I’m Still Breathing

Updated: Jun 30, 2020

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| This is the 300th story of Our Life Logs |

Stand, sit, eat, drink, poop, pee, and breathe—thoughtless functions for a healthy body. But there I lay, a limp, lifeless, 27-year-old inconvenience.

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I grew up in Massillon, Ohio in the ’90s, bookended by my two strong and very opinionated sisters. My parents, both being public school teachers, emphasized academia. My father, being a football coach, emphasized hard work and a “no-pain, no-gain attitude.”

I started playing football when I was seven and instantly fell in love with the game. My dream was to be the starting quarterback for Massillon Washington High School. After a few growth spurts and hundreds of father-son practice sessions in the yard, my dream came true. And honestly, I was pretty good.

As the quarterback, I led my high school team to victory after victory, to state runner-up in 2009. I went on to college (with a full ride to play on the football team) to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. After we won the MAC championship in Detroit, Michigan, I left and found a new home at Notre Dame College where I helped build the first winning team in 20 years.

Me playing for my high school team, the Massillon Tigers, 2015.
Me playing for my high school team, the Massillon Tigers, 2015.

And finally, I graduated with honors from Hiram University in Hiram, Ohio where I obtained my political science degree. The summer after graduation, I represented the USA in a football match in Chihuahua, Mexico. I came back to the states and worked at several universities before finding my home at Indiana University where I met my amazing girlfriend, Emily.

In my #15 jersey with my parents and teammate at Hiram college, 2017.
In my #15 jersey with my parents and teammate at Hiram college, 2017.

This is all to say that I kept the golden path. I put in the hours of sweat on the practice field that made my bones ache and my muscles feel as if they were on fire—and I didn’t skimp in the classroom either. I studied, I got my diploma, and I was making it out there—really making it. So, what the hell happened?

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May 21, 2018. I had been driving all day, keeping good time on the 8-hour trek from Atlanta, Georgia, to Bloomington, Indiana. I had been in Atlanta for my grandmother’s 90th birthday party. I spent two glorious days catching up with family and celebrating with three generations that gathered from all ways of the compass to be together. We took a family snapshot before I left, which turned out to be my last picture of me standing. As my GPS signaled that I had 20 minutes left on my drive, my steering wheel took a hard jerk.

Out the corner of my eye, my left to be exact, I saw something black fly over my car. I pulled the steering wheel to evade the cement median avalanching towards me. It did nothing. I covered my face to protect myself from the glass that invaded my skin while the motion threw my backpack and its contents loose in the car like the jackpot ball machine. In these seconds, my perfect Ford Focus rolled like a corn cob on a grill. Three times it flipped, landing in a ditch on the opposite side of traffic.

I remember it all. I never lost consciousness, nor did I forget the wonderful woman who cared enough to stop and stay with me until the emergency responders came. She told me her name and I gave her mine in return.

She said, “Stay still, don’t turn your head, and don’t move your legs. I think they are broken.” But I couldn’t feel them. I stayed awake right up until they took me into the operating room to relieve the pressure on my spinal cord.

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I woke up in the ICU with a brace on my neck and an IV cord in my arm. A white-coated army blinked into view, speaking a language of anatomy. I listened to the wall of artificial intelligence beeping its own Morse code. The doctors told me that I had severed my spinal cord anterior and posterior and broke cervical vertebrae four through seven. They had to take bone from my lower body to remake my vertebrae. Rods, pins, and screws were holding up my neck. I couldn’t process what it all meant. I was still in shock.

The stitches given after surgery.
The stitches given after surgery.

The doctors gave me a series of tests, can you feel this, can you do that, what day is it, do you know where you are? I only passed the verbal. Then, I heard my parents ask the very hard question that the doctors had yet to mention.

“Will he ever walk again?”

After a Gettysburg photo’s cold pause, the doctor responded with a jumbled list of words like: severe, pinch, bruise, fracture, new bones that had to be manufactured, some metal, and some pins and screws.

And then finally, the honest, “We don’t know.”

We don’t know.

     We don’t know.

My father became broken by the doctor’s response while he held my mother from liquefying into a pool on the ground.

The doctors scrambled an attempt at consoling, “We’re not even out of the woods, not even close, and it’s not looking good.”

Next, they chimed in with, “Your son is a new member of the ICU and can stay at least week, maybe two. But he is now a quadriplegic, and unfortunately, in Bloomington, Indiana, there isn’t much we can do.”