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As the strikes added up, it was time to accept the wheelchair

By Ernie Williamson / Special to The Bulletin

They had told me I wouldn’t walk again.

I was determined to prove that prediction wrong.

So there I was, being admitted to the world famous TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital in our Texas Medical Center. It was my best hope.

An initial look around told me I must be in the wrong place. This hospital couldn’t be for me.

This was a place for people with what appeared to be more serious disabilities than mine.

The halls and gyms were filled with stroke victims, survivors of traffic accidents who had lost limbs, MS sufferers and a surprising number of men with broken backs from falling trees.

Me? I simply had developed a bad case of the flu and, for some still unknown reason, my immune system had mistakenly attacked my spinal cord, leaving me unable to walk.

Compared to the other cases, I thought, mine should be a snap.

I already had convinced myself I would leave TIRR on my feet, not in a wheelchair.

The hospital walls were filled with pictures and success stories reinforcing that view.

There was Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who recovered from an attempted assassin’s bullet to the brain.

And there was Port Arthur native Kevin Everett who, while playing football for the Buffalo Bills, sustained a fracture of his cervical spine that doctors described as “life threatening.” Three months later he walked at halftime of a Buffalo game.
I envisioned my picture on those walls someday.

I was scheduled to be at TIRR for one month. As each day went by I seemed to find a new leg muscle that wasn’t functioning properly. I sensed the strikes against me were adding up.

Strike 1: They put me in a harness on a treadmill and I tried to move my legs. I couldn’t. Two beefy therapists tried to move my legs for me. They couldn’t.

Strike 2: My medical team started spending less time on therapy and more time on how to cope in a wheelchair.

More days were spent practicing transferring from my bed to my wheelchair. Or getting tips on creating wheelchair-friendly homes. Or learning techniques for reaching top shelves.

Or navigating my wheelchair through grass. Were they trying to tell me something?

Strike 3: I got measured for my own custom-built wheelchair. They definitely were telling me something.

As my time at TIRR grew short, I got discouraged. Why wasn’t I progressing? Why could the TIRR doctors help Giffords and others walk out of TIRR, but they couldn’t help me? It was just the flu!

A day or so before discharge, one of my doctors stopped by for a chat. It would be a life-changing moment. He knew I was a journalist and asked if I planned on returning to work.

He mentioned that many of his wheelchair patients were able to work.

So there it was. My suspicions were confirmed. My picture wouldn’t be hanging on a wall.

Although the doctor said working would be beneficial, it seemed a daunting task.

On the other hand, I knew my company would take me back and, most importantly, I did my job at a desk. The only difference would be my new chair would have wheels.

So back to work I went. The doctor was right. It improved my life.

It forced me to learn to drive with hand controls, get a special driver’s license and buy a ramp van. Although I have since retired, the ability to drive gives me an independence I would not have otherwise.

Returning to work also gave me confidence. I can’t walk, but I realized I still had the ability to overcome daily challenges and still had something to offer.

I learned not to feel embarrassed when I needed to ask for help. People almost always are happy to offer assistance.

I also learned that I am blessed. I could buy a van. I could return to work. I feel for those who are worse off.

I also learned I should be grateful to the doctors and staff at TIRR. It was, it turns out, the right place for me.

They may not have been able to give me what I wanted, but they gave me what I needed

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com)