I refuse to go to bed until I re-write today’s story, hopefully I will not do anything stupid to lose it at the end like i did a few hours ago….. so here goes.

I was continuing my story about the two quadriplegic patients Ralph and Tony. but before I continue with their stories let me tell you what Quadriplegia means. It means no use of all 4 extremities (arms & legs), although some patients have some movement in their arms or fingers. Quads usually have little or no feeling in their bodies below the level of their spinal cord injury… most quads can have some feeling in their upper chest area and partial to full feeling in their shoulder and neck areas, with full feeling in their face and head. Their minds, hearts and souls are working at the same level as before the injury.

Thanks to Dr. Rusk being the pioneer in the formation of a new Medical Treatment called Rehabilitation Medicine with the Doctor of Physical Medicine as the leader of the team of professionals. Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy, Activities of Daily Living, Vocational Counseling, Speech Therapy, Recreational Therapy, Social Work, Psychology and Psychiatry.
All 10 disciplines met to review the progress of patients on a month to month basis. at the end of the meeting the goals for the patient would be determined and spelled out clearly for the next month until the decision was made that the patient was ready for discharge… Upon discharge some patients would continue as Outpatients, others might get therapy in their homes and some patients may have to be discharged to a long term facility or nursing home if they had no support system to go home to.
now back to Ralph & Tony. His sessions with me got off to a good start as he was eager to have someone to talk to that he felt comfortable with and trusting enough to discuss his feelings as he was only 19 years old and had to deal with his becoming a quadriplegic in a matter of seconds.This is what he told me in our first session. He had just graduated high school and was playing baseball in the Jersey Shore League before going on to college(baseball scholarship) in Florida, (sound familiar to you). It was the final game of the season. Ralph was the catcher for his team and when the batter hit the ball the runner on 3rd base tried to score and he sped up real fast and crashed into Ralph. The violent collision snapped Ralph’s head back and the violent whiplash injured his spinal cord which paralyzed him in an instant… He didn’t know it at the time but the life he lived for his first 19 years was over, and since he survived the trauma, he would have to begin a whole new life as a quadriplegic…. It was my job to help him to go through the emotional process to come to terms with his new life as best he could.

To understand the emotional process that these patients go through, it is a similar process that we all go through with the sudden loss of a loved one. Some of the feelings are shock, denial, anger, bargaining,depression, and acceptance. Where the physically challenged patients differ with those who have died is that instead of acceptance, most patients believe that to get on with their lives they do so by “adjusting” to the disability because acceptance means to them that it’s ok to be disabled and to the end of their lives, they never feel that it’s ok.

So as their daily classes began they both learned how to function from a wheelchair….because Tony had partial use of his arms and the palms of his hands, he was able to learn to use a manual wheelchair. Ralph on the other hand, had a more challenging road ahead of him, as he had no use of his arms or hands, he had to learn how to use a sip and puff motorized wheelchair.with his arms resting on a lap board to help with his balance….. he controlled the chairs movement by using the straw tube which he sipped up or puffed into. That was in 1974, today’s chairs use voice control…..Rehab has come a long way since the 70’s.

So once they learned to use their wheelchairs, they were able to take their first step towards independence as they would come to know it in a whole new way… they now could meet me for their therapy sessions in my office….or on a warm beautiful day in a private area of the outdoor garden.
My work with Ralph and Tony was made easier for me due to the teachings of my professors at Columbia…. because they taught me that “we are not responsible for the thoughts that come into our heads or the feelings we feel inside of us, ..we are “only” responsible for how we handle and how we act out or not act out our thoughts and feelings…. so in therapy it’s the ACTIONS that the patients are accountable for not the hidden thoughts and feelings……. once I told my patients that, they then felt “free” and their hidden thoughts and feelings were not hidden from me any longer. I would also make sure to tell them that I am not here to judge them….. I leave the judging to a higher power….. but I am here to help them verbalize the thoughts and feelings and to help them look at what all their “options” are….. sometimes their wanting to die rather then live this way and that would sometimes lead to thoughts of suicide. When suicidal thoughts and feelings came up I would make it a point to say that given the situation that they were in, now that they are paralyzed it was “perfectly normal” to have those thoughts and feelings… that doesn’t mean that they are “crazy” or have a mental illness… There is nothing wrong with your mind, I would tell them… many times patients would refuse to see a psychotherapist because they would say, “I know my body is f–k’d up now but no one is gonna tell me my mind is f–k’d up too! ……and I would assure them that their mind was definitely NOT f–k’d up but that I believed they needed emotional support to deal with “what comes next, now that they survived the incident that paralyzed them.

Ralph worked hard in therapy to go through the emotional process to adjust to his spinal cord injury, mourn the loss of who he used to be, and begin to work towards what he would do once he left Rusk.

Ralph was not only very smart and emotionally well put together (even though he cried a lot in our sessions and I had to wipe the tears from his eyes), he also had an excellent support system. His parents loved him dearly and they did all they could to make life more bearable for him…his sister and her husband also loved him dearly and would do anything for him as his other relatives and friends would as well…. Ralph had a very likable personality and a strong desire to live a productive life…. after discharge, he completed his college education (don’t ask me how, as that would take a book in itself), became a high school social worker and the high school basketball coach. I had the opportunity to go to one of his high school basketball games. To see him in action, to see how the players responded to his coaching was all the assurance I needed that I was able to make a difference in his life just like others did to my life…….
…….. at this point in the story was when I lost what I had written earlier tonight….. so I will try to be real careful now as it’s almost midnight and I have to go to sleep soon…..

….it was so frustrating to me that I lost 2 hours of writing in one second…. but in my moment of despair, my son contacted me and somehow he was able to get the phone number of Ralph’s sister….. I called the number, told her who I was and she recognized me immediately, then I thought her husband got on the line, but to my pleasant surprise it was Ralph himself….. we spoke for almost an hour with him telling me how thankful and grateful he was for all the help I had given him that inspired him to go to college, become a high school counselor and coach. He then told me he studied and became a “motivational speaker” and finally retired in 2008, the same year I retired! he now lives with his sister and her family in southern New Jersey. I told him he was the one who made his life successful and meaningful, all I did was guide him but he did all the hard work and emotionally painful work to have such a meaningful and rewarding life….. we then went back in time and talked about when he was a patient at Rusk in 1974 and the other patients that he bonded with during his stay there.

So thanks to my son, I got to meet up with Ralph again after over 40 years of losing contact with each other….. when my son later asked me how come we lost contact…. I told him that when I left the high school gym, walking on air, feeling so proud of what Ralph had gone on to do with his life…I realized my job was done with Ralph……I watched him soar like an Eagle and he had no need to lean on me anymore for support…. He was his own man now. I polished up a piece of coal and Ralph turned it into the “Hope Diamond”

Tomorrow I will tell Tony’s story and maybe a few other patients too, if I have enough time…. until I started to write these daily stories, I didn’t realize the incredible life that I have led…..it’s amazing me as I write them.

Read the next post Taking Stock Day 41.