I’ve come a long way since being in a coma

Earlier this month I sat around the TV in my basement with a group of guys watching the Cincinnati Bengals game on Monday night football. The food was great, the camaraderie even better. Nothing like arguing over an array of pointless sports-related issues with guys during a football game. In the moment though, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the evening had to be catered toward me due to my physical limitations. I would have preferred not having to rely on a friend to feed me. It would be nice to join in the high-fives after a touchdown rather than leave my motionless arms resting in place by my side while others jostled around the room. It also would have been ideal to not be restricted to my parents’ basement since my wheelchair cannot get into other friends’ houses.

Then the thought hit me like a wrecking ball: I should be on a feeding tube.

Multiple times along the journey over the past few years I have been reminded of a quote that became embedded in my mind after seeing it each day at the the spinal cord injury facility, where I had physical therapy when I returned home:

“Do not focus on the road ahead without remembering the distance already traveled.”

On November 20, 2009, the night my car flipped off the side of the highway and I was airlifted to the hospital, the emergency room doctor on staff was quick to tell my parents that I had sustained a Christopher Reeve type injury. The ensuing medical prognosis was that I would be dependent on a feeding tube and a ventilator to breathe, while being unable to move anything below my shoulders…for the rest of my life. Talk about instilling hope from the get-go.

This picture gives a glimpse into how bleak my situation may have looked to an outsider. This was taken over two months after the accident, exhibiting immense weight loss, muscle atrophy, and skin as white as a ghost:

While I gained a great amount of weight and muscle back I still haven't found the answer for the paleness four years later
While I have since gained a great amount of weight and muscle back I still yet to find the answer for the paleness

For weeks after the accident, I was not only unable to move anything below my shoulders; I could not talk, I could not eat, and I could not breathe on my own. For those wondering, I enjoy doing all three of these things quite a bit.

After two months, I managed to get off the ventilator, but it was a round-the-clock marathon as respiratory therapists put me through the ringer to strengthen my lung power in order to enable me to breathe independently. After three months of being unable to eat, doctors and speech therapists had no explanation for a miraculous event that took place over a weekend in which I went from struggling to get ice chips down on Friday to enjoying Eggplant Parmesan the following Monday. (Hospital food never tasted so good).

I was told that any movement I was going to regain would return within the first few weeks and that after this brief window closed there wouldn’t be much more hope for any physical recovery. However, immense breakthrough has continued to take place nearly four years after the hopeless prognosis. A few portions of that are recorded in this video:

This progress has been nothing short of miraculous. While this movement is far from complete restoration, God says to not despise small beginnings (Zechariah 4:10), and in fact to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18.). “All circumstances” includes the simple joy of being around friends watching football while not losing sight of how far God has brought me to this point, regardless of whether or not I can yet feed myself or exchange a high-five.

It’s interesting how so many times in life, I will focus on what I don’t have, what I can’t do – instead of what I have, what I can do, and what I’ve been blessed with. While I currently may be limited with what I can do physically, I do not want take for granted basic life luxuries such as talking, breathing, and eating.

It may not always be easy, but when I am able to genuinely thank God for the distance traveled rather than worry about what’s ahead, what is missing from a physical standpoint in the moment begins to minimize. Giving thanks in all circumstances keeps my focus on God and how far he’s brought me, and doesn’t allow me to fixate on what’s lacking. However, this doesn’t mean that I just sit content and accept my physical circumstance as permanent – as the doctors may have said. I know nothing is impossible with God (Matthew 19:26) and he is still able to do far beyond anything I can imagine.

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Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans

As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan, until they get punched in the mouth.”

Did I really just quote Mike Tyson?
Did I really just quote Mike Tyson?

If you asked me at 21 what my future held I would tell you to take a seat and be prepared to hear about what I saw in the future as the quintessential picture of success: ME. It would involve accumulating gobs of money by whatever means possible, traveling the world, living on a golf course, and making a great name for no one aside from myself.

I was on a full ride scholarship at the University of Cincinnati, working a high paying internship, and enjoying everything that came with life as a college student. At 21 years old, I thought what could be better?

That was before I got my figurative punch in the mouth in the form of my car flipping through the air, eventually leading me to realize my plans were all for naught.

On November 20, 2009, I was headed to Gatlinburg, TN with my fraternity brothers when a simple overcorrection of my steering wheel produced a freak accident. A fracture of my C3/C4 vertebrae causing a spinal cord injury deemed it necessary to be rushed to the hospital by helicopter in critical condition. I spent the next couple of weeks physically fighting to stay alive, yet mentally expectant to get back on with the life I knew as a junior at my beloved university by the start of the new year. Much to my dismay, I soon realized my world had been turned completely upside down. After a diagnosis of paralysis below the shoulders and a four month stay in the hospital, I returned home to live with my parents; as I was now completely dependent on other people to take care of me.

Woody Allen said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” I’m not sure that’s the most biblically sounding translation but it sure seems to fit with James 4:13 – 15:

“Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

The idea of "future success" seemed to be slipping away
The idea of “future success” seemed to be slipping away

I guess at 21 years old, there really wasn’t the foresight to envision living in a handicap accessible renovated room that used to be my parents’ bedroom. For some reason, having other people take care of all my basic needs throughout the day from clothing me, to brushing my teeth, to feeding me had never been on my radar (at least not until I was 90 years old). I was frustrated, to say the least. I wanted nothing more than to get back to my life as a busy college student focused on laying the groundwork for my future success.

However, I was caught off guard by what began to unfold. It also had not been on my radar to ever actually consider what God’s plans were for me and that they actually might be better than the plans I had for myself with my limited world view. In a gradual process over the past 4 years, I have begun to experience the truth in the claim of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” In some mysterious way, “all things” includes unexpected car accidents, wheelchairs, and outcomes that I never could have fathomed as a 21 year old.

I do not know what tomorrow holds but I do know that God continues to miraculously redeem what looked to be a bleak situation from the moment I sat unconscious in my silver Envoy on the side of the highway in southern Kentucky. Time and time again God has put just the right person in my life, presented me with new challenging opportunities that have stretched me tremendously, or given the perfect encouraging breakthrough to keep me going another day, reminding me that I have not been deserted and He has everything under control. The lyrics, “Constant through the trial and the change, one thing remains” in the song below sum up what I have come to realize more than ever:

So while what I envisioned for myself at 25 years old did not come to fruition (thankfully for me and those around me), I have been on the journey of a lifetime over the past four years. Though from an outsider’s view my situation may seem to be a tragedy, I would consider it anything but. I have had a front row seat to God working and weaving each piece of a puzzle together and only he knows what the final product will look like.

Slowly but surely, my priorities have transformed, my outlook has expanded, and I know without a doubt the best is yet to come. The story that is unfolding may not be my original plan, but what is beginning to take shape seems a whole lot more appealing and I have never been more excited for my future. This story is not over yet.

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Why it’s time to open up my life Flat on My Back

At 27 years old, I’m not exactly in the position I envisioned for myself back when I was a narrowly focused 21-year-old ready to take the world by storm. Let’s just say life got in the way. Very quickly. A life-changing car accident that resulted in paralysis below the shoulders stopped my story as I knew it. On a dime. In the four years since, I’ve been on a journey hard to put into words. Incredible. Eye-opening. Frustrating. Rewarding. Humbling. Empowering. It would be tough to put my finger on it at any given moment, so I never really have, aside from documenting the journey in the solitude of my computer through my voice software. Sure, I’ve gotten to share my story over the past few years: speaking to groups, schools, and churches on numerous occasions; but it became fairly easy to hide what was really going on beneath the surface, behind a dramatic replay of a graphic car accident and a few Bible verses to make the crowd feel good.

I feel good

I keep tabs on the blogs of a few close friends. One focuses on social justice, one on life in seminary, one on great beer, and another on sports. Each are interesting in their own way, but the other day I came across a blog that really got to me from another guy who also has a spinal cord injury. I could not believe his vulnerability. As I sifted through his writing, I could not help but wonder, “Did he really just put that out in cyberspace?” I knew exactly how he felt and what he was thinking, but in my innermost being I felt it most socially acceptable in the name of “masculinity” to hide behind the facade that I was never fazed by my current physical condition.

About 10 years ago, Craig Gross came to my high school to talk about “the number one Christian porn site on the Internet”  (yes it is suitable to open at work). There was something that really drew me to the guy. The dude was as transparent as I’ve ever seen someone. He describes this critical attribute of vulnerability in his new book “Open“. Throughout the book Gross stresses how necessary it is for each of us as  human beings to be open with others in community. (Sounds like I read the book right? I didn’t. It just said something of that nature on the back cover. Somewhere my high school English teacher Ms. Barron is cringing.)

As my dad churned out devotional-worthy CaringBridge updates throughout my four-month stay in the hospital, my skin crawled as my motionless body laid still in the hospital bed. Even if it was simply generic content shared with family and friends, I would be wary of the idea of my day-to-day happenings being broadcast to the cyberspace world. On numerous occasions, both before and after the accident, friends have called me out for being a “closed book”.Locked book Staying mysterious about what’s going on in my head, and life for that matter, had become my M.O. However, over time, something just wasn’t sitting right. I guess I was missing out on a key element of human interaction described by CS Lewis:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, then you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your own selfishness. But in that casket safe, dark, motionless and airless, it will change. It won’t be broken; but it will become unbreakable, impenetrable and irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.” 

This video sped along my thinking that being brutally honest with those around me actually isn’t that bad of an idea:

Jefferson says, “To be truly human is to be truly known, and someone who hides can’t be known.” It looks like I’ve been hiding. I guess it’s my turn. Time to open up. So here it goes…

What initially began on November 20, 2009 as what I believed would be a brief pit stop from the life I was accustomed to, transformed into a journey in which my world was turned upside down forever. I think it’s about time to let others in on my journey of being Flat on My Back.

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