Iron sharpening iron

josh pre-accidentA 6’4” musclebound guy that looked to be about my age outstretched his tattoo covered arm, unsure of how to shake my hand as many often are. “Hi, I’m Josh,” he said before taking a seat near me. That was about the extent of our conversation over the course of the next few weeks in early 2012 during a men’s Bible study before going our separate ways.

Nearly a year later, I was wheeling into church when the leader of our group approached me asking, “Do you remember Josh?” Barely, I thought. I was then informed that Josh had recently had a drug relapse and was now in a coma with a serious brain injury. Due to the fact that I barely knew the guy or anything about him, this information exited my mind fairly quickly. However, I found myself thinking about it again later, not only that morning but for days following. I sensed the two of us had not seen the last of each other.

josh hospitalLittle did I know how much of an understatement that was. Our two worlds were about to collide. Within a few weeks Josh and I were sitting motionless in our wheelchairs across from each other at the hospital where he was staying. Josh’s eyes were shut, and not a sound was coming from his mouth. I wasn’t quite sure how to interact with someone who I wasn’t sure could even hear me. His parents had initially been told he could be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life.

God had other plans. Within weeks Josh unexpectedly began opening his eyes, formulating sentences, and even asking me to bring him Chick-Fil-A sandwiches. His progress has been miraculous. Over the next few months he went from being in a coma to the progress seen in this video:

After Josh’s speech returned the rest was history. We quickly developed a friendship. While our injuries were different, our battles were similar. Through hours of talking with Josh, I came to intimately know the truth found in 2 Corinthians 1:4: “God consoles us as we endure the pain and hardship of life so that we may draw from His comfort and share it with others in their own struggles.” Initially I had thought I was going to be the one to encourage Josh but in fact I always left inspired at the way he went out of his way to interact with and encourage fellow patients.

In the Cincinnati Bengals weight room, the words of the wise King Solomon stand above: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” Whether in the world of sports or in the trenches of similar trials, Josh and I were able to empathize with one another, connect in the unlikeliest of circumstances, and in the process attempt to bring out the best in each other.

I cherished the six months we had together in Cincinnati, but this past summer Josh was transferred to a brain injury rehabilitation site in Illinois. Our communication is limited to the mail and interacting on the phone via a third party. I miss seeing him on a weekly basis but know it will not be our last time together.

Josh and I shared with one another an understanding of the challenges of relying on others for nearly every daily task. We were able to joke around about trivial matters while also celebrating the forgiveness Jesus offers for the lives we used to lead. We shared our passion for seeing how God will write the rest of each of our stories. There were conversations that will remain between the two of us in the four walls of that hospital room that I will cherish for years to come. Overall, we were able to share about the sweet rewards, realizations, and perspectives gained on the road of trial.

josh awakeheadrestThis story is not over yet. I conclude every letter to him telling him that I am looking forward to the day when we stand next to each other for the first time. An unfinished handshake from the first day we met still needs to be completed.

Click here for more info on Josh’s CaringBridge site

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Seeking the Healer

Summer of 2010 was coming to a close and time was running out. I peered down at my lifeless legs as the therapists moved them back and forth on the treadmill. Everything inside of me wanted to deny it, but the realization was inevitable: I would not be walking back on campus when classes began for the new school year.

Simulating a walking motion while being suspended in a harness over a treadmill
Simulating a walking motion while being suspended in a harness over a treadmill

I had tried everything. I’d spent two months at a spinal cord injury facility in Atlanta, Georgia. I’d spent hundreds of hours at a local spinal cord injury rehab center. I’d been regularly receiving treatments of physical therapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, craniosacral therapy, acupuncture, reflexology… all in addition to supplements and diet modifications. Each day was scheduled with an array of efforts intended to work my way back up to standing on my own two feet.

The plans in my head were pretty resolute: Work my way back to full health and be back in full swing to the life I knew on campus by the fall. I was so confident in my own ability that when running for a treasurer position in a group on campus, I told the other members not to worry about my lack of ability to hold money; it would be back by the fall. But then it wasn’t. As stated in a previous post, “Want to make God laugh? Tell Him your plans.”

This just wasn’t going along with the pattern of life I was accustomed to when it came to working hard. Practice and lift weights? Perform better on the athletic field. Study and stay diligent with schoolwork? A 4.0 GPA would follow. While being paralyzed below the shoulders was quite a mountain to overcome, I figured surely I could make my way over the top through rigorous physical therapy.

The humbling reality set in when I heard the hypothetical question, “Is there anything you are doing right now that you actually have to rely on God for in order to succeed?” The truth is, up until this point I was under the impression I could do it all on my own. As months passed by, putting my hope into my own physical performance would only lead to disappointment. Nothing was happening and I could not do a thing about the fact that signals were not connecting from my brain to the rest of my body.

The realization began to take shape: no matter how hard I worked, no matter how much effort, ingenuity, creativity, or time spent, I had to accept the plain and simple truth: I cannot do this on my own. I began to realize my hope was in my own physical abilities rather than in Jesus. I was simply seeking healing when, in actuality; seeking the Healer Himself is all that I need.

It started out in desperation. I knew I could not heal myself, so I figured my best bet was going to the only one I knew of who made a habit of healing the paralyzed: Jesus. While my initial posture was, “What can you do for me?” Jesus met me right where I was. As I began to swallow my pride and surrender the idea that I could do it all on my own, He became more real. A genuine relationship was developed and He was no longer a genie to rub to get my wish of walking once again. The Bible became a source of life I could not get enough of, rather than a dusty book on the shelf. The healing itself took a back seat on my priority list.

Does that mean that all the difficulties of paralysis just disappear into thin air? Absolutely not. Does it mean that I’ve given up on the idea of walking again one day? Not for one second. Does believing Jesus is the only one who can heal me mean that I just passively sit in bed all day waiting? Not at all.

Weight bearing in the standing frame for 30 minutes has become part of my daily routine
Weight bearing in the standing frame each day reminds me of the view from 6’1″

I still do daily physical therapy. Stretching, strengthening of muscles that do currently function, and standing up in the frame pictured above are all a part of my routine. 1 Timothy 4:8 says, “Physical training is of some value but godliness has value for all things in this life and the life to come.” While I believe the therapy is crucial for the best possible care of my body, it’s no longer my primary focus or how I spend all my energy. One of the main reasons I wanted to share my progress video in “Remembering the distance traveled” was because questions about physical progress are what I get more than anything. What am I supposed to tell people if there has not been any recent improvement? Sometimes I feel like the spotlight is on me and not being able to report anything reflects a fault of my own, as if somehow it’s my responsibility that my spinal cord is currently not yet relaying the signals from my brain to the rest of my body.

If at the end of each day I took inventory on physical progress and based my mood and attitude on new improvements, I would be very depressed. Thankfully, that’s no longer at the top of my priority list. There are more important aspects of this journey to focus on and share. Instead, I want to remain intentional about seeking the Healer rather than just the healing, because everything that Jesus offers far outweighs the second chance I believe I will have to walk again.

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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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