Thursday, May 13, 2010

The House That Jack's Friends Built

This is the House That Jack’s Friends Built

A few weeks ago in our Sunday School class I was teaching a lesson about the healing miracles of Jesus, using the Gospel of Mark as our primary source. As usual, the poor members of our class were at my mercy as I always select the content we will consider.  The scriptures to be discussed invariably exceed the amount of class time available.  This particular Sunday I chose to spend some time with Jesus' healing of a paralyzed man in Capernaum -- Peter and Andrew's hometown.  The story is well known and is found in Mark 2:1-12.  For some reason Mark's account of the healing of the paralyzed man is one of my favorite healing incidents recorded in the New Testament.  I wonder why? 

News spread like wildfire that Jesus was in town.  His reputation had preceded him and the home he was in was thronged with a multitude of people making it impossible to even get near the door.  The paralyzed man had four friends that took him on a stretcher to the home, attached ropes to the stretcher and hauled the man up to the roof top, broke open the roof, and lowered him down at the very feet of Jesus.  I like to think that the Savior had a smile on his face as he witnessed the ingenuity and faith displayed by these four men in behalf of their paralyzed friend.  Jesus healed the paralyzed man who eventually left the home -- and in my mind's eye I can see the five of them walking arm in arm down the dusty lane -- undoubtedly rejoicing in the great miracle that they had participated in and witnessed.  They must have talked about this Jesus and who he really was to be able to have performed such a mighty miracle.  Perhaps however, the greatest miracle of all was the miracle of faith, love, kindness, and compassion, exhibited by four friends that brought the paralyzed man to the feet of Jesus so he could be healed.

My focus on this incident is perhaps a bit different from what many others would stress, which would be the faith of these men and the great healing power of Jesus.  To me it is all of that, but also so much more. It is a wonderful and inspiring story of love, kindness, compassion, and friendship, involving four unnamed men and their paralyzed friend.  I have thought that if Jesus were to come to our "village," I have friends with faith and ingenuity that would get me to the feet of the Savior so that I could be healed, whatever effort it might take on their part. 

Having been the recipient of countless acts of kindness and compassion myself during so many years, I have a little feeling for how the now healed paralyzed man must have felt toward his four friends and the Savior.

Our home is a two story plan with all of the bedrooms upstairs. After the accident, Jo Anne felt that the only thing we could do under the circumstances was to sell the home and find a one level plan that would more adequately meet our needs. As she expressed this thought to some friends, they told her that they would never allow us to move.  Paul Colby and Gary Anderson, who live in our same neighborhood and are members of our church, proposed to Jo Anne that we build an addition onto our home.  They were both builders and fine craftsmen and had many friends who also were carpenters and builders.  They told Jo Anne that they were going to build an addition and that most of the materials would be provided as well as the labor.  We were touched by this demonstration of love and concern.  A fund raising project resulted in sufficient funds being raised to pay for the materials not donated to complete the addition, as well as buy a new modified van that I could travel in. It has always been like a miracle to me to think of this outpouring of love and support from so many people.  I will be grateful to them forever.

 In early December of 1989, Gary drew up the plans for a 750 sq. ft. addition that would include a special bedroom to meet my needs, as well as a unique office designed around my wheelchair, besides a large dining room that connected the two.  Gary hurriedly submitted the plans for a building permit as I was scheduled to be released at the end of January, 1990. That gave the men just six weeks to build the entire addition.  They were determined to get the job done so that I could be released on the appointed day.

Gary, anxious to know if the plans had been approved, finally went in person to see what the hold up was. No one was aware of them.  Gary explained to the man in charge the situation. After locating the plans on the bottom of a large stack of unapproved plans, the man  signed the permit on the spot. Therefore, on a beautiful Saturday morning, men and boys showed up in our back yard and with picks and shovels and began digging the footings for the foundation of the new addition.

Jo Anne would bring reports to the hospital, including video recordings of the progress of the undertaking.  A great spirit of love and unity developed among those who worked so hard and selflessly to complete this addition so that I could come home.  The women also worked alongside the men and provided many meals for those who were laboring to meet the deadline.

Finally, the day came for my release and homecoming.  To take me home, Jo Anne borrowed an old modified van that I was able to ride in.  Unbeknown to me, all those who had built the addition to our home, as well as many friends from our neighborhood and church, gathered to welcome me home.  I knew none of this was taking place and assumed that it would just be a very quiet event. 

Jo Anne had called ahead to let everyone know the approximate time of our arrival.  A reporter and photographer from the local newspaper were there to cover the event.  As we turned onto our street I saw it lined with friends of all ages holding banners that read “Welcome Home” and “We Love You” Murl Nelson, a close friend and musician, had his drums set up on the front lawn and was accompanying my mother-in-law who was singing “To Dream the Impossible Dream”, and “You’re Home Again Jack”, to the tune of “On the Road Again”.

Gary Anderson and Paul Colby and the other participants in building the addition could hardly wait to show it to me.  Gary pushed me around the side of the house where a wide cement walk had been poured to accommodate my wheelchair.  To me it looked as big as the Santa Ana Freeway.  As I rounded the corner I truly was amazed at what I saw.  The addition was just spectacular.  The entire back of the house was filled with windows to let in the light.  The door to the addition had not yet arrived so a temporary door was in place.  It had written on it the following, “The House That Jack’s Friends Built!”  Everyone who had helped signed their names below those words.  I have never been so overwhelmed and touched as I was at that moment.  To think of the love that had gone into the building of this beautiful structure was just amazing to me.

It was like a big party as Gary pushed me inside the house to show me each room and all they had done to meet my new needs.  Kids were looking through the windows, adults were visiting and walking about, and there was a festive feeling in the air.  I was overcome by my feelings of love and gratitude for my family and friends.  I will never be able to repay them for what they have done for me.  It is largely because of their support that I believe I have been able to deal with my situation in a positive way.  I know they will always be greatly blessed for this act of kindness and love.

 As time has gone by, I have come to appreciate more and more what my friends did in putting this addition onto the back of our home.  Good friends are not easy to come by, and my friends have meant everything to me.  Most of my life is spent in these three rooms that my friends built.  A day doesn’t go by that I am not reminded of their love and willingness to serve as I look around me.  This addition has such a beautiful spirit in it--the spirit of love, of sacrifice, and of pure service. 

"And they come unto him, bringing one sick of the palsy, which was borne of four."  [Mark 2: 3]

Perhaps a worthy goal in all of our lives would be to be one of the "four" who made sure their paralyzed friend was given the opportunity to come under the healing influence of Christ.  No one will ever know the feelings of joy and gratitude that must have filled the heart of the healed, formerly paralyzed man, toward his friends and the Savior.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Human Need to Communicate

It was dark when the ambulance transporting me to the Mission Viejo Trauma Center came to a stop outside the emergency area.  The doors to the back of the ambulance swung open and I was carefully lifted out on the gurney.  As someone pushed, others walked along beside carrying the apparatus that was pumping air into my lungs. The breath tube which was hanging from the side of my mouth was dragging my lip downward and had become extremely uncomfortable and painful.  But more than that, it kept me from speaking.  I felt helpless and vulnerable laying flat on my back, unable to move or speak, only seeing ceilings and faces.   The paramedics sped me through various corridors on my way to the intensive care unit.

  ICU seemed cold and sterile with all the hospital beds lined in a row, being only divided by drawn curtains.  My ears were sensitive to all the strange noises made by various machines that seemed to echo in the dimly lit room.  Of course, the machine next to my bed, keeping rhythm with my breathing, seemed to be the loudest.  I wondered how long I would have to be attached to it?  Perhaps tomorrow or the next day this tube would be removed and I would be able to talk. Then the thought came flooding into my mind: “Would I ever breathe on my own again?  If not, surely I would die.  How does one live and not be able to breathe?    How does one live and not speak?  Would I want to live if I couldn’t talk or teach?   Oh, Lord, please let me wake up from this awful dream!”

Later the next afternoon I learned the awful truth.  I was going to surgery to have a tracheotomy so I could breathe from a machine for the rest of my life.  A little different from having your appendix or gall bladder removed, I thought. When I woke up from the procedure, it was with great relief that I realized the annoying tubes from my mouth were gone Instead, I was wearing a special neckband with velcro straps and rubber bands which held in place all the tubes and hoses that connected me to the mechanical ventilator by my bed.  Little did I comprehend at that point that all of this apparatus would become a permanent part of my existence. In and out. In and out it went.   It had a steady rhythm as I received my 12 breaths per minute. The term “pull the plug” took on new meaning for me.

 Although the implantation of the trach tube made breathing much more comfortable, the system had it drawbacks. Neither on inhalation or exhalation did it allow the airflow to pass through the vocal cords - thus preventing normal vocalization.  With the tubes from my mouth gone, I began mouthing simple words.  Trying to comfort Jo Anne, I mouthed, “I love you!” and, “I’m okay.” As needs approached, I tried to mouth other words as well and was grateful family and friends could at least read simple statements.

With the new breakthrough in communication, the family came up with some different eye signals that would allow me to answer with more options than yes or no.  Up to this point, I had just been blinking once for yes and twice for no.  It was decided that if I rolled my eyes upward to the right, that meant yes.  If I rolled them upward to the left, that meant no.  Down right meant, I don’t know, and down left meant, maybe.  I don’t know how we ever kept that straight.  I’m confused just writing about it.  Anyway, it seemed to work pretty good for those who knew about it. 

One evening our Church leader who had been helping Jo Anne with all of her needs, came to visit me and had not been told of the change of the eye code from blinking to rolling.  As he approached the hospital bed he began asking me questions such as – “You must be excited to see Mike and Jo Lene home from college?”  I replied by rolling my eyes upward to the right for yes.  He expected me to blink them once for yes and interpreted my rolling my eyes as feeling very discouraged.  He continued to ask me positive questions to which I responded yes and he took it as one usually might when someone rolls their eyes at them.  He was very relieved when he learned about the new eye code and realized I wasn’t as discouraged as he thought.

Ron Wilson, a commercial artist and good friend, finally devised a series of charts that could be shown me and through the use of my eyes I could communicate to others what my needs were.  It was so clever and useful that I could even indicate which scriptures I wanted read to me. Ron also went out and bought a little combination radio and tape player.  This way I could listen to live ball games or beautiful music.

Because of Ron’s chart, I was able to let Jo Anne know that I did not want to be left alone during the night. There were always people during the day, but at night I would become very anxious.  So a group of men from our Church worked out a schedule in which there would always be someone with me every night.  These wonderful men would sit by my side through the long hours of the night and would read to me when I was unable to sleep.  One man, sensing my uneasiness in the early morning hours, had a beautiful voice and would softly sing familiar hymns that I loved so much.

  Even though I was able to communicate a few of my feelings and needs to my family, as the days turned into a few weeks, not being given any hope that I would ever speak again, I wondered if I would be able to deal with this on a long term basis.  How could I possibly live under these circumstances?   Although I could not vocally pray as I usually did, my silent prayers were heard. Struggling with my new circumstances in those long days and nights in the ICU, the same impression came into my mind  time and time again as it on previous occasions in my life – “Be still and know that I am God.”

Although I did not know if I would ever walk or breathe again, and lead a normal life, I knew that somehow, ultimately, everything would be okay. Never the less, I experienced mixed emotions as I laid in my hospital bed, day after day, listening to the noise of the large ventilator next to my bed pumping the breath of life into my lungs,   I couldn’t believe I would have to live the rest of my life like this, yet I was grateful for it at the same time. Me and the vent were like Siamese twins—joined at the hip – or at the throat I should say.  I would never go anywhere without it for the rest of my life.

After being two weeks in the ICU Trauma Center, I was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital.  Upon my arrival, the doctor deflated a small balloon in my trachea allowing some air to go by the vocal cords. With a cuffed trach this small balloon type device is usually always inflated so no air can escape between the ventilator and the lungs making breathing easier for the patient.  Once deflated, with great difficulty I was able to speak to Jo Anne for the first time. In a very weak and hoarse voice, I told her I loved her and teasingly added to get me a bean burrito as I was tired of the feeding tube. Periodically, if I felt strong enough, the doctor would repeat this procedure allowing me to say a few words to whomever might be with me.

  As my health improved, about 6 weeks after my arrival, they traded out my cuffed trach for a cuffless trach which had no balloon device at all.  This allowed the air to pass by my vocal cords each time the vent delivered oxygen to my lungs.  So after 8 weeks of not being able to talk I was finally able to announce, “My name is Jack.  I broke my back.”  I even smiled, as did those around me, at my first attempt at speaking. As joyful as I was however, it wasn’t normal speech.  There would always be a long pause mid sentence. It made for bad joke telling as I always had to wait for the next breath to come before I could finish what I was saying. Teaching and public speaking seemed like it would be a thing of the past.

As I grew accustomed to speaking on a vent, the speech therapist introduced me to the Pass-Muir Speaking Valve. It was a miracle.  It had only been invented 5 years before I was injured by a young man with muscular dystrophy. He designed this small, round, one way valve (which is inserted into the breathing hose on the outside of the neck) so that the air on its way out of my lungs would be forced up through the vocal cords and through the mouth and nasal cavities. In a sense my head became a wind tunnel.  However, I could speak on the inhale and exhale.  “Jack is back,” I said with great hopes of at least speaking normally.  Although the speaking valve took some adjustment, it paved the way for a functional and productive life while living on a ventilator.

I know that one of the most frustrating and terrifying experience  a person can have is not being able to communicate, and because of it, to not get the help or reassurance needed to be comforted and at peace.  The Lord gives little babies the ability to cry—the only way they can communicate their needs. 

A universal life saving technique all patients on ventilators learn when unable to speak and needing help is to click their tongue in hopes some one will hear them and come to their rescue. One afternoon while I was working on the computer in my office, my hose came dislodged from my throat and landed on my chest and the machine mistook it as still working and the alarm did not go off.  I began clicking my tongue  with all my might. Jo Anne and the girls were cooking in the kitchen and did not hear me.  However, our little dog, Poco, who looked like the Taco Bell commercials, came running into my office.  He sensed my danger and ran into the kitchen barking till Jo Anne came and saw my predicament and reattached my ventilator hose in time for me to still be alive to tell the tale.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Breathtaking Necktie

I love the Christmas season for many reasons.  One thing I enjoy is going to church and seeing the astonishing array of holiday neckties worn by the men and boys.  I have always been intrigued by neckties—who invented them, why do we wear them, and what purpose do they serve?  I used to have quite a collection myself that I enjoyed wearing, but many years ago I traded them all in for just one “breathtaking necktie” that I wear daily. It became a permanent part of my attire following my body surfing accident.

This breathtaking necktie connects me to my mechanical ventilator which pumps 12 breaths of air into my lungs per minute. I love every one of them.  Without this necktie that connects me to my life support system I would not be here.

Over the past years since my accident, my life support has failed me several times.  All but one of those times, Jo Anne has been able to bring me back from a state of unconsciousness without getting the medical world involved by using the “trusty Ambu bag” on me.  By squeezing it, she pumps life saving oxygen into my lungs. She does this over and over again until I come back from the dead (so it seems) and reconnects me to a back up ventilator or has managed to get the one I was on working again.

 The one time Jo Anne could not revive me, I was in a coma for eight hours requiring the assistance of police, paramedics, and hard-working ER/ICU professionals, accompanied by much prayer. I have no recollection of what happened before I went into the coma. When I finally awoke in the hospital the last thing I could recall doing was eating a hot dog at Costco. Was it the Costco hotdog that almost "done me in?" Although I don't seem to enjoy them as nearly as much as I used to, Costco will be relieved to know it wasn't a tainted hotdog that nearly killed me, but a malfunction of my life support system.

It is a humbling experience to absolutely know—not in theory, but in actual fact—that if you are disconnected from your life support that death will quickly follow within a few short minutes. I am no medical doctor and have not researched the subject, but I would imagine that most people die because they quit breathing. Let me share with you another episode that I remember in vivid detail.

One evening, a few years ago, Jo Anne and I went out to dinner with our good friends.  We went to a Mexican restaurant where the food is usually pretty good.  My taquitos this night, however, were buried in some kind of red sauce which made them soggy and mushy and hard for me to get down.  It turned out not to be my favorite dinner, but the company was enjoyable and salvaged the evening.

We got home about 8:30 p.m. and Jo Anne set me up on the TV in my bedroom to watch the Dodgers/Arizona Diamondbacks baseball game which was in about the sixth inning.  The score was tied at two runs each and a warm feeling began to swell within me that perhaps this evening the Dodgers would not snatch defeat from the jaws of victory as they so typically do.  I had watched but a short time when the Arizona Diamondbacks began to hit everything the Dodger pitchers were "throwing up" to the plate.  Before I knew it, the score was five to two in favor of the Diamondbacks with two men on base.  At that very moment I heard a very loud screeching noise, like a high-pitched siren, and my ventilator went completely dead. 

In the many years I had been on a ventilator, I had never heard that noise before, nor had my ventilator ever just quit working without any warning.  I, of course, panicked when I realized I wasn't breathing, but then tried to be very positive in my mind thinking that Jo Anne would rush into the room any second, discover the problem, and get me breathing once again.  I waited but she didn't come -- and she didn't come -- and she didn't come!  I then entered into a state of resignation knowing that she was not coming and that I would soon be entering the spirit world. 

The sad thing about the entire experience is that as I began to enter the twilight zone -- half alive and half dead -- I was still watching the baseball game.  Just as I was slipping into unconsciousness, an Arizona Diamondback hit a three-run home run over the deepest part of centerfield off of Joe Biemel, a journeyman left-handed relief pitcher that nobody but the Dodgers wanted.  In the foggy recesses of my mind came the voice of Vince Scully saying, "And now the score is eight to two in favor of the Diamondbacks."  What a way to go into the spirit world I thought; a bad Mexican dinner in my stomach and the Dodgers being hammered by the hated Diamondbacks. 

The next thing I remember, Jo Anne was standing over me weeping and hollering at me while trying to get me to come back.  All I knew is that I needed more air and was saying as loud as I could, "Bag me!  Bag me!" Awakening out of my catatonic state, I did not realize she was doing just that with the Ambu bag with all of her heart while trying to dial 911 at the same time.  The more she bagged, the more the life came back to me, and she was soon able to move my wheelchair over to the bedside where she hooked me up to my backup ventilator that I use at night.  How long I had been out I have no idea, but I so easily could have slipped into the spirit world and it would not have been a painful experience except for the memory of a bad Mexican dinner and the Dodgers/Diamondbacks game.

I know of no more humbling thing than not being able to breathe.  When you can't breathe, nothing else matters at all!

Recently I was visiting a good friend of mine who has been in the hospital and on life support for a few months due to an accident.  As we were visiting, his respiratory therapist came in the room and saw me.  He was amazed when he learned I had been ventilator dependent for 20 years.  He told me that for many years he had worked with a number of young men on life support and that most of them had not lived more than a” couple of years.  He was astonished at my quality of life.  Talking to this respirator therapist and his reaction to me, made me realize how fortunate I am to still be here.

 I have often referred to my situation as “living on the edge.” Each time I have a “brush with death,” I consider it another incredible wake-up call.  With every encounter I have reinforced into my mind and heart how precious the gift of life is and how quickly it can be taken from us.  For me comes renewed motivation to live each day as though it were my last.  I also notice that Jo Anne treats me a little better – at least for a while. 

There are times I have felt and been tempted to just vegetate and take it easy.  After all, who could blame a poor paralyzed man on life support for doing that?  Thankfully, I have realized that coasting requires little effort and is usually down hill. I have come to understand that dying is easy—it is the living that is hard and demanding.  Also feelings of gratitude have welled up in my heart for the love I have felt from God, and my family and friends.  Family and friends have said things to me that are usually reserved for one’s funeral service.  I am grateful to have heard them while still alive though, because I do believe it is better to be seen and spoken to than to be “viewed” and talked about.

My rather unique situation has helped me to understand and appreciate the truthfulness of what Jesus taught his apostles just before going into the Garden of Gethsemane that night of nights as recorded by John. "I AM the true vine...Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me... I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing."  [John 15: 1-5, emphasis added]

I believe John recorded very accurately what the Lord said to the apostles on that occasion.  Jesus didn't just say he was "the vine", but that he was the "true vine."  The implication is that there are other vines we can attach ourselves to -- false philosophies, precepts, organizations and etc. -- but unless we attach ourselves to the "true vine" we will not be able to bring forth "much fruit."  As the Savior said "... the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine."  Unless we are attached to our spiritual life support -- Christ -- we can do nothing!"

I am convinced that in a spiritual sense we are as dependent on Christ each minute and hour of the day for our spiritual life support as I am totally dependent upon my electrical and mechanical life support system to keep me alive physically. I know with a sure knowledge that if I detach myself from the "true vine" that unhappiness, depression, and despair will surely follow.


Hit the Ball and Drag Jack

As you can imagine, my injury has brought about a significant change in my relationship with Jo Anne. I like to compare our new relationship with that which existed between two golfers. Early one morning Jack's friend took him out golfing. It began to get late and the friend's wife began to get worried about her husband and Jack. Finally, she heard his car coming into the driveway and ran out to meet him. He was disheveled and looked exhausted. His wife wanted to know why he had been gone so long and he said, "Well, on the first hole, Jack had a heart attack and all day long it was hit the ball and drag Jack!" That pretty much illustrates our lifestyle and marriage relationship. Jo Anne hits the ball and drags me around.

 A while back I foolishly let Jo Anne talk me into buying a new modified van—ha,ha. We aren't rich -- just stupid I suppose. Not knowing my life expectancy I told her I would like to go out in style when it was my time. She thought it was a very good idea. I must admit however, I was a tad disappointed she agreed so readily to any plan I had regarding my demise.

In our new van, we seem to float effortlessly, and silently I might add, down the freeway. In our old van, as we drove down the same freeway, it was like traveling in a noisy, creaking, covered wagon with iron rims on the wheels, and no shocks.

Our new van is the fourth one we have purchased since my accident. Thankfully, each one has been a little bit better than the one that preceded it. These are modified minivans with a ramp that automatically lowers itself out of the side of the van when the door is opened. Jo Anne then backs up my wheelchair into the van and locks it into place next to the driver's seat.

The first three vans had a suspension system that was extremely unreliable. It consisted of airbags which, at the most inopportune moment, would pop and make it impossible to drive the van. We never felt confident we would make it to our destination without having a problem. On one occasion traveling from Las Vegas to Southern California, one of the airbags exploded just outside of Barstow, California. Jo Anne was able to maneuver the van to the nearest off ramp and to a fast food restaurant, which was the first establishment we came to. While our youngest daughter, Jackie, watched over me, Jo Anne began the arduous and frustrating process of trying to get the van repaired. Because of my physical condition and size of my wheelchair, it is impossible for me to be transported about in just any ordinary vehicle, so I'm not good for much in these kinds of situations. Nobody in Barstow knew anything about how to fix these modified minivans, but the company in Arizona which modified the van finally agreed to pay for us to be taken to Southern California with all of us sitting up high on the back of a tow truck. I must admit it was the safest trip I felt we ever took in that van for a number of reasons -- one of the biggest was that Jo Anne wasn't driving. Thankfully, our newest van has a wonderful suspension system and we actually feel we have a good chance to reach our destinations without having a harrowing and dangerous experience.

A while back Jo Anne loaded me into our new van and we drove over to the neighborhood car wash.  I always have mixed feelings when we go to get the van all spruced up by our Hispanic brothers.  I'm happy that the van is going to look so nice, but there is also a definite downside to the experience for me.  When we get to the giant vacuum cleaners that emit a sound similar to that of a wild and tempestuous tornado, Jo Anne lets the ramp down, guides me carefully to earth, and then the humiliation begins.  She takes the larger-than-life vacuum hose and begins vacuuming me and my wheelchair.  I always hope nobody will be around to observe the spectacle, but inevitably a few curious onlookers gather around to see whether I will get sucked up into the giant vacuum tank along with the other dirt and debris.  The thing that kind of bothers me the most is that they seem to enjoy watching me suffer, and I even suspect they are making bets as to whether Jo Anne is going to send me through the car wash as well. 

This particular day after I had been thoroughly cleansed by the "Moby" vacuum cleaner and the van was all shiny and clean, I started driving my chair toward it anxious to be welcomed into its safe environs and away from public scrutiny.  I was going about as fast as my chair would go and when I gave it the command to stop, it didn't stop!  I was helpless, panicked, but could do nothing to save myself, and worst of all, my shiny new van.  I hit the passenger side front door full blast.  There was a sickening, wrenching, noise.  The right leg rest on my wheelchair was crushed and fell to the ground; of course my leg was all bruised up but not being able to feel anything that was the last thing I was thinking about right then.  The only thought in my mind was, "What have I done to my van?"

Well, it could have been worse -- I had just left a big mark on the door that looked like the mark of Zorro.  I was relieved it was not worse but it was the first ding on the new van and wouldn't you know I was the one that put it there.

One of our best friends is Tony, the car body repair man. He always has a big smile on his face when we drive up -- I wonder why? I hate to admit it but we have given him lots of business over the years. I am not bragging, but in 20 years the only damage I have done to our vans was at the car wash that day. All the business we have brought Tony's way has resulted from Jo Anne's unique brand of driving by the braille system.

It is always a great adventure having Jo Anne drag me about in our van. Just think of being paralyzed from the neck down, sitting right next to the driver's seat, unable to cover your eyes or face with your hands, or protect yourself in any way. Every lane change on the freeway is a heart stopping experience. It got so bad I had to have a pacemaker implanted in my heart to survive our excursions.

Now, I have a lot of patience and am quite a pleasant person to be around most of the time, but Jo Anne's driving can at times get the best of me. We were driving along in a peaceful neighborhood one day looking for an address when she made a dangerous maneuver that about cost us our lives. The natural man got the best of me and I barked at her. She looked at me with a hurt and pained expression on her face and said, "Ronald Reagan would never have talked to Nancy that way." I agreed with her, but then added that Nancy probably never drove the way she did.

One time we were late in arriving at a speaking engagement. Jo Anne was going at least 40 mph as we entered the parking lot and didn't notice the huge speed bump. We hit it hard; I came up out of my wheelchair, hit my head on the ceiling, both of my shoes came off, and as I came back down I almost slid out of my wheelchair. Two young teenagers were standing there watching the entertainment and Jo Anne enlisted their help to hoist me back up into the chair.

One afternoon Jo Anne borrowed our youngest son's old Toyota to drive over to the local market to buy some things. Our son's car was banged up, dents everywhere, and not pleasant to look at. In the parking lot Jo Anne made some interesting maneuver, almost hit the car of another driver who rolled his window down and hollered at her, "Hey lady, no wonder your car looks like that!"

However, it does add some zest and excitement to my life to be dragged about in our van. I think all of us enjoy taking a ride and having that kind of mobility. Recently, an Amish man wrote me a letter. Somehow he had read about me in Pennsylvania and wanted to tell me about his situation. He is the father of nine children and several years ago he rented a minivan and a driver to take them on a longer trip than feasible with their traditional horse and buggy. An unfortunate accident occurred as they were coming home and his little nine-month-old daughter lost her life and he was injured like me. The Amish community gave consent for him to bring electricity into his home so that he could be on a ventilator. They also permitted him to purchase a computer with voice recognition software which he uses as a typewriter. He doesn't use the Internet at all. In his letter he described how his buggy had been modified with a plywood ramp that drops out of the back of the buggy so he can drive his wheelchair up and into that conveyance. In my mind's eye I can see this wonderful Amish quadriplegic on life support being pulled about in his modified horse and buggy.

When you can't do anything on your own and are mobility impaired, what a joy it is to be married to someone like Jo Anne who is willing to hit the ball and drag Jack.


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lucky Man

I have noticed over the years that when the Mega Million Lottery reaches over $200 million without anyone winning it, people begin to get a little crazy. The local TV news show lines of people outside their neighborhood liquor stores impatiently waiting to buy fistfuls of lottery tickets with their hard earned money in the hopes they will be "lucky" enough to strike it rich. The odds of winning the lottery are one in millions I would imagine, but hope springs eternal.

 As I was watching the news the other day, the on-the-scene reporter was interviewing some of the folks in line asking them what they would do with the money if they were to win the jackpot. I thought one fellow in particular was representative of many of those in line by his response. He basically said that if he were "lucky" enough to win the lottery, he would party for two weeks, quit his job, buy homes and cars and a beautiful luxurious yacht so he could cruise through life living happily ever after.

The thought occurred to me, "Would one be truly "lucky" to win the lottery? Would one be "lucky" to have all the money in the world and be able to live on easy street forever?" You can probably guess what I think.

Looking in the dictionary I found a number of definitions for the word "lucky." One definition was,"Lucky stresses the agency of chance when bringing about a favorable result." However, the synonym I found so meaningful is: "Providential" -- which means meeting with unforeseen success, but more definitely implies the help or intervention of a higher power." [Merriam Webster online dictionary]

I think the lottery mentality is aptly described by the first definition of "lucky." In other words, it is strictly by chance that they will win mega millions and live happily ever after. Let me explain why the “providential” definition appeals to me.

Following my body surfing accident, I spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit at the Regional Trauma Center. The day finally came when I was to be transferred to a rehabilitation hospital which was to become my home for the next six months. As I was being rolled on a gurney to the back of the ambulance, a nurse was pumping air into my lungs using a hand held ambu bag.  It is a device that looks like a football and one end is attached to the tracheostomy tube which has surgically been placed in one’s throat as an airway to the lungs.  It is used when one is not attached to the ventilator or if the ventilator should fail. As I lay there, unable to speak or move any part of my body while air was being hand pumped into my lungs, another nurse which had spent a great deal of time caring for me, looked at Jo Anne and said, "Mrs. Rushton, your husband is a lucky man.” As Jo Anne looked at her in disbelief, she went on to say, "You don't understand what I'm saying just now, but your husband is a lucky man because he will get to experience a part of life that very few do and he will be a better man because of it.”

Although not understood at the time by either of us, her words proved to be prophetic. I actually am a "lucky" man. I have met with “unforeseen success” and joy and have experienced numerous times "the intervention of God“ in my life, preserving it, and enabling me to be able to say in my heart and to others, "It's Good to Be Alive!"

In retrospect, it has been quite an adventure and learning experience over the past 20 years.

Dr. Arnold Beisser in his wonderful book, "Flying without Wings," in just a few sentences has captured the essence of how I feel at this time in my life.  Dr. Beisser contracted polio as a young adult and lived out the remainder of his life in a wheelchair working as a practicing psychiatrist. He said, "My disability has taught me a lot and continues to do so.  When I was young and physically strong, to live life from a wheelchair was unthinkable.  When I was disabled, it was unacceptable.  Gradually over the years; however, not only has it become acceptable but I have found it to be satisfying as well." ["Flying without Wings" by Arnold R. Beisser, Page 135]    

I have been called lots of things since my injury such as "handicapped," "physically challenged," "mobility impaired," "quadriplegic," and a few others I can't mention, or at least don't want to.

Before my accident I felt I had a pretty good idea of who I was, but after the accident I was a little shaky for some time regarding that subject. Quite frankly, for an extended period, I really didn't know who or what I was. It was devastating!

In some ways, I felt I had left the human race I had been part of all my life. Something inside me; however, rebelled against the idea of being labeled as something that I then perceived as being inferior compared to a "normal" person.

Many years ago, along with some other  teachers, I spent several summers working at a day camp called Camp Sheanee (an Indian name for summer people) to earn some extra income.

We were given old Volkswagen vans and each weekday morning we would drive through the beautiful neighborhood streets of San Marino, California, picking up little rich kids that we would then entertain all day long. At the end of each day before being dropped off at their mansions, we would review all of the great activities they had just participated in, reminding them of how much fun they had  so they would give a glowing report to their parents about their experience at Camp Sheanee. 

Through the years I have frequently thought how different Camp Sheanee is compared to the program our Heavenly Father has designed for us during our lives in mortality, which is a little bit like an extended day camp.  I think it's OK with Him if we have a Camp Sheanee experience from time to time, but I doubt He measures our success by how much fun we have in mortality.  At the end of the day I don't think his first question to us will be, "Did you have a good time?"  So many of us however, much of the time, have a "Camp Sheanee" mindset regarding life.

Some of you have either read the writings of, or heard of the great scientist, Stephen W. Hawking. He has come to be thought of as the greatest mind in physics since Albert Einstein.

Still alive, he remains extremely busy, his work hardly slowed by Lou Gehrig's Disease which has left him completely immobile and unable to speak. For many years  he has used a wheelchair and has spoken through a computer and voice synthesizer.  He wrote: "I am quite often asked: How do you feel about having ALS? The answer is, not a lot. I try to lead as normal a life as possible, and not think about my condition, or regret the things I cannot do which are not many... I have had motor neuron disease for practically all my adult life, yet it has not prevented me from having a family and being successful in my work." [Writings of Stephen Hawking]

I am convinced we need never let adversity, whatever form it may take in our individual lives, destroy us or keep us from reaching our potential. The ultimate key to dealing with any kind of adversity is to turn our lives over to God. There really is no other way.

A great church leader and former secretary of agriculture under President Eisenhower said: "... men and women who turn their lives over to God will discover that He can make a lot more out of their lives than they can. He will comfort their souls, deepen their joys, expand their vision, increase their opportunities, lift their spirits, multiply their blessings, pour out peace, quicken their minds, raise up friends and strengthen their muscles." [Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, December, 1988, 4]

All of us will encounter pain and difficulty at some point in our lifetimes.  Over 20 years ago, soon after my accident, a colleague of mine quoted to me the following lines from the title of a beautiful little book written by Barbara Johnson: “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.”   How true this is. It is inevitable that we will all have our challenges and obstacles to deal with. However, being miserable over our life and circumstances is optional.

It’s like Dr. Beisser writes in his book, “I had to learn to live in the present and discover a way to live with, and hopefully even enjoy, the very limited options which were available to me.  I had to discover how to make the most of what came my way… My task was clear – the power to determine how I looked upon life was within me.  Whether I considered my disability a great tragedy and a loss or whether I saw it in some more positive light…If this was true…new worlds  of belief and perception were open to me, and new hope for what my life could be was waiting.” ["Flying without Wings," pages 112, 115]

His words echo in my ears and heart each morning as I am dressed in my "outfit" for the day, hoisted out of my bed by a hydraulic patient lifter, transferred to my chair and quickly reattached to my portable vent, and get into a sitting position as opposed to a prone one.  Lying in bed I truly feel handicapped, but in my chair, sitting upright, just think of what I can do.  I can work on the computer, read and write, or go outside and sit in the sun or roll around, and if I’m real lucky, get hauled into the van and go off with Jo Anne for a never ending adventure.  I truly am a lucky -- or as I prefer to call it—a blessed man.