Monday, October 22, 2012


Seven Year Anniversary: Survival Day

It's hard to believe that seven years have passed since the car accident that landed me in a 5 and 1/2 week medically-induced coma.  Seven years since my legs sustained fourth degree burns that required the amputation of both legs from above the knee.  In the early days, all I could think about was how much I had lost, the things I would never get to do again, the sensations I would never feel again, the future I had been working towards that I would never get to see...the list goes on and on.  At that point in time I truly did not want to live.

It may seem strange, but part of why I focused so hard on getting better was so that I could get away from all of the people who, at that point in time, I felt were forcing me to live.  I fully intended to commit suicide as soon as I had the freedom to do so.  I had it in my head that none of this was supposed to happen, that a horrible mistake had been made and that if I died in this life I would get the opportunity to fix the mistakes that had led to the accident.  (What those mistakes were, aside from taking county road 240 on my way back to Indy from Greencastle that night, I couldn't tell you).  I believed whole heartedly that once this life was over I would be reborn on March 13th of 1975 in Indianapolis to Robb and Patty Warriner.  From that point on I would have the freedom to make new decisions and take my life in whatever direction I wanted.

(For the record, I have no idea where that concept came from.  It's certainly not what the Methodist Church teaches about the afterlife.  I've always believed in reincarnation but never within the same life.  I will say that I think this could be a great explanation for deja vu).

Luckily I never had the opportunity to put the plan into action.  When I learned the story of how I was rescued from the burning wreckage of my Jeep I understood that suicide was not an option on the table.  From there I began to live my life again which, at that point in time, meant continuing to fully focus on my recovery.  The difference was that my perspective had changed.  I was no longer focusing on my recovery to rush towards an early death; but recognized that I had been saved from an early death and needed to focus on my recovery to reclaim my life.  I'm so glad to still be here.

Today began with a call from my friend/brother Cliff.  He had the day off, had just dropped his daughter off at school, and was calling simply to catch up.  He hadn't realized the date until I mentioned it.  This doesn't happen every Monday, so I found it rather ironic that he chose to call today.  A conversation with him was a great way to start my Survival Day.

He asked what I had in mind to write about today and, to be honest, I had no idea.  On the surface, this year has not been that different from the last.  If you've read all of my posts throughout the year, then you have a decent idea of what I've been up to.  The only big news that I haven't shared yet is the final outcome of the lawsuit related to the car accident, which ended back in June.

The long story short is this:  I was trapped in my Jeep because Chrysler used weak materials in the design of the vehicle.  The fire that burned my legs ignited because the engine design was unsafe (the plastic container holding flammable brake fluid in the hot engine was not protected from impact).  My attorney filed a lawsuit against Chrysler on my behalf in 2006.  The lawsuit was stayed when they declared bankruptcy in 2009.  Indiana has a product liability law that says if the court loses jurisdiction over the manufacturer then the dealership becomes liable.  In 2009 we had to start over with a lawsuit against the dealership that sold me the Jeep.  In 2010 the judge decided that I couldn't sue them because, according to him, I could still pursue Chrysler (even though that would put me in contempt of court, in regards to the bankruptcy).  We appealed, and in 2011 the court of appeals decided that they agreed with the original judge.  We appealed to the Indiana Supreme Court, and in June of this year the Supreme Court decided that they wouldn't hear the case (apparently they don't have to hear your final appeal).  That's it, my case, which was originally filed six years ago, was dismissed without a single judge ever meeting me or hearing my personal testimony.

So, the big thing that happened in year seven was that I learned that I would not receive justice for the defects that caused the loss of my legs.  This also means that I'll probably never become a multi-millionaire or have the finances to open a non-profit Star Wars memorabilia museum (all proceeds would have been donated to prosthetic research).  Again, I can focus on the loss, or change my perspective.  A huge question mark has been removed from my life.  I no longer have to worry about what's happening with legal matters.  I know that what ever my financial future holds it will be based solely on my decisions and how I move forward with my life from here.  All I can tell you about that is that I fully intend to enjoy myself while I watch my future unfold.

As I said at the start, in the early days all I could focus on was the loss.  I was so wrong.  During a recent speech to a class at IUPUI the professor asked the question "you would still go back and change history so that the accident never happened, if you could, right?"  My response was "not at all. I'd still love to have human legs again, but I would never trade the experiences I've had over the last seven years."  Perspective is a lot more informed when looking at the past.

How we perceive things is an ever changing experience that grows as we adapt, learn, and live our lives.  What is always in our control is whether we perceive things through a negative dark shaded lens, or through a positive rose colored lens.  (I'd love to say that I've become an expert at this, but when instinct takes over it's all to easy to view things in a negative way.  The important part is to pay attention to your instincts, listen to what they are telling you, but control your perception before you allow the negativity to take hold).  It's interesting, people frequently ask "how long did it take you to get used to those legs?"  My response is almost always "I'm still getting used to them."

Seven years.  Seven years and I'm still getting stronger.  Some days I'm amazed at how easy it can be to walk, and other days I struggle to get out of the car because there's not enough room to open the door all the way and my legs don't move the way human legs move.  If you know me well, then you know that I have a room in my house that is dedicated to a particular collection that has been growing since I was a child.  For the last seven years, whenever I needed something moved or added to the top shelves in the room I've always waited until someone else was willing to put things where I wanted them.  Two weeks ago I discovered that I had the balance to stand and do those things on my own.  (The strength is not quite there yet, had to take a lot of breaks, but the job got done).

Much of what I thought I had lost, I'm still learning that I can do in different ways. 

Seven years since I last felt the grass between my toes.  This year, for the first time, I got down on the ground and moved around the yard to clean out the flower beds.  Believe it or not, that was the first time in seven years that I felt the grass between my fingers!  (Not quite the same, but it's close). 

Seven years since I jumped up to grab a Frisbee out of the air.  Cliff recently reminded me that when I shared the story of playing Frisbee (last post), I left out the fact that at one point he had tossed the Frisbee towards me and it was particularly high above my head.  My right arm shot up and my upper body lifted with it, so much so that, even though my prosthetics were weighing down my lower half, my rear end lifted up out of the wheelchair.  I looked at Cliff and said "hey, I jumped...a little."  (Not quite a jump, not even close, but it's a start.)

Seven years since I played any kind of game (other than catch) with a ball.  When I was talking about my experience at the Walking School (again, last post) I left out the fact that they had me "play soccer".  Three amputees stood in a circle (I was the only Bi-lateral AK).  Using only our prosthetic legs (I have two) we were supposed to stop the ball with our foot, and then kick it towards one of the amputees (good aim was very important).  At first we were kicking the ball pretty gently but after a while we got more aggressive, and even moved around a little.  (I'm not going to try to compare this to real soccer, which I haven't played since I was about 13, but the point is that even after seven years I'm still learning new ways to do old things).

My Survival Day has been a pretty average day.  I struggled over what to say because I didn't really have anything remarkable to share, no great revelations, or so I thought (hopefully you found some interesting tidbits along the way).  The way I perceive my life now is that it's a pretty normal life, which sometimes makes it difficult to see what's interesting to write about.  Seven years ago my average day to day routine involved getting up early, driving an hour to work, spending an average of 12 hours at work, driving an hour home, watching TV or playing video games for a couple of hours, going to bed, and starting it all over.  That was my "normal".  Seven years later and I know that my life will never return to what was "normal" before the accident (nor do I want it to), but my life has become "normal" once again.                                 

Monday, October 15, 2012


A Trip to Milwaukee & the Weeks Following

September was the busiest month of my year.  The month began with the special treat of spending Labor Day weekend with our God Mother, Cindy Reeves, and God Father, David Huggins.  They both came to town to spend the holiday with us and to celebrate my sister Sarah's birthday.  Getting to see them both at the same time is a very rare thing indeed and I know it created a special birthday memory for Sarah to get to play several games of Euchre with our God Parents and I while Madeline, Mom, and Dad looked on!

The following Sunday I made the drive up to Milwaukee.  I had been planning this trip all year for two reasons.  First, to spend a few days with my friend Cliff (who is more a brother to me than a friend), his 6 year old daughter Anna, and girlfriend Laura.  This was actually my first opportunity to meet Laura.  She and I had only spoken on the phone a few times and it was great to finally get to know her!  It was fantastic to see how happy Cliff is at this point in his life (Laura is a huge step up from his x-wife (vile treacherous woman) and he's recently started a fascinating new page in his career) and I was truly impressed by how beautifully Anna and Laura interact with each other!

Being a part of Cliff's world for a few days was an interesting experience.  While there I met his friend's the Grimes, whom I've actually had many entertaining speaker phone conversations with over the past several years, but had never met in person.  They welcomed me as part of their family; even their children gave me hugs when I departed.  Anna and I got to spend a lot of quality time together as well.  I hadn't seen her in over two years (she's grown like a weed) and I was a little apprehensive about how comfortable she would be with me. 

When she was 4 she didn't warm up to me until the very last day of our Memorial Day weekend visit, but we've spoken on the phone several times over the last two years.  Cliff hadn't really told her that I would be there so I wasn't sure how she would react at first.  As soon as she saw me her face lit up with a huge smile!  This time she was very inquisitive about how my prosthetics work, especially in the morning when I didn't have them on.  Every time I see Anna she unintentionally (I think) finds ways to test my dexterity.  Two years ago, while playing hide and seek, she took my crutches away before going to hide.  I told her that I would need those to find her, and she said "no you don't", then carried my crutches off to hide with her.  I had already been toying with walking unassisted but wasn't that comfortable with it yet; still, I managed to find her in the end.  This time she decided that we should play Frisbee.

I used to love throwing a Frisbee around.  It was something that Cliff and I would do frequently during the years that we were roommates.  I haven't even held a Frisbee in the last seven years.  We knew that I didn't have the balance to stand and catch and throw, so I sat in the wheelchair on the grass (which meant I couldn't move around very well), Cliff went out a fair distance, Laura was a little closer, and Anna stayed relatively nearby to track down any toss that passed by me.  Surprisingly, I was able to catch most that came near.  Now, I'm right handed, mind you.  At one point Cliff sent the Frisbee flying just over my left shoulder.  I knew there was no way I could catch it, and it was high enough that it would pass me and go out into the parking lot.  All of a sudden, without thought, my left arm shot up and I grabbed the Frisbee out of the sky!

You may not remember this, but during the accident my right wrist was severely broken, and after that healed my hand was numb for several months.  During that time I relied on my left arm and hand to do a lot of things and learned to use my left hand fairly well, but I had never caught anything with it before!  My right hand has long since regained dominance, so this was a big surprise.

The second reason for my trip to Milwaukee was to attend the 2012 World Burn Congress.  I had only been able to attend the four day burn survivor conference for a day and a half last year and was really looking forward to experiencing the entire event.  It's a truly emotional four days, but in a very good way.  While at the conference I attended several interesting workshops, but what really makes the event special is meeting, and being surrounded by, people who've had similar experiences and are willing to talk about them.  I made some amazing friends and hope to attend every year.

The World Burn Congress was also a huge physical workout for me.  Because of the distance, and obstacles between the Convention Center and the hotel I had to use both my chair and my crutches to get around.  I walked more daily than I do most weeks and wore my legs from morning until well into the night.  By mid week my residual legs (stumps) had shrunk in size (from the consistent pressure of the sockets and physical exertion) so much that I had to stuff several pieces of cardboard into the sockets to tighten them up!

Before returning home I made a stop at a farm outside of Milwaukee to visit Debra Lein.  Debra was the RVP at Sodexo (my previous employer) when my accident happened.  She was a huge support to my family during the early days when I was still lingering in a medically-induced coma, and continued to provide emotional, personal, and professional support to me throughout my recovery and return to work.  She had left Sodexo a few months before me and, though we stayed in contact, I hadn't seen her in years.  I spent a few relaxing hours visiting with her at the beautiful farm where she lives.

I drove back to Indy that Sunday afternoon and the following Monday began gearing up for InclusionFest.  It was a very busy week, and again I found that I was wearing my legs so much that my limbs didn't have a chance to return to their normal size until the following week.  I wasn't walking as much or wearing them as long as I had the week before, so the prosthetics would feel uncomfortably tight for about an hour after I'd first put them on, but the more I'd walk the more "comfortable" they would become.

The Thursday before InclusionFest I attended the second session of the Walking School at RHI (Rehab Hospital of Indiana).  (If you look back at either July or August's posts you should be able to find an entry about the first session).  The first session, at the end of July, was a tremendous workout, but I had no idea what they had in store for me this time.  They had me work on climbing stairs by placing one foot, knee bent, up on a step.  Instead of straightening the knee (so it won't buckle under my weight) and then pulling myself up with the railing (which is my normal method), they had me work on forcing the knee to straighten, raising me up to the step, by flexing my glut and pushing my residual leg against the back wall of the socket.  The knee has no lift assist, so straightening the knee with that method takes a lot of cautious effort, and a fair amount of faith that I'm not going to fall.  I can do it, and it's a great exercise, but I don't see it becoming the way that I normally climb stairs.

After the exhausting stair exercises, they then had a PT (Physical Therapist) wrap therabands (long thick rubber bands) around my legs, just above the knees, and then had me walk the length of the gym, round trip, while the PT pulled on the therabands to provide resistance from behind me.  Then they took the bands off my legs and had me walk the length of the gym again.  My legs felt so light on the first step that I almost skipped!  It was very hard to control and I really had to slow myself down to keep from falling.

The following evening I attended a reception at a club on Mass Ave (artsy area of downtown Indy) for Auti Angel and Cody Unser, the two celebrities who came to participate in InclusionFest.  Both women are wheelchair users, and both are simply stunning.  At one point Auti dragged me out on the dance floor.  I don't dance well at all anymore.  I use one crutch on the dance floor which ties up one arm, my legs are like cement, my hips wiggle a little bit, my shoulders bob from side to side (what college guys think is dancing), and I have no idea what to do with my free arm.  Auti, on the other hand, is an amazing sight to behold.  She spins, weaves, bobs up and down, and moves around the dance floor in her chair with awe inspiring grace, all while doing intricate and alluring motions with her hands, arms, and upper body.

The next day was InclusionFest where I got to hear Cody Unser's amazing story.  Her speech during the opening ceremony almost moved me to tears.  I'm very disappointed that I didn't get to spend more time with her.  As with last year's event the adaptive sports demonstrations (Wheelchair Basketball, Beep Ball, etc.) were hugely popular.  The Wheel-A-Thon was a huge success, we raised $30,000 for accessABILITY, which was our goal!  Thanks to all who were able to donate to my team.  One staff member's teams blew mine out of the water, but we still came in second in raising funds.  We couldn't have done that without your generosity!

With all of that activity the month flew by in a blur.  I'd love to say that I have the endurance to keep up that kind of pace year round, but the honest truth is that I spent most of the following week in seclusion at home spending more time resting than doing anything physical.  Even after taking that time to let my body recuperate, I'm only just now feeling my normal energy return.  I hate to admit it, but I'm kind of hoping for a lot of snow this winter, so I have an excuse to be lethargic...  ;)        

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