When I tattooed the phrase “do life” on my right wrist to mark the eighth anniversary of the skiing accident that left me with C3-4 quadriplegia, it was equal parts memorial and mission statement.
It was a tribute to my first wife, Kristen, who I’d lost to an accidental overdose a few months earlier. She’d used the mantra with me incessantly when we first met, soon after my accident. At the time, I didn’t want to hear what the cute rehab nurse in my hospital room was trying to tell me, but her words took on a whole new meaning when she wandered back into my life six years later and helped show me that I was far more capable than I gave myself credit for.
Flash forward to today, and the old me wouldn’t recognize the new. A glance at my social media feeds portrays me as the guy who, 10 years after it happened, went back up the mountain where I was injured to exorcise some demons. I’m also the guy who travels the country advocating on behalf of the SCI community, even though the airlines have destroyed my wheelchair and left me abandoned on multiple occasions. What isn’t shown is the long, winding path I took that first decade — especially the first six years, when I barely left my hospital bed, let alone my bedroom or house.
My injury was easily the most disorienting thing I’ve ever experienced. It was as if a curtain had been raised, showing an entirely new spectrum of danger that I never knew was there. Hell, during that time, I didn’t even look in the mirror or allow people to take photos of me because I was terrified of facing the reality of my new life. Kristen helped to change that by lighting a fire inside me. It’s a torch I’ve been carrying ever since she passed.
What I discovered during that slow evolution from depressed shut-in to experienced traveler and advocate is that doing life post-SCI requires a learned fearlessness. It’s only by exposing ourselves to our fears, whether they are perceived or legitimate threats, that we find ways to move beyond them and unlock our full potential. It is our willingness to push past our limitations that helps us find rich and meaningful lives.
I spoke with four people from our SCI community about how they embrace doing life. Whether they learned to go with the flow, reclaim vocations, strengthen family bonds or resist overprotective parents, each one says that cultivating fearlessness improved their post-injury life.
Saying Yes to Challenges
Environmental consultant Josh Hancock has always tried to foster an attitude of taking life as it comes. His positive outlook was put to the test four years ago when he injured his spinal cord at T12 while ice climbing near Source Lake in the Washington Cascades.
Soon after his injury, Hancock, living in Seattle at the time, planned a trip to the Western United States that turned into a two-year-long odyssey. To help quell his initial fears about travelling independently post-injury, he mastered important basics like transferring into his manual chair from the ground and getting in and out of his minivan. But he was unprepared for the emotions that washed over him when he finally set out.
“I felt this wave of both fear and excitement,” says Hancock. “I felt so exposed — it was like climbing. I was in the world again. I was thinking, what if my car breaks down, or if I get a flat tire, what would I do? And I didn’t have any of those answers.”
Allowing this mixture of emotions to fuel him, he packed his van for a month-long trip starting with the No Barriers Summit in Park City, Utah, where he got his first taste of adaptive sports.
“It was a large gathering of really interesting people,” he says. “This woman said, ‘Josh, have you ever wanted to go down the Grand Canyon?’ And I was like, ‘Fuck yes! I mean … yes, I want to be on that trip, put my name down.’ She said it was a year and half away, and I said ‘I don’t care, put my name down.’”
Hancock says making a habit out of saying yes to life’s challenges develops mental pathways in the same way that repetitive exercises strengthen muscle memory. Just as bad experiences distort your perception of the world toward the negative, good ones build confidence, and that confidence is compounded with every success.
Once the summit finished, he made his way up to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for two and a half weeks. While there, he was forced to confront his disability head-on. “I was alternating between new friends introducing me to fun things like whitewater kayaking, and being in my van for two or three days, lying there naked and pissing all over myself from bladder spasms, just feeling like … what is all this?”
Hancock credits what he calls mental jujitsu for his ability to deal with these ups and downs. “I try to remember that consciousness is a gift. I’m in chronic pain all day, every day,” he says. “There is a saying that even the opportunity to feel pain is a privilege.”
As 2015 drew to a close, he made his way back up to Seattle. The lease on his apartment was coming to an end, and he could feel the itch — it was time to make a change. “I didn’t really know where I wanted to live, but Seattle was not working for me in many, many ways,” says Hancock, who is originally from Fairpoint, New York.
That’s when he decided to buy a Sprinter van, outfit it as a camper and make it his new home.
Hancock spent most of 2016 zigzagging across the western states, chasing cool opportunities that seemed to come one after another. He traveled through Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado and California. He learned to monoski, spent some time learning about adaptive surfing in Southern California, embarked on a 10-day trip on the Salmon River in Idaho, and topped it all off with mountain biking in Colorado. The fun came to an abrupt halt in December when an accident suddenly left him homeless and vanless at the same time. “I felt so helpless and depressed, just crushed,” he says. “That was gnarly.”
Hancock eventually found a suitable place to live that was not quite ready for him to move into, leaving him a few weeks to kill. Instead of wallowing in his misfortune, he had a realization. “If I’m paying for rental cars and hotels and all that,” he remembers thinking, “why not travel?” He sent out a message to friends to see who might be free for an impromptu trip and four days later wound up in Colombia, South America, on yet another adventure. “We had a magical time,” he says.
Getting By With a Little Help From Friends
A 1,600-pound hay bale fell off the front-end loader of Ken Vetter’s tractor and nearly crushed him in June 2017. The third-generation farmer from the rural outskirts of Montesanto, Washington, found himself in the hospital, a C6-7 quad. He was at the bottom of a steep learning curve with the clock ticking toward discharge. “The way insurance is, hospitals don’t have time to teach you everything you need to know,” he says. “You have to relearn your whole life in a month.”
In total, he and his wife, Janet, were given 45 days to work on his physical recovery while trying to find answers to the infinite number of questions they had about the future. What would happen to the family farm? Who would manage it if he could not? In a tiny town of barely 4,000 people, what kind of resources could they expect to come home to? Thirteen days after being admitted, they got an unlikely answer to the last question in the form of a new friend.
Jeff Miller recalls hearing a radio broadcast about Vetter’s injury while driving back from the auto repair shop he owns in the nearby town of Aberdeen. Days later, he sustained a T11 injury of his own when he fell off a ladder while trimming trees at his home, a mere 13 miles from Vetter’s farm. When Vetter first heard the news that a neighbor had suffered a similar injury, he wondered aloud to his wife if this was all part of a larger design.
Vetter and Miller connected in rehab and quickly bonded over their shared sharp-witted sense of humor and love for working outdoors. They were nearly inseparable from that point on. It became normal to see Vetter towing Miller up the hills near the hospital to help conserve his friend’s energy. When it came time for discharge, the Vetters moved Miller into their home while he awaited the remodel of his own.
Once he moved back home, with the help of Vetter’s farm hand, Miller modified his side-by-side UTV with crude hand controls, and hatched plans to get his friend back in the saddle as well. “It’s been important to me to be able to get him doing things that might make him a little more independent,” says Miller.
Janet jokingly refers to Miller as her second husband and the duo as “a couple of knuckleheads who are always finding ways to cause trouble.” Take the time the guys told her they had a plan to get Vetter into some of his old equipment. “I thought they were just going to get him in the gator,” says Janet, referring to a small all-terrain vehicle.
What she didn’t know was that the guys rigged up a pseudo-Hoyer lift inside the barn and attached a steel plate to the bucket of the very same loader Vetter was driving when he got hurt. “A therapist would never condone sitting on this giant piece of steel and being shoved into an excavator,” quips Miller. “I got about three hours of work out of him before he tuckered out.”
“It’s not as scary as he makes it sound,” Vetter retorts before Miller fires back, “Oh no, it most definitely is.”
Less than 18 months after their respective injuries, you wouldn’t even notice Vetter and Miller were paralyzed if you came rolling up to the construction site of the Vetter’s new accessible home. You’d see the pair manning heavy machinery, one doing the grade work for the front yard and the other backfilling the new drain field installation.
It’s testament to the bond that is created through peer connections, and the power that bond imbues. “They would have been best buddies no matter what,” Janet says of the weird twist of fate that brought them together, given how many mutual acquaintances they have. “It’s hard to imagine how they weren’t already friends.”
Fueled By Family
For family man Brad Hensley, who wound up a T1 para after a routine cervical fusion to relieve three herniated discs went awry three years ago, it seems like not doing life is not an option. His wife, Cara, and their blended family of five children needed him. What exactly that looked like, he wasn’t sure. A lead for a plumbing contractor for 20 years in residential and new construction, he’d always been a hands-on kind of father, and he couldn’t help but wonder how his injury would affect the family dynamic.
He’s quick to credit Cara for being his rock since day one. The two were married just 14 months prior to his injury, and she did much of the grieving in the first five weeks, during which he was in a medically induced coma in the ICU. By the time he woke up, she was already on the run, and it took him a while to catch up. “She said, ‘You don’t have the luxury to be down and out, or woe is me,” he recalls. ‘You have five kids who look up to you for inspiration and guidance.’”
Shouldering the burden of being a parent while simultaneously trying to make sense of his new life was a challenge early on. He made time for his emotions at night and during the day when no one was around. “There was a switch that went on when the kids were up in the morning,” he says. “I needed to focus on them.”
Hensley talked with several parents with SCI who all said the same thing: It’s not important how they show up for their children’s activities, but that they show up. It’s invaluable advice he takes to heart, making his best effort to be present at every game or recital. “As much as possible, I try to be there, even if I can’t be sitting on the sideline,” he says.
At some point, Hensley started to notice he was no longer just showing up for the family — he could feel himself adjusting to his new normal. “It was time to get rolling — there was so much more life to live,” he says.
Hensley started to recruit his kids to help with home projects, and then to help neighbors on small remodels. When a friend who uses a wheelchair was having issues lining up a drain for a sink, Hensley sent videos of his oldest son, Spencer, walking through the steps. “He’s been my right hand when I need something done,” says Hensley.
Still, when Hensley’s youngest daughter, Alyssa, asked him to go to a father-daughter dance, he was nervous. “I was scared for her because I didn’t want her to be singled out for not really dancing, just being with a guy in a wheelchair,” he says. But he got dressed up anyway, and the two of them quickly realized that it didn’t matter what other people thought. “She’d stand on my feet, sit on my lap or stand next to me. It turned out great.”
By the time the family took its first substantial road trip last summer, they were all used to going the extra mile. Before they ever hit the road, troubles with their adaptive van threatened to derail their plans completely. Cara would not be denied. “I wasn’t going to let this one little hiccup spoil our trip,” she says.
Using a borrowed Hoyer lift, Cara and their eldest daughter, Emily, managed to maneuver Brad into the passenger seat of an unadapted rental. Then they loaded the lift and chair into a small travel trailer they towed behind them and resumed their vacation.
Successful on-the-fly ingenuity, coupled with trust built over prior experiences, deepened the family’s well of perseverance the next time plans inevitably went sideways. Facing wheelchair battery issues and a handful of inaccessible hotel rooms on the trip, they all worked as a team to improvise, adapt and overcome. “Everything that happened, we all just kind of rolled with it,” says Hensley.
Facing the Fears of Others
It’s not just our own fears we have to deal with in the aftermath of a new injury or diagnosis, but the fears of everyone in our support network, says Brook McCall. McCall fell from a balcony while attending University of California Santa Barbara in 2002 and ended up a C4 quad. She vividly recalls the anxious looks on the faces of family and friends when she first woke up after spinal fusion surgery.
Like pieces attached to a shaken mobile, when a person experiences such a dramatic change, everyone attached to them spins uncontrollably. They may experience a natural tendency to try to control what they think they can in an attempt to regain their own bearings, but that overreaction can prevent the natural motions of the injured person’s life from taking place. “Many people were dismissive about my desire to try to finish college,” says McCall. “I don’t believe they meant harm, because these were people who loved me. But at the same time, it hurt me that this was the story they pictured for me.”
Add in medical professionals conveying a grim prognosis, and McCall found herself facing a bleak and empty future. “I didn’t see it like that, but it’s how things are presented when you are newly injured,” she says. “Sure, you can try to live independently. You can try to go back to school, but those with experience insinuated that it would be nearly impossible.”
With that prognosis in mind, the people around McCall started making plans she wasn’t quite ready for. Constant talk of modifications to the family home terrified the fiercely independent 22-year-old even more than the uncharted waters of living independently as a newly-injured high quad. “What I was fearful of was being stuck without opportunities for a full life with purpose,” she says. “I didn’t know exactly what my path was, but I still wanted to be in charge of it.”
McCall moved into a two-bedroom place with her grandmother in San Diego, and started the process of transferring her credits from UC Santa Barbara to UC San Diego. When her acceptance letter still didn’t convince her family that she was serious about her goals, she was forced to have some hard conversations: “I had to look people in the face and say, ‘No. I’m doing this.’”
Tough talks are essential to reclaim your independence, McCall says, but they need to be backed up with action and a lot of work. “That’s when the rubber really hit the road,” she says.
Figuring out how to navigate an independent life as a high quad is the ultimate trust fall — repeated with every caregiver interview, training and first night falling asleep with a stranger in your home. “All I had to go on was that I’m a good person, and I would never take advantage of those situations. So I had to have faith in humanity,” she says. “I had to ask for a lot of help.”
She posted flyers everywhere and after a lot of searching, wound up hiring a former resident advisor as her first caregiver. That helped open the doors to other students working for her. As her care team began to solidify and her ability to self-direct her care alleviated her family’s fears, the need for their supplemental support became less frequent. “It was definitely more of a show than tell — basically proving to them, the school and myself, by just doing it and making it work,” she says.
After a year and a half of relentless effort, sometimes taking up to five or six classes per quarter, McCall completed her undergraduate degree in biological anthropology. She then earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, parlaying her personal journey into a platform for change. Given how hard the rehab system was for her, she fears it is even worse for someone with no resources or support system. “My injury and hospital experience enlightened me to a world I was unaware of and realities that spurred me to be involved in change for the better,” she says.
Now settled in Portland, Oregon, and working as the grassroots advocacy manager for United Spinal Association, McCall is helping knock down barriers for others all over the country and encouraging them to do life.
Fearless Vs. Fear Less: My Own Conclusions
Being fearless is not lacking fear. In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s having fears and choosing to go forward despite them. It’s a blend of persistence and courage that can be developed over time. There are mental, emotional and spiritual muscles that can be strengthened through repetition. They can, when flexed at the right time, catapult your life to the next level — whether it’s moving out on your own, taking a road trip or reconnecting with your true passions in life.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind and negative self-talk that convinces you you’re going to be an utter failure on the next endeavor, all the while forgetting how far you’ve come. Living fearlessly takes a lot of many things: asking for help from family and strangers, being open to learning with and from others, getting to know your reactions to life’s challenges, and developing new habits.
At some point, you flip from fearing what might go wrong to fearing you’ll miss out on the growth that lies just beyond. By continually pushing against your boundaries, you learn to see the world, and yourself, from a perspective you may have never considered.
This happened for me this past spring while my future wife, Claire, and I planned our wedding. Claire, a diehard Dancing with the Stars fan, sweetly, but unequivocally, demanded that we dance at our wedding.
At first, I shot it down, for fear of the inevitable embarrassment. But then I realized I didn’t want to start this chapter of our lives with the narrative that there were certain things I wouldn’t do because of my insecurities surrounding my life in a wheelchair. All it took was a single lesson with an adaptive dance coach to help me see ways Claire and I could have fun with it. So we had that first dance, and it turned out to be the most memorable part of the entire wedding. It really brought the house down.
So the next time life presents an opportunity to stretch one of your comfort zones, I hope you’ll take the chance to be fearless and surprise yourself.