One in a Million—My Thirty-Year Battle with Paralysis
THE day was March 30, 1945, a day that would long stay in my memory. I recall thinking how warm it was for so early in the year. The brilliant azure sky was cloudless. The surf on the Florida beach was brisk, the swells of the ocean rising quickly and thundering upon the shore with a loud roar.
Ready to return home and covered with sand, I raced down the beach to rinse off in the surf. Passing through the shallow water at top speed, I spotted a cresting wave and dived into it. I was just sixteen and my young body was well developed by athletics. That physical condition would be a vital factor during the next two minutes. For beneath that wave, unseen by me, was a sandbar. I hit it head on.
Surfacing, I reached out to do the breaststroke. But there was no response from my arms or legs. They dangled in the water, lifeless. My brain literally screamed orders without results. Frantically, I tried turning my face out of the water in order to breathe. I could see the blue sky out of the corner of my eye but there was no way to secure air. I was completely helpless.
The seconds now started ticking away. I held my breath. The pressure mounted; my ears were ringing and blood started flowing from my nose. I knew my situation was hopeless. Reaching the end of my endurance, I offered a prayer to God and decided to suck in water with all my might and end it quickly. At that moment I saw arms under me and I could sense someone lifting me out of the water. I gasped for air.
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong with you?” a friend yelled at me. He was holding me against his chest and backing out of the water.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I can’t move.”
Paralyzed from the Neck Down
This was my introduction to paralysis. The impact had broken my neck. The fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae were smashed into the spinal cord, instantaneously stopping all nerve impulse to the body below the neck.
A nurse happened to be on the beach. She ran down and asked me what was wrong and then immediately supervised my handling. I was stretched out on the sand and she packed wet sand around my head to hold it secure. She urged me not to move my head.
Picking up my hand, she asked if I could move my fingers. There was no response. When she dropped my hand, it fell limply to my side and, while looking at it, there was nothing I could do to control it. It was as if the hand were not mine.
The ambulance arrived and we raced to the hospital. Two young men who were instrumental in saving my life and the young nurse accompanied me, comforting and reassuring me. Since it was a holiday weekend, it was difficult to locate a doctor. Hospital admittance was delayed. Why? Well, my parents were out of the city that day and officials wanted to know who was going to be financially responsible for my care. One of the young men with me later became a state senator and introduced legislation requiring emergency treatment at a hospital regardless of circumstances. He told me his action was based on his feelings of frustration that day.
Finally the doctor arrived. He was a qualified physician and surgeon and proved to be a diligent and devoted friend. He was very reassuring and kind. During the crisis period, he stayed by my side constantly and did everything humanly possible for me.
X rays revealed the break in the neck. I remember the excruciating pain when the doctor asked me to open my mouth so the pictures could be taken. I was not even aware that nurses were washing the sand from my body and dressing me.
“What have I done?” I thought to myself.
To Death’s Door and Back Again
I was placed in a neck brace that could be adjusted to take all the pressure off the spinal column. Intravenous feeding was started so my body would receive fluids; medicine was administered to help combat infection. It was now a matter of waiting to see what would happen.
I often think of the effect on my parents when they were told I was critically injured and not expected to live. When they came to me, I could tell by the looks on their faces that the situation was grave. Ironically, I knew nothing about paralysis or the function of the spinal cord. But in the years to come I would learn.
The first two weeks were critical. Paralysis stops all body functions. The kidneys, bladder and bowels fail to act. A catheter is inserted to eliminate urine. Waste matter is pumped out of the body. Obviously, one cannot eat; there is no way to handle the food physically. In the first month my weight dropped from 145 pounds to 80.
My extremely high temperature, coupled with the paralysis, caused my outer skin layer to die. It caked up all over my body. I could not be moved even for bathing. Finally, the vital signs started to fail. My blood pressure dropped and my pulse rate diminished. Breathing became labored. Obviously, I was dying.
Then, thirteen days after the accident, at the most crucial point, a phenomenal thing occurred. I wet the bed! My kidneys and bladder had started functioning. The doctor ordered fluid intake. “Drink anything you want,” he told me. “But just keep drinking.”
My family later told me they had been called to the hospital that night. The doctor had told them the end was near. But now there was new hope.
The Long, Hard Road to Mobility
The days ahead would be very difficult ones. The painfully slow process of returning nerve impulse started and I was about to be introduced to therapy and rehabilitation. My family had consulted with specialists who uniformly agreed that survival itself would be “a miracle.” A break of the fifth cervical vertebra is one thing; the fourth cervical vertebra is another. Then my father asked about the chances of my ever regaining any use of my body. “One chance in a million,” the doctor replied, “one in a million.”
The start of spasm throughout the nervous system created almost unbearable pain. My mother worked day and night applying hot-water bottles and steaming towels, trying to make me more comfortable. Though the cramps subsided, the paralysis remained.
After weeks in the hospital I was allowed to go home. What a wonderful day that was to me. My family gave me constant care, and day by day, week by week, month by month, we could detect tiny new signs of life in my body.
Working with paralyzed muscles is a painful test of patience. Therapy included massage and muscle stretching, exercises, swimming and weight lifting. This was before many modern-day advances in physical therapy. During a recent visit to the New York University Medical Center, Division of Rehabilitative Medicine, I was amazed at the equipment and facilities they now have for treating paraplegics and quadriplegics. My treatment was primitive by comparison.
By late summer I had the sensation I could walk. “Humor him,” the doctor said. “He’ll learn in time it’s hopeless.”
So my father and brother-in-law would drag me over the floor. It was futile, but I kept thinking I could do it. Meanwhile, I started moving my arms at the elbow and exercised them furiously to develop what was available. I was able to type by having a pencil tied to my still-paralyzed hand and striking the keys with the pencil. I thought it was really “something”—typing letters.
Most important of all, during the entire experience I drew ever closer to my Creator, Jehovah God. I had been raised as one of Jehovah’s witnesses, but I had never spent my time productively in study. Now I began reading the Bible as never before, and it seemed that, being paralyzed, I had better retention. In an era without television or other distractions, I found I could read by the hour and remember what I read. And I feel that during these trying months I learned for the first time in my life the real meaning of patience.
Finally, one day during exercises I felt that I could at least stand even if I could not walk. My father and brother-in-law placed me in a doorway and I braced myself with my arms. They released me. The pressure on feet that had not touched the floor or held my weight for many months hurt tremendously. But I stood in that doorway and I stood alone! What a feeling of victory!
Till now, my brother-in-law had carried me everywhere. He bathed me, dressed me, fed me. He and my sister were and have remained a great source of help and comfort to me over the past thirty years of this ordeal. As fellow witnesses of Jehovah, their spiritual strength and direction were vital to me, especially after my father died in 1950 and my mother some years later.
A Major Accomplishment: Rising from the Ground
My big awakening as to the dimensions of the lifelong problem facing me came during one visit to the rehabilitation center some months after my accident. The therapist, who had worked with me for months on muscle development and was teaching me to walk again, purposely bumped me and knocked me over on the exercise mat.
“Let’s see you get up,” he said.
“You know I can’t get up,” I said angrily. “Why did you do that?”
“I want you to know how it feels to be helpless,” he said. “You can walk now. It’s not a very pretty gait, but it gets you around, doesn’t it? Now you must devise a way to get up when you fall because you are going to fall many times. And when you fall you must get up and keep going. Do you understand me?”
I was crying. For the first time I felt completely frustrated and I felt that paralysis was going to conquer me, that I was not going to conquer it.
“There is no way, you know that,” I said.
“I don’t know anything of the kind. You’ve come this far and you’re not going to quit. So we’re going to work and work until we develop a way for you to get up. You are operating with about twenty percent of usable muscle strands. You are subject to spasm. That means, one stub of your toe and you’re going to go down, locked tight. The question then is, will you get up?”
It took months, but we mastered it. I rolled onto my stomach, raised up to my knees, lifted one leg as a brace and stood up. It took time, but I could do it. I kept practicing it over and over again.
In 1946, just over a year after the accident, I had opportunity to put this ability to the test. The occasion was an international convention of Jehovah’s witnesses at Cleveland, Ohio. While engaged in securing rooms for delegates to the meeting, I fell down a flight of brick steps. The resulting spasm, shock and injury paralyzed me. I lay there stunned, bleeding from the knees, elbows and face.
“I’ve got to get up,” I thought to myself. “Don’t panic. Take it easy.”
As the pain subsided and response returned, I was able to use the steps as support and get up. How I prayed for help! “We’re going to conquer you, we’re going to conquer you,” I kept saying. It was one of my most difficult days.
This was the first of many falls. Some of these damaged muscles, others tore off skin and left scars, and more recently one fall caused a broken bone in the spine that required me to wear a brace for several weeks until the bone knitted. It still bothers me, however. But none of these incidents were really important. What is important is to learn that when you fall, you get back up. With faith and complete reliance on the Creator, Jehovah, a person can accomplish much more in his life.
A Rich, Full Life
I had now come through the crisis. The first concern was survival. Then therapy and rehabilitation and the necessary mental and emotional adjustments. Some of these things are attainable. Other aspects may be beyond human ability to overcome.
In 1947 I returned to school. This was another test, but I had to get some training if I would ever become self-supporting and cease to be a burden to my family. After much thought I decided to return to high school and graduate. I was sixteen years old and a senior when I was injured. Now, three years and two months after the accident, I graduated in 1948.
I majored in speech and journalism and hoped to become a radio announcer. My first audition was a miserable failure. The manager of the station informed me I needed more training. Now I had something new to work on, something that did not require use of my badly crippled body: Training my voice, which was unimpaired.
During this period I had met my future wife in school. It all started with a casual introduction. But I was seated and she did not know of my condition. She invited me to her home to meet her parents and I accepted. But I was now faced with a tremendous problem. She lived in a second-story apartment, and I had never navigated that many steps before. When I arrived by car, which I had to learn to drive again, she was waiting downstairs. You can never imagine the feeling within me.
When I got out of the car and started walking toward her, the expression on her face never changed. She must have felt shocked, but she never betrayed it. Most appreciated—she never asked me any questions about my condition. This has been her attitude through twenty-four years of marriage. She understands, she is compassionate, but she does not talk about it.
Our life together has been completely normal and one of purpose. My wife shares my beliefs, my moments of joy, and she has shared my moments of despair and frustration. Though concerned, she is not overly protective. She once said, “The only handicaps of importance are the emotional and spiritual ones,” and I agree.
Then came my second audition in broadcasting. I was seated with three other applicants and felt very insecure. But since I had come this far and worked so hard practicing, I decided I ought to see it through. To my surprise, I got the job! I was now able to work and earn a living. I cried the whole way home.
I worked first as a commercial announcer. Later, I became a play-by-play sports announcer, and in 1956 a television and radio news director. I became a reporter for two national networks. The broadcasting industry was good to me for twenty-two years. But once I had some experience and background in the field, I resolved that I would try to make the business work for me, rather than my working for it. It was a means of livelihood, but it was not going to be my main concern. The events that took place from 1945 on merely strengthened my resolve that my life would center around my service to Jehovah God and service to the interests of his Son’s kingdom.
There have been many people who have richly contributed to my life over the past thirty years. There have been so many instances of kindness and consideration that it would be impossible to list them all. The greatest of these, however, is the interest that Jehovah God himself has shown in me. He has been my constant companion, my strength and support. I am comforted by the words of Psalm 103:1-4, so meaningful to me:
“Bless Jehovah, O my soul, even everything within me, his holy name. Bless Jehovah, O my soul, and do not forget all his doings, him who is forgiving all your error, who is healing all your maladies, who is reclaiming your life from the very pit, who is crowning you with loving-kindness and mercies.”
When on earth, God’s Son demonstrated his ability to heal paralytics. (Matt. 4:24; 9:2-7) By means of God’s spirit, this was a simple task for him. It will be only one aspect of the numerous blessings of God’s kingdom by Jesus Christ, a millennial rule of peace just ahead of us. It will be a great source of happiness and healing to all physically handicapped persons who respond to that rule.
I have found it true that the greatest happiness is in serving God. This makes life genuinely rewarding and meaningful. Being a paralytic has not robbed me of the privileges and blessings of serving the Creator. And if you are handicapped in some way, I sincerely hope that this account will help you to see that you too can enjoy a rich life in God’s service.—Contributed.