I couldn't believe how complicated this daily excursion was. First my head and neck had to be immobilized in a rigid cervical collar. Then Ace bandages were wrapped around most of my torso in order to keep my blood pressure from dropping when I sat up. Next a rigid sheet of plastic called a sliding board was positioned under my body; two nurses rolled me onto my side while two others slid the board into place. Before the transfer into the wheelchair I was gradually pushed up into a sitting position on the bed. My blood pressure was monitored every ninety seconds. Sometimes I would faint, which meant a ten- to fifteen-minute wait before another attempt. On a bad day it might take two or three tries. On a good day I could achieve sitting up with a stabilized blood pressure in about twenty minutes. When I could sit up without "crashing" we were ready for the big maneuver. The wheelchair was placed against the left side of the bed and its right arm removed. The bed was lowered to the level of the wheelchair. I lay flat again and my team of helpers carefully dragged the sliding board over to form a bridge between the wheelchair and the bed. The next step was sitting up again. If that was successful, I was gently placed in the chair and the board was taken away. After a few minutes of adjusting to being in the wheelchair, I was pushed down the corridor and into the dayroom.
As I started to face reality during the month in intensive care and six months in rehab, moments from my former life kept popping into my head. It was like a slide show, but the pictures were all out of sequence, as if they had been placed randomly in the projector. As a long plastic tube was inserted through my neck and pushed down into my lungs to remove accumulating fluid, suddenly I would be sailing in Maine. But before the next slide appeared on the screen in my mind, secretions were being suctioned up the tube. A moment or two later, Dana and I were making love; I was on a horse jumping over stone walls in the countryside; I was taking a curtain call after a performance in the theater, carrying boxes and lugging furniture up four flights of stairs into my first apartment in New York. Then it was four in the morning, and two aides had woken me up by turning me over onto my other side so that my skin wouldn't break down from lying in one position too long. Even though I was flipped from side to side every two hours at night for nearly three years after my injury, I almost never slept through it. More images flashed on the screen, usually snapshots of my most cherished memories when I was whole and healthy and free.
Psychologists came to the bedside, but their tone was often patronizing and I was usually relieved when they went away. I had to read the Spinal Cord Manual, which had little to say about patients with my level of injury. I had to choose a color for my new Sip-N-Puff wheelchair, which would allow me to drive by myself without being pushed. I had to locate a specially equipped accessible van with four-wheel drive, heavy-duty shock absorbers, and a mechanical lift. I had to approve plans for remodeling our house so that I could work, eat, and sleep all on one floor. There were dozens of other issues that had to be faced. Reality was now my new identity as a C-2 vent-dependent quadriplegic. My vision for the future prior to three o'clock on May 27, 1995, I now classified as what would have been a normal life. Everything after that instant I now had to accept as the new reality. Deep inside I was angry, and I probably still carry much of that anger with me today. But the critical factor was that in spite of myself, I was adjusting to my new life.
Dana's intuition about what my state of mind would be two years after the accident proved to be absolutely right: I was glad to be alive, not out of obligation to others, but because life was worth living. By May 27, 1997, we were settled in our bedroom in the new wing of our home north of New York City, having camped out in the dining room for more than six months. The Gloaming, a film I directed for HBO, had premiered in late April and been warmly received by the critics and the public. I had become the spokesman for HealthExtras, a company based in Maryland that offers low-cost supplemental insurance to cover nonmedical expenses in the event of a catastrophic illness or disability. The American Paralysis Association, founded by Henry Stifel, Sr., in 1982 after his son Henry suffered a spinal cord injury at age seventeen, had now become the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Although it was still run by a small staff in a Springfield, New Jersey, office building, the annual research budget had grown from $300,000 to more than $3 million. I was healthy enough to accept speaking engagements around the country, even though the travel required private planes, three nurses, two aides, and a coordinator of logistics and accessibility.
Excerpted from Nothing Is Impossible by Christopher Reeve. Copyright 2002 by Christopher Reeve. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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