In 1968, I broke my back. The helicopter I was filming from unaccountably flew into a mountain.
I was a model patient. I was cooperative, cheerful and spoke confidently of the future. I left the hospital two months to the day after I had arrived, and everybody thought I was about the flashiest gimp in the history of the University of Colorado Medical Center. On the day I left, I got into my new hand-controlled Plymouth, picked up some groceries, went to a liquor store, met my parents at the airport (they’d flown in to celebrate my discharge, of course, not to help) and we all went to my new apartment to toast a new life. By then I was a little too tired to rejoice, but it was good. And I was glad for the help.
At three o’clock in the morning, my parents wheeled me back to the emergency room because my overworked stomach muscles had gone into spasm. Ignominious. Two months in, eight hours out. A shot of Demerol got me back to the apartment in time for breakfast.
I returned to work that week. This was a clear sign to the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, Workers Compensation, the hospital staff and to me that I was fully rehabilitated. Remarkable. Instant recovery. A sixty-day wonder. Everybody loves a winner.
People still admire the way I have responded to my injury. They’re sure I have all the answers. I now want to dispel that notion. While I cannot act on stage, tell a joke, mimic an accent or lie with conviction, I have fooled myself and others throughout these 12 years of paralysis. Fact is, I never did know what was going on, never did have the answers. Yes, the years have been OK. A few have been spectacularly good. One was spectacularly bad. Yes, there are easier ways to live. Yes, there has been compromise, but there have been great loves, great events, great moments. Yes, there has been great happiness and great unhappiness. But what characterizes those years is not happiness or unhappiness, but change. Really, the only thing I know for sure about those years is that they sure were different.
The point to get straight is that I’m not a joyful bundle of psychological acceptance, my middle name is not Everhappy, and I still don’t have the answers.
That’s why I got 54 other people to write this book for me. No one of them has the answers either, but collectively, they know a great deal. They know a lot of what you need to know, and I feel honored to be a conduit.
The hospital where I spent two months was not a specialized spinal cord injury unit, yet I received excellent care. The only thing lacking was exposure to other cord injuries, other people who shared my predicament and had experience in dealing with it. This didn’t seem to be a problem at the time, and I was probably relieved not to have to confront other wheelers. It took me 10 years to realize that not only had I missed something important, but that I was still missing it. Some part of me was still broken, and was being steadfastly ignored. So in meeting and talking to the people in this book, I was searching for what I might have found a decade earlier had I allowed myself the company of experienced cord injuries. It became a journey of personal discovery, a game of identity hide-and-seek.
Once embarked upon this Giant Plagiarism, this picking of other brains, I found myself recognizing the experiences of others. The same things had happened to me, but had been stored somewhere below the surface of my normal recall. Bringing this body of experience into the light, into an area of availability and utility, has been enriching beyond all measure for me. I want you to share this experience so that you will not have to muck about in the wilderness for years, as I did, to acquire it by yourself. The wheel does not need to be re-invented, and why not take a free ride when offered?