Make the Wheelchair Disappear

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The irony was not lost on me that day. It was Dec. 18, 2010. I was at 3,000 feet, frigid Pennsylvania air gusting in my face as I leaned forward in my ski boots. Below me, the course unfurled like a jagged ribbon in the morning fog. The view was serene, but my pulse fluttered with the excitement of race day. I shot down the mountain in my usual go-for-broke style, arms flailing and the razor-sharp edges of my skis cutting into icy crust. As the finish line approached, I squatted into a tight tuck. My legs burned.

Two states south, in a Virginia trauma center, my cousin couldn’t feel his legs.

Learning about my cousin's spinal cord injury


Two young men seated and smiling

The phone call came during the three-hour drive home. Kevin, a then-senior at Washington and Lee University, had been in an early-morning car accident on an ice-glazed road. He was paralyzed from the waist down. I broke down.

Though Kevin is nearly 10 years my senior, we grew up on the same street and shared passions for surfing, camping, kayaking, and spontaneous fort-building in our back yards. Following the accident, I went to the hospital almost daily – he had been moved to a Washington D.C. rehabilitation facility – armed with cheerful greetings, lame jokes, and false hopes.

At first I was frantic. Frantic to figure out a way Kevin would walk again. Frantic to make the wheelchair go away. Then I took action. On a sub-freezing day that December, I did a one-day ski-a-thon, raising $13,000 for rehabilitation equipment I hoped would get Kevin’s legs to move on their own again. I helped him with physical therapy, crouched on a gym floor pushing his feet forward as Kevin balanced on a walker.

Next I poured my energy into learning. I researched spinal cord injury and began to understand how a blow to the spinal cord damages nerve cells, blocking messages from traveling back and forth between the brain and the rest of the body. I read about stem cell procedures and other treatments, none of which looked promising. I came to the realization that, barring a miracle or medical breakthrough, Kevin might not walk again. I felt discouraged and frustrated.

The gift of mentoring

Then I met Jeremy. He’s a mentor at a nearby rehabilitation hospital. A 20-something quadriplegic who was injured in a diving accident, Jeremy has an infectious smile, an enthusiasm for the outdoors, and a zeal for rugby and biking. He’s hell on wheels in hospital corridors, zooming around in his chair at full speed and coming to screeching stops as he visits the newly injured. He cracks jokes. He fields questions. And he sends the not-so-subtle message that folks in a wheelchair can still have fun.

During the past four years, I have worked to spread that message. I have become very involved with the paralysis community, volunteering at events and hosting awareness programs at my school. I have met a community of people that plays rugby, competes in marathons, and spends summer days surfing, wheelchairs be damned. I befriended an older paraplegic who – along with teeing it up most weekends – founded NRH, one of the country’s premiere rehab hospitals. I once asked Jeremy’s wife – an able-bodied woman – how she came to marry a wheelchair-user. “I don’t see Jeremy in a wheelchair,” she replied. “I just see Jeremy.”

A new perspective on disability

Disabilities don’t extinguish dreams. They just create new ones. Take Kevin. He’s still in a wheelchair, but he teaches at a boys’ middle school, coaches basketball, and competed in the 2014 Baltimore Marathon, coming in fifth in the hand-cycle division.

And me? Since that grim 2010 Christmas, I’ve changed. Am I still hopeful for a cure for paralysis? Absolutely. But I’ve taken on a new role, one I liken to that of a magician: to make the wheelchair disappear. 

Because at the end of the day, I don’t want people to see Kevin in a wheelchair. I just want them to see Kevin.

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