're going to have to get the word out on this one. Good stuff.

At 6:43 PM, Blogger Ruth said...

I am really moved by your courage and willingness to share your story so others might benefit.

At 8:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i was searching for anything related to the accident encountered by my bf who broke his c4 and c5 neck bone and i came across your article and I read on without stopping. How i wish i could hear from you and know more about things so i could give me ways on how to cope


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