As told to Vicki Stavig
Before the accident, my life was perfect. I was a natural athlete. I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, ran track in the spring, played baseball and golf in the summer, and was starting to play tennis. If you could do it with a ball, I did it. After the accident, if I could have killed myself I would have. I have since adapted to being in a wheelchair and having no feeling below midchest, but I still think Im going to walk again.
Friday, September 3, 1971, Worthington High School was playing Owatonna in the first football game of the season. I was a free safety, and when a teammate got hurt I was sent into the game. When I tried to tackle an all-state fullback who outweighed me by 50 pounds, my face mask caught on his kneepad and pushed my chin into my chest, crushing my fifth cervical vertebrae and dislocating the sixth. My neck was broken. The pain was incredible, then I could feel a tingling sensation moving from my chest to my toes as feeling left my body.
I was taken to Worthington Regional Hospital, then to Sioux Valley Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where they drilled two holes in my head and put me in a Stryker frame. I was there for 99 days, then back in Worthington for 14 weeks, and then at the Sister Kenny Institute in Minneapolis for four weeks. How did I cope? I denied it, told myself this isnt happening. When we go through any trauma, I think we go through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I still havent hit acceptance, because to me that signals giving up. But I have adapted.
I went back to school for three weeks but developed a severe pressure sore and ended up back in the hospital three times for surgeries. I was very depressed. I was a 17-year-old kid who had no hope. Everything important to me I had done with my arms and legs, and that was all taken away. I was so depressed and angry that my parents brought in a psychologist who asked me questions like, "Do you ever feel like youre being followed?" I still had a little of the class clown in me and told him, "Yes, whenever someone is pushing my wheelchair." I thought the whole thing was stupid and asked him to leave.
My dad was a guidance counselor and coach at Worthington Community College and convinced me to enroll there. After two quarters, in December 1973, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, which had a program for disabled students. I said I wanted to get away from the cold weather, but really I was running away. I lived in a wing of the student health services center, and I got a van and started to drive. At Berkeley, my pessimism moved to optimism.
One incident in particular made me start to like who I was. Leaving the cafeteria with some friends one day, I floored my wheelchair and took off. My friends were surprisedthey hadnt noticed that Id had the chair modified. When I asked them how they couldnt have noticed it, they said they didnt really even see the chair; they saw me. Until then, I had been convinced that the chair was all anyone saw when they looked at me.
At the start of my second year at Berkeley, they put me in a dorm where I had to live according to my attendants schedule. That meant I couldnt be spontaneous with the other people in the dorm and I was left out of a lot of things they were doing. Thats the most frustrating thing about my disability: being dependent on other people.
I was spending a lot of time alone and was homesick, so I moved back to Worthington in June 1975 and took a job selling vans and wheelchairs for a medical equipment company. In 1976, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota and moved into an apartment off campus. It was the best thing I ever did. I met some wonderful people, joined Delta Chi, and even was an orientation leader one year. I also started going to Gopher basketball games and have had season tickets since the late 1970s.
There were some problems, though. Getting across campus in the winter was a drag, and one professor refused to move his class to a room that was accessible for me, so I had to be carried up 31 steps. A couple years later, the laws were changed and classes had to be barrier-free for people with disabilities. Im still involved with the Universitygiving presentations in the New Student Program and talking to Medical School students about bedside manner, dealing with patients, and understanding disabilities.
A highlight of my time at the University was meeting Flip Saunders, who played for the Gopher basketball team and is now head coach of the Timberwolves. When he got his first coaching job at Golden Valley Lutheran College, I told him I would love to be an assistant coach. In the fall of 1977, while still a student at the University, I became his assistant. We won the conference all three years I was there, and my confidence continued to build.
While I was a student at the University of Minnesota, I was active in disability issues. I attended a National Paraplegic Foundation meeting, where I met a nursing instructor who asked me to speak to her students about disabilities. I did that, then started giving talks at local public schools. I loved it. Since then, Ive given more than 4,000 presentations to schools and organizations throughout the country.
I got my bachelors degree in community health education in 1980. I had planned to teach health but didnt know if I could handle a classroom, so I took a job selling modified vans. Then, in 1986, I took a part-time job at Honeywell and continued to speak at schools. Speaking was what I really liked to do, so when I was laid off in 1987, I decided to make this a career.
I incorporated Patrick Communications in February 1987 and got a long-term contract with Honeywells Defense Systems to teach an affirmative action class. I also did a little work on a video about accessibility that was funded by the special education division of the Minnesota Department of Education. I met with the head of the division and left 20 minutes later with a four-year grant. The first year, they wanted me to speak to 30,000 students at 100 schools. I actually spoke to just under 75,000 students at 190 schools.
My program is called "Think About It." I try to get people to think. My message is that the problem isnt the issue; the issue is how you deal with the problem. If you break your neck, thats not important. What is important is how you deal with it. If your boyfriend is trying to get you to have sex, what are you going to do about it? If your friends are trying to get you to do drugs, what are you going to do about it? If youre 30 and your spouse takes the kids and leaves, what are you going to do about it? Over the years, Ive dealt with all kinds of problems: I lost a kidney, have had respiratory tract problems, and have a pacemaker. On average, Im in the hospital every 18 months, but Ive learned how to deal with it.
Ive also developed a three-part video series with the same message. Its called "Tough Decisions: A Teenage Dilemma" and has a companion guide that health teachers use to interact with their students and to help them make well-reasoned and logical decisions. In 1992, the serieswhich addresses teenage suicide, sexuality, chemical abuse, and family problemswon the Minnesota Community Television Program award in the education category. Its now being shown on three continents.
Over the years, Ive given presentations to half a million people in 14 states. This is my therapy. I still wish the accident had never happened, but Im realistic about it.
My life today is good. I live in Minneapolis and travel all over the country. I love speaking, and about 20 years ago I discovered photography. I have two cameras that Ive adapted so I can push the shutter with my jaws. I shoot for artistic value. My favorite subject is the IDS Tower, because it has so many lines, and I like shooting old barns. In fact, one of my barn photographs won a second place award at the Sister Kenny Art Show a few years ago and is now hanging all over the country.
When Christopher Reeve took a header off that horse a few years ago, people started to take notice of spinal cord injuries. Researchers think they have discovered an inhibitor that will allow regrowth of the spinal cord nerves and are close to conducting human experimentation. For the past 28 years, Ive been saying Im going to walk again, but I know its not going to happen tomorrow. In the meantime, I know Im making a difference. I know why Im here.
Reprinted with permission of Minnesota, the magazine of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association.
Photograph courtesy of Mark Luinenburg