Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It Turned Out All Right: Part III

This article was written for the Mount Sinai School of Medicine spinal cord injury newsletter. A PDF of the full article will appear on the website in the next few weeks.     


Part III: Starting Over
When I returned to work at IBM in May 1982 -- 17 months after my surfing accident -- I really didn't know whether I could be a productive employee again. I don't believe my new management team knew either. But my former IBM manager, John Perissi, had encouraged me to come back to work -- and my new management team was willing to give me a chance.

My greatest concerns had to do not with whether I could do the job, but with whether I would fall out of my wheelchair or suffer some other embarrassment in my office. I'm still concerned about that. But I now can handle the fear psychologically because my confidence has improved.

Confidence. It was the key to my comeback. As my confidence in myself grew, my performance at work -- and my capacity for work -- improved. I made new friends. I stopped being embarrassed at being in a wheelchair and began to sit up straight. When I talked to people, I started looking them in the eye again.

IBM managers monitored my progress and gradually increased my workload to the point where I became as productive as the able-bodied employees in my department. I've had full job responsibilities since 1982, and held more than 25 jobs during my 35-year career at IBM -- with more responsibility added in each successive job. I am now an executive at corporate headquarters in Armonk, New York.

Getting Personal
 My former wife and I separated in 1986 and divorced in 1987. I then lived as a bachelor, hiring nurses to get me up and put me to bed each night. And I continued to work full time. During this time I achieved more independence than I thought possible. I drove everywhere by myself, including to job-related assignments, to family functions, and even dates.

I made new friends and socialized more than I had done immediately after my accident. But I never expected another romantic relationship, and never sought to develop one. I needed a wheelchair to make my way in life. I believed I had nothing to offer a woman. My focus was physical -- on my disability and on my wheelchair. Those two facts, I believed, determined who I was. My attitude could have been summed up in one sentence: Who would want a relationship with a quad?
  
I was wrong. At work, over two years, I became friends with Maggie. Our friendship turned into love, and I proposed to her in April of 1988. Many people advised us not to marry, for basically the same reason I was afraid to get involved in a relationship: Why would an able-bodied woman want a life-time commitment with a quad?

Well, we loved each other. We discussed and argued to exhaustion the pros and cons of our relationship and possible future. We discussed my role as a husband. Could I provide for us, or would Maggie have to work? Would nurses still be required to care for my personal needs, or would Maggie assume part or all of my care? Could I protect the family? Would I be a good step-father to Maggie's 4-year-old daughter, Danielle? What would be the quality of our sex life? Could we have our own children, or would we have to adopt? What would living with a quad be like?

We questioned everything. Although this would be the second marriage for both of us, I was particularly cautious: My first marriage had failed partially because of my disability. We were aware of the issues, and felt that our marriage would be difficult in some areas and easier in others. Our greatest letdown came when my doctor told us that there was very little chance of our having children. Men with spinal-cord injuries have only a five percent chance of fathering children naturally. Consequently, my doctor advised us not to marry if we wanted children.

Nonetheless, we were married on Nov. 26, 1988. Ten months later – in Sept.1989 -- Maggie gave birth to our son, James Richard. He weighed 7 pounds, 13 ounces and was 21 inches long. When we are asked how we did it, I tell 'em: "The old fashioned way."
                                                           
Fast-forward to today, I still work full-time and Maggie did wonders with our children. Both are now in Boston: our daughter and her husband, both attorneys, and our son, is finishing up college at Northeastern University. I still have nurses caring for my personal needs, and Maggie helps out whenever I need it. And we're working on our marriage -- just like any other couple.

 I know people may want to commend me for all I've done. But I couldn't do it alone. I have a great support system -- my wife, daughter and son, relatives, friends, colleagues at IBM -- people who haven't given up on me because of my disability. These very same people have also made it difficult for me to fail or give up. They are the ones who should be commended -- the people who have cared. I love them all.

I no longer believe I will walk again. I do believe, however, that science and technology will find a way to reverse the effects of spinal cord injury so that I, and more than 1.2 million people like me in the US, will walk again. Who knows, maybe organizations and businesses like IBM’s great research organization and others along with Mt. Sinai will help find a cure some day. I don’t know, but I am sure a cure can be found.

Some people think I'm overambitious, that my quest for a cure is the hopeless dream of a cripple. But a cure is possible. Frankly, I believe there's nothing wrong with keeping your feet on the ground while reaching for the sky.

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