To become disabled as a result of a devastating injury is somewhat akin to a rebirth. It’s a blurry haze of confusion, fear, and a welter of emotions that run the breadth of human sensations. In a rare moment of clarity, you know something is terribly wrong. As a quadriplegic I’ve suffered all these bizarre sensations and later learned they were not unique to me.
When I broke my neck simply by diving into a pool, I knew – since I had a friend that was a quad – the instant when my body lost all physical sensation and movement. My neck, ironically, was the exception. And when my chest was tight holding my last breath and I was lying helpless in a circle of water, I knew then that I was a quad and would drown. And so I did.
I can’t recall when I lost consciousness, only when I regained it. I lay absolutely still, the signals from my brain going to my non-responsive limbs, and my mind was trying to absorb everything that made no sense. Then I remembered why I drowned. Why I was on a pool deck with my friends looking down at me. In their eyes I saw the stark terror that I was feeling.
The ambulance ride to the hospital was brief with me going in and out of shock. I can only remember so much in the early days that followed. One was the sound of my father’s voice. He was blistering the doctors, nurses, and anyone in the immediate area with curses born out of frustration, which was evident in his unfocused diatribe. The other was my grandmother pinning a St. Jude medal to me.
My ability to focus without slipping into and out of consciousness was sporadic and getting worse. I was barely awake at most times, examining my heart, asking it with fading familiarity if it would be easier to surrender. I hadn’t contributed much to the world. I was 18, granted, but I was searching for something, anything to feel besides fear.
On my third or fourth day, any decision that I might have had was stripped brutally from me when I became alert only to find that I was on a respirator. In my opinion, it’s the cruelest device, despite the fact that it keeps people breathing when they otherwise would die – but that should be the person’s choice before being put on it. I came to a personal opinion that it was the most insidious machine in existence. You’re terrified while you’re on it, and then even more terrified when they wish to wean you off after you’ve accept that it, and it alone, is your salvation.
Without it I would die. For me, that was a revelation. I was afraid of dying because I wanted to live.
The doctors weaned me off incrementally, and I survived that trauma. There are several more intimate and painful experiences, including screws being bored into my skull to stabilize my head and a tube inserted through my mouth, trailing into my stomach, which was my sole means of nourishment. But I still wanted to live. After two months, I was told it was time for rehabilitation. I was sent to Kessler Institute of Technology for an arduously frustrating and determined effort to get the most possible mobility my body would allow, which depended on the location of my spinal injury.
The level of my cervical location and my broken vertebrae was called C-5. However insignificant it sounds, going beyond the mobility and achieving C-6 movement made a vast difference in the functions I could perform for myself.
There is a certain goal most everyone aspires to, and so do quadriplegics, paraplegics, and people afflicted with vast disabilities. I learned how to feed myself and brush my teeth, and I don’t believe anyone could understand the sense of personal power such seemingly trivial goals bring. This ability gave me a little bit of freedom and accomplishment that breaking my neck could not take away.
Aug. 18 marked 20 years of being perpetually on my posterior. It’s a hard existence, but not without its joys, such as my 6-year-old niece, Haley, and nephews Riley, who just turned 3, and Drew, who will turn three in October.
There are other ordinary positives: You save a fortune on shoes; no matter how crowded a place is, you always have a seat; and if you stay in one place too long, people start giving you money (I never did this). I lived 13 years after my injury in my hometown of Bayonne. Then I moved to Florham Park to live in a small home for young, disabled people, and made great friends and had equally great opportunities. I’m both a different person and the same.
But, invariably, I think of Bayonne with a sorrow in my heart. I am convinced that when you grow up and go to school in Bayonne, there is a quality ingrained inside you that follows you wherever you go – no matter how far you go, you’re always in Bayonne. Or wish you were. Everywhere else is just a town. – Kevin Downes
Kevin Downes is a former resident of Bayonne. Comments on this piece can be sent to: email@example.com.