When Tragedy Strikes
On August 22, 2010 on our way to church on a Sunday morning, our car lost control while my fiancé was driving, and we were in an accident which broke his neck at the c5-c6 level.
Initial observance in the ER showed that the break was bad, and Justin was taken in for immediate stabilization surgery with a neurosurgeon that evening. The break was stabilized, both with hardware and with a piece of bone from his hip.
The next few days we entered into a very new and strange territory while we waited to see what the outcome was. Spiritually things were hard because while I had countless friends and family come to pray over and war with Justin through this trauma, I also had his family who is very non-religious with us at all times. With him being only my boyfriend at the time, I felt like I didn’t have the freedom to “set up the atmosphere” like I maybe would have had if either we were already married, or with more of a religious acceptance from his family. That’s okay though, God knew the framework for what we went through and how the dynamics played and he met me where I was. Within a couple of days, they had reclassified Justin’s spinal cord injury from a complete to an incomplete injury. What that means is that instead of ALL of the spinal cord nerves being affected by the break (each nerve is like a complex series of roads that run up and down the spine giving your brain information about movement, sensation, temperature, etc, and then taking a message back to the extremities), only parts of the spinal cord were affected by the break. Prognosis for an incomplete injury can be much better, depending on the extent of which nerves are effected. From there, it was a waiting game.
I remember taking the night shift in the ICU. I don’t know how or why I thought that was a good idea. I think mostly I thought that it would allow me some much needed one-on-one time with Justin, a time to encourage him, to gauge where he was mentally with this trauma, to pray over him, to serve him and help him in any way that I could. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the night shift was a time when not much happiness happened. After dealing with therapists and doctors and visitors all day, Justin was usually exhausted at night, and because he and I were close enough that he could let his guard down, this was often the time that he struggled with anxiety. But even in that, God knew. I remember one night as he finally drifted to sleep I began to pray over him in the spirit with every ounce of life in my being. I prayed until I distinctly remember feeling like I touched something, moved something even. I remember one night when he woke up in the middle of the night and didn’t know where he was or why he was there. He knew my name, but seemed to think he was asleep at my house and didn’t understand why I wouldn’t help him get out of bed. I didn’t know what to do with that. After the nurse helped me get him calmed down and situated, I remember I sat and silently cried at the trauma. I made the choice to never cry in front of him, only wanting to encourage and remind him that regardless of what road was in front of us, I was here for him, and God was faithful to see us through it.
He got moved to a rehab center in Houston, about three hours away from where we lived. On top of that, I was working part-time 2 hours in a different direction. At 5:45 on Monday mornings I would load up and go toSan Antonio to work. I would stay with a friend Monday night and Tuesday night and on Wednesday after work, I would load up and drive from San Antonio to Houston where he was staying as an inpatient at rehab. I would switch shifts with his mother who had been in Houston since Sunday, and would go back home to Elgin to take care of her husband and other children, repack, take a legitimate shower, etc. I would stay with Justin Wednesday night, Thursday, Friday and Saturday or Sunday I would go back to Elgin as soon as Justin’s mother came back to take over. The time in Houston was good but frustrating. Because he was in a neck brace, he was pretty limited on what therapy he could actually accomplish. I’d say the best thing about our time there were the people we met who had also sustained this injury and their encouraging and uplifting friendship.
We had a good occupational therapist, we had a good doctor, but we did not have a good physical therapist, and Justin didn’t make much progress in the physical therapy department while we were there. One of the biggest things he accomplished was being able to somewhat sit “up” on his own, balancing using only his core. I remember the day they tried to teach me car transfers, and I remember the absolute frustration and hopelessness I felt because it seemed like the hardest thing I had ever done. Justin still seemed to fragile and for me to be able to slide a board under him, and move him across the board into a car with NO help from him and with no support or practice under my belt made it seem like a task that I would never be able to accomplish. In hindsight, it’s kind of funny now, considering how easy the task is, and how now Justin can get himself in and out of the car as long as a spotter is there with him.
When they finally released him from Houston, he came home to his parents house. He was pretty much unable to wheel himself hardly at all, unable to sit up without assistance, unable to transfer himself, do any of his dressing or hygiene. His parents set up their dining room into a makeshift room for him with a hospital bed and all of the new supplies we would need for healthcare purposes. Because he had to be deadlifted up and carried to the shower, and at that time he couldn’t sit in a shower chair without his blood pressure dropping and causing him to be dizzy and nauseated, he took many bed-baths with wash cloths and sponges. He wore an abdominal binder and TED hose on his legs to keep his blood pressure up enough that he could sit up. We were kind of told this is what we could expect for the rest of our lives. All of his bathroom functions we had to assist with. All of his cleaning and dressing, we had to assist with. It was odd, the feeling of learning all of that. Almost mechanic, even. If you had asked me three months earlier what I would be learning to do, I would have never guessed learning how to help my quadriplegic boyfriend how to use the bathroom, or how to wash hair efficiently and without a mess in a hospital bed. We had precious moments through it all though. There were times I would climb up next to him in that hospital bed and we would look each other in the eyes and say “Are you ok?” and the other would say “Yeah, I’m okay, are you okay?” and the other would say “Yeah I’m okay.” Those were our moments of reaffirming each other, of letting each other know, I’m here as long as you’ll let me stay. We stayed hopeful, constantly concentrating on and looking for ways to find improvement, even down to the small things. I remember how big of an accomplishment if felt like when Justin started drinking out of his own water bottle and eating with his own fork all by himself. Such little things those were compared to now.
A few months later we finally got all of the referral and insurance based red-tape out of the way enough that Justin could start therapy in Austin. I was excited and nervous at the same time. On one hand, I wanted Justin to vault to recovery as soon as possible, on the other I was apprehensive about getting back into the spinal cord community. There were no negative experiences, per say, but there was a much louder understanding that this is a permanent injury than I was willing to accept at the time. We ended up getting paired up with the best physical therapist I have ever come across. Natasha was smart, she was motivated, she was energetic, and she seemed to have a knack for knowing how to fix any and everything. About that time I got a job much closer to home, though it was a full time position. Also around that time, we began to realize how much more wheelchair accessible my home was in contrast to Justin’s parents two story home and him and his grandmother moved into my home with me. Justin’s grandmother was such a blessing in that she was able to be his caregiver all throughout the day while I was at work and his parents were at work. My parents could serve as a back up if she was unable, but it worked out wonderfully that she was so available and willing to learn, care, drive, anything to get Justin where he needed to be. I remember at one point thinking, maybe with his disability check, my occasional photography appointments, and some small extra work I can pick up on the side I can manage to quit work and just take care of him and we will be able to get by. That thought process is one that resulted from being worn out, emotionally exhausted, unsure of our future, frightened at the burden and outlook we were carrying, and overall just needing a break. Once again though, God knew, and was with us to give us grace and guidance and get us through the valleys.
For about eight months Justin did therapy five days a week in Austin, both physical and occupational. We saw such huge strides in his strength and ability, but he was still very uncoordinated, and I felt extra out of the loop at this time because I had to be at work full time and was no longer able to go with him to therapy and be involved with what was going on. Around June or July, we began to hear about a program in Austin that we had heard about at various places and it became an increasingly attractive option. We did some research and learned about the high cost of therapy there, but felt like we needed to move forward with it and trust God to meet our need. Justin began more vigorously attending therapy both at Project Walk and at his traditional physical therapy, continuing to work out five days a week. Over the course of time we have faced great encouragement. Strangers have come up to us at our home or in stores with what they said was a message from God to take hope, that God would heal Justin. Strangers who we have never met before, who we have no connection to, who we have no way to know anything about.
That was a little over a year ago. In the last year Justin has gone from exceedingly uncoordinated and weak to be exceptionally coordinated, functional with his hands, able to increasingly do more and more of his own care with only minimal assistance, and has been able to stand with assistance and walk with assistance in a walker. At first it was just the standing frame in which he would build up his blood pressure tolerance, but now in a free standing walker, with a little bit of support at his hips and knees, he is able to stand. He is having increasing spasms (what we think of as a signal through the injured highway, just a broken one) in his hands, and an increased ability to determine fine sensations in his legs and feet. With a little concentration, he can tell you what temperature is on his right leg and foot. With a little concentration, he can turn a body spasm on to shoot his body into a locked standing position where he would normally be flaccid and dead weight. His strength is ever increasing, when he hugs me now, it almost feels as though he was never injured. His muscles in his arms and shoulders are becoming bigger and more defined all the time. We have had no other health issues often associated with spinal cord injuries, and have received COUNTLESS blessings. When I say countless, I mean literally. Every single hour of project walk for the last year has stayed covered. We have received incredible amounts of tuition and tax breaks, he receives a small social security disability stipend in the mail every month, God has opened up doors for renovations to be done to our home, making his care easier, at no extra cost to us.
In regards to the path our life has taken in the last two years, there have been many times I can think of where in fear I have asked the Lord, why us? Why haven’t you intervened yet? Why cant we just go back to normal? But what becomes increasingly apparent to me is that we are on a purposeful and guided journey. We have encountered a bad thing, but we have not had a loss. We are not forgotten, and God shows us through signs, wonders, progress, and multiple messengers that he has not and will not leave us destitute and a victim to our circumstances. What I do believe he is doing however, is guiding us through a path, with this injury as a tool, to grow us, to teach us, to bring us to people we would not know otherwise, to bless us, to change us, to make us more dependent on him. I see it as the vehicle we are in for a season, and when he has used it to make us better, to bless us, to give us a hope and a future, he will ditch the car and put us back on our feet. So many of us don’t allow him to do such a thing, we see our circumstances not as a tool that God will use for our benefit (even if they are ugly), but instead kick and scream and rage and weep that he has left us. We miss the opportunity to get back all that we have lost because we are too busy looking for a way to “get out of the vehicle” he has chosen us to drive in. I trust him. I do. I’ve staked my life on the belief that he is who he says he is, and in doing that, I must live my life in remembrance that he will not lead me astray, and he will not leave me, and nothing is beyond his control, and he has plans for our hope and our future.