Every spinal cord injury is different.
That’s what the doctors, nurses, ergos, and physios all emphasised to me in the hospital all those years ago. There were best guesses and prognosis predictions, but everything was given with the caveat that the experts didn’t really know how much I would recover. I will never forget Frau Dr. Hound, the head of the REHAB Basel facility, meeting me for the first time and responding to my naive question about whether I’d ever walk again. “Let’s see if you can ever stand again,” came the honest Swiss response. She didn’t know that I’d already stood with support from the physios in my laborious physical therapy sessions. She didn’t know I’d write this from my standing desk ten years later (I didn’t know that part either). Just like Dr. Netzer, my talented Swiss surgeon whose first conversation with me included the sentence, “I make no promises of you ever walking again,” had no idea I’d walk into her office a year later with the help of four-footed canes, I’ve been defying medical professionals for the past decade. Even Mike, the Kiwi physio I spent my sabbatical working with, told me I broke all the rules for nerve damage. Only the Aussie team of specialists who do exercise based rehab with spinal cord patients weren’t surprised by my abilities or limits - because they knew every spinal cord injury is different.
When I broke my back ten years ago, I had thousands of people around the world hear about my accident and start praying for me. Hundreds dropped off the prayer team within a few weeks. Plenty more stayed faithful in their petitions to God, but that eventually tapered off over time.
Then new people joined the story for either short bursts or long haul commitments to praying for my ongoing growth and recovery. Even with people who were only in my story for a chapter or a season, I’m so grateful for the touchpoint and opportunity to connect with other people interested in my healing journey. The ten year mark comes with a lot of new people into my story, and it’s worth the time to reflect well on this decade of holistic healing.
Sure that physical stuff seems like a good lead in, but it’s not the most interesting part of my story. I get a lot of initial attention because of the wheelchair, but what I’ve realised is that when I’m able to hold interest from others, it’s got nothing to do with my disability. This isn’t like a toxic positivity thing either. Sure I’ve got silver linings to my disability, and you’ll absolutely see me highlight them, but you’ll hopefully not ignore the glaring bold print moments of how disability sucks. Spinal cord injuries are traumatic and unpleasant and have horrible long term consequences. Cutting in line at the airport isn’t worth it for the hassle of strategic dehydration and anxiety over possibly losing parts of my wheelchair due to careless employees throwing cargo into the plane.
I once reflected with a former student during a moment of grief in his life about how he could share the happiness of his friend. My exact words were, “You can also hold the joy of others as distinct from your emotions. Put their happiness in one hand that you offer to them and hold your grief in the other that you share with someone else later.” This is a really important life lesson. I wrote that the week one of my students who I was particularly close to passed away unexpectedly. I was an absolute mess that week, but I had other people who didn’t know my grief who wanted to share their joy with me. I’ve gone back to that concept time and time again with relationship to my disability. On the one hand, disability sucks; on the other hand, my life is incredible, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. As you read through my reflections, I hope you’ll keep one hand for each of those truths.
For people entering in at year ten of my disability, I need to provide some context of the nearly twenty-five years I had pre-disability (my accident was two and a half weeks before my 25th birthday). I grew up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and I was a PDX girl through and through. I never wanted to leave the PNW, and I expected everyone I ever knew would be familiar with those acronyms (PDX is the airport code for Portland International Airport and general reference to the city; PNW is the affectionate local shorthand for the pacific northwest of the United States). When I was a sophomore in high school (Year 11 equivalent in NZ), I decided that I wanted my English teacher Mrs. Maki’s job when I grew up. I was not the first student to say this, but I was determined to be the one to follow through. What a fantastic joke that turned out to be, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
I actually stayed on that trajectory for almost nine years. I went to university specifically to get a teaching degree and be licensed to teach English in the state of Oregon. Because I also love learning and the Bible, I ended up at Multnomah University for the majority of my undergraduate degree where I double majored in Biblical Studies and English; I stayed there for my Masters in Teaching as well. Right out of grad school, God stripped away all my plans to take Mrs. Maki’s job and shoved me outside my comfort zone to teach me that he had plans for me beyond my wildest dreams. I got a job teaching Bible and English at Black Forest Academy in Kandern, Germany, and within weeks, I knew I’d stay longer than my two year commitment. Two years turned into ten with a significant sabbatical in New Zealand stuck in the middle. I really cherish so much of my Kandern season: the friends I made there, the students I taught, and the coworkers who shaped me, the brötchen.
A lot of wild and crazy hurt happened during that decade ranging from a broken back to broken trust to a broken dishwasher.
A lot of wild and crazy healing happened during that decade as well. My physio Anja became a friend and one of my biggest champions as I continued to make physical gains post-accident. My communication skills developed as I practiced writing and sharing my story and even branched out to self-publish a poetry book. My coworker Eric, for whom I already had the utmost respect as an educator and friend, encouraged me to write a textbook for high school students to learn about theology from a more ecumenical and cross-cultural perspective. I found myself regularly included in the “lunch bunch” at Laurie and Dottie’s house as they opened their table to a diverse group of Jesus followers after church many Sundays. My stomach and soul were fed so well at that table.
Minus Anja, anything in that paragraph above could have happened without the disability, but hear me clearly, I never want to give up Anja in my life. She’s such an incredible friend and encourager. I’ve learned so much about holistic health and persistence and grace as she’s walked beside me — literally — for the majority of my recovery. Throwback to the REHAB days, I’ve also got Alex and Danai (and Andy and Anna, and Isabelle, and honestly so many more). Throwback to the week before REHAB, and I have Saskia. Saskia was only in my life for ten days, but those were critical. I was terrified and confused, and when I was told the doctors were fighting my insurance to move me to REHAB Basel, I had no idea what that meant. When Saskia said if she was in my condition, that is the facility she’d be asking to go to, I knew I needed to be there. The way it was explained to me at the time was that I had a 1% chance of learning to walk again and it was only possible if I was at that facility; if I didn’t get to do my rehab there, my odds of ever walking immediately dropped to zero.
When I had my accident, I was really clueless about disability in general and spinal cord injuries in particular. I trusted experts like Saskia and later Alex and Anja to give me necessary advice and perspective. I’ve had a steep learning curve with experts and experience to teach me, and while I know a lot more about my own anatomy and physiological triggers, I promise you the biggest learning gains I’ve had are in the area of patience, perseverance, and my closeness to Jesus. To me, the holistic gains in the area of my emotional and spiritual health are the most valuable. I also promise you that I haven’t given up hope on learning to walk (and pee normally) again.
I mentioned above how the audience I’ve maintained are the people who aren’t just here to gawk at my disability. They also tend to be people who care about my ongoing physical recovery. For that decade span, let’s go back to the day I woke up from surgery in the Basel Unispital: I felt severed from my belly-button down and the only muscle group I had any connection to was my quadriceps. With lots of ups and downs along the way, I have hit significant markers (in no particular order) of: several seconds standing without my braces, hands free, spine stacked and no support; keeping on my feet for over an hour with a standing frame; walking a kilometre independently with just my braces and four-footed crutches; navigating a lap around a physio hall with just hiking poles and Anja’s hands on my waist; crossing a small gym with my braces and Mike’s encouragement; traveling to over twenty countries on three continents diagnosed as a paraplegic. Significantly those are not listed chronologically because my recovery has had this kairos time functioning where I hit markers of growth but don’t necessarily maintain the physical accomplishment ongoing. That day I first walked a kilometre, I needed a lot of rest after. When I hit the half a kilometre daily on the treadmill for a week, I had to stop walking for a month because a massive blister showed up on my foot. Arriving in New Zealand, I didn’t have my routines in place for physio, but I still ended up with double blisters on my feet and had to put my attention on other areas of my holistic health during the initial months of my transition.
I only moved back to New Zealand five months ago, and I’m still within the window experts allow for cultural transition (honestly, it’ll keep going on for more than that initial six months, but that’s the minimum). I’m establishing healthy routines, but I am not at my peak in every area of physical accomplishments. Look back over my brief and far from exhaustive list of physical achievements — they require different muscle groups, nerve signals, energy levels, and stamina. Taking the ten year look, I’m miles (or kilometres) ahead of my post-op condition — far, far beyond what any medical expert could have predicted. One of the most significant parts of Anja’s job of the last decade has been to remind me that we’re approaching a decade. I’ve come so very far from where I first was. I often would finish a physio session or personal workout and be disappointed that I couldn’t do more or feel frustrated and angry about the limitations and setbacks a blister brought. Anja gave me the perspective of not only where I had been but the trajectory in which I was heading.
My trajectory includes more physical ability as well as becoming a kinder, more compassionate human being. The past three years in particular have given me extra opportunities to see how I am a person who needs help physically but that we all need help in some way or another. Whatever it means to be made in the image of God, it has to do with relationship; I’ve grown relationally as I’ve asked for help, asked for prayer, asked for people to sit with me when I’m feeling low emotionally. Sometimes there’s a direct connection to my disability and need for help, but sometimes I’m just human.
I absolutely want to walk again without mobility aids. I want a miraculous healing today. I want full recovery from my nerve damage. But even if that all happened in an instant, I’d still need support. I’d still need community. I’d still need people around me to help me to live to the fullest. I’ve been publicly posting stories of my life and recovery for a decade recognising that it’s this global village that sees my humanity and prays for me in all these details of my life that allows me to thrive in any physical circumstances.
I also want to honour the loose ends and unfinished elements of my story as I hit ten years. I was reflecting with a friend about the tension in writing certain chapters in my memoir because of how I’ve seen people walk away from Jesus or I have a lack of resolution in my story. I would love to write a reflection here that was a beautiful bow on ten years of tragedy, but if you’ve been paying attention, that’s just a fiction. My life isn’t a tragedy; it’s had a decent amount of trauma, yes, but I’m resilient, and I’m working through it. I also am in the middle of the working through. So at my ten year moment, I want to emphasise that this isn’t the end. I’m not at the start, but we’re hanging out in the middle of my story despite nearing the end of this post.
The last thing to do for my traumaversary post is write my five annual prayer requests. Usually I’d create a Facebook event with them as well for the “Better that a Super Birthday Bowl” event where I ask people to pray for these things on my birthday wherever you are around the world, but Facebook events are increasingly irrelevant. I would still really love if you’d put a reminder in your phone to pray through these again at some point on February 4 though.
1. Pray that God is glorified. (That’s the top of the list each year.)
2. Pray for my body’s ongoing integration into the Kiwi system. (Learning doctors, physios, mobility aids, wait lists, requests, referrals, all the lingo and the details.)
3. Pray for new developments in my physical healing.
4. Pray for ongoing growth in my holistic integration into community here.
5. Praise God for bringing me to a place where my whole being is honoured and welcomed, loved and celebrated.