Since the release of my book “Five Years to Live,” I have met with dozens of families who have received and had to deal with the phone call every dreads; “There has been an accident and your son/daughter is paralyzed.” Now what? What does the family do? Who do they contact? When will they know something? How badly is he/she hurt? How do they get to the hospital? Who can take them to the airport? Where do they stay? How do they cope with the shock, grief, and the major overhaul of their life?
Worse yet, is the impact on the injured loved one. Am I going to die? Is the paralysis permanent? Will I be confined to a wheelchair? What will I be able to do? Will I be able to hold a job? How will I support myself? Will I have to live in a nursing home? How long will I be in the hospital? What is going to happen to my relationship with my significant other? What horrors will rehabilitation bring? Will I be able to do it? Will I even want to try? The fears move to panic and ultimately to deep depression. I don’t want to live like this. I don’t want to be a burden on my family. If I survive how long will I live? What will the quality of my life be?
Initially, there is nothing to do but pray and wait. Pray for the best and wait for the outcome of the surgery. There is nothing worse than waiting and not knowing. The fear and uncertainty are overwhelming. All you can do is wait. Once the surgery is over you get the news and you go through all the fears again. The doctor gives you the clinical results and sets the expectations going forward. As bad as things have been up to this point, they are about to get even worse. Everything you know is gone. The family and their son/daughter will have to learn how to perform every basic function in life all over again. Will he/she have the herculean strength necessary to rebuild their body, their mind, their life? Will the family be able to provide the support and assistance needed? Most people don’t. The majority of people in this situation simply give up hope and death comes quickly.
So you start the long, painful, grueling recovery and rehabilitation process. You deal with the constant infections, additional surgeries, the new medication, the side effects, and constant adjustments to the medication. Then another battle occurs, fighting with insurance companies. If you are lucky the insurance will settle quickly. More times than not, you will end up in court trying to get the bills paid and secure the equipment that will be needed for the rest of his/her life.
Each step along the way brings a sense of hope that you will get through this terrible ordeal. This sense of hope is accompanied by devastating depression as you discover that the average life expectancy is five years and you have spent the first year in the hospital.
So you cheated death once. Can you pick up the pieces and continue to survive? No one knows for sure. One thing doctors cannot explain or predict is the power of the human spirit. Those that survive don’t let their circumstances control their life. They find a purpose, a passion that gives them a reason to continue fighting. They refuse to be a spectator. You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only option. The only failure is giving up.
Frank Zaccari is the author of the book “Five Years to Live.”