Learning to Move Again: My Father’s Ongoing Recovery Journey
Thrilled to share this guest post! I've known Danielle since we were awkward tweens in middle school, and can honestly say that she's just as delightful and strong and caring in person as she comes across in this piece. She gets the LION moments– the like-it-or-not, life-changed-in-an-instant kind of trauma– because she's experienced her own and years later is somehow wiser and kinder in spite of it all. Make yourself comfortable and read on! (Bethany)
I’d like to preface this post by applauding the work and mission of LION. They didn’t ask me to say this, but selfishly, I have to: LION is an organization I’ve been needing for a while. It’s difficult to understand the story of a survivor—be it someone recovering from an illness or accident. People can have the best intentions to try to put themselves in another person’s shoes, but day-to-day life is so much more than that. LION gets it. They’re here to connect people with struggles, triumphs and advice. It’s an amazing platform.
I’m honored to share my story not as a survivor but as the proud daughter of a paraplegic father who’s excelled in his recovery journey for more than 12 years. And he’s still going strong.
When I was 16 years old, my father suffered from an aortic aneurysm that left him paralyzed from the chest down. It was the most abrupt and life-changing moment my family has ever faced. Without warning, dad’s mobility was compromised, and we almost lost him. He was only 47 years old.
I’ll never forget the night it happened—the pain in dad’s voice, the sea of emergency lights, the uncoverable, worried looks on my family’s faces and the pit in my stomach.
We never forget the moments that change our lives forever—the ones that, for better or worse, instantly make us wiser, stronger and better equipped to help others.
Dad was rushed to the hospital, but due to the severity of his aneurysm, the hospital urged he be airlifted by helicopter to the University of Michigan Hospital. His case was so severe that it required the work of a skilled doctor, who was also airlifted in.
Dad laid in pain as we waited hours for the doctor. Family trickled in to see him. After hearing him express, “I can’t feel my legs,” his condition was uncertain, and any outcome was possible.
Dr. George Michael Deeb’s entrance was remarkable. He was tall, serious and hurried. Staff whisked dad away, and we settled in the waiting room for a long, worrisome countdown until we’d see him again.
Nearly seven hours later, dad’s open-heart surgery was complete. Dr. Deeb pulled my mom, sister and me aside. He explained that the surgery was successful. It was remarkable that dad had even survived the aneurysm—only two percent of people in his condition do. Dr. Deeb emphasized that, from there on out, life would be complicated. He asked of us three things: patience, strength and gratitude. Without hesitation, we obliged.
For months, we visited dad in intensive care. During that time, we had an outpouring of love and support from family and friends. The cards, homemade meals, gift cards and help with construction to the house to make it a better fit for dad was extremely humbling. I tried my best not to fall apart every time someone asked about him, but it broke my heart when they inquired about him being home and walking.
Dad laid still, unconscious and hooked to all kinds of monitors, for weeks. I’d talk to him anyway. The nurses took the best care of dad, even keeping us posted on their personal phones.
The day dad opened his eyes was the miracle I prayed for, and even though, in his scratchy voice, his first words muttered were, “Hi, ugly,” I couldn’t have been happier.
Weeks of physical therapy helped dad regain some of his strength. He built up muscle in his arms to help him transfer from his wheelchair to other surfaces using a wooden board. He learned how to maneuver on two wheels. His physical recovery was moving full speed ahead.
The stacks of medical bills piled up long before dad’s arrival home, as did the visits from occupational therapists suggesting outlandish renovations to the house, such as an elevator and a hospital bed. The day we brought dad home, none of that mattered. It was a celebration. Mom promised we wouldn’t let anything upset us that day.
Getting dad into the car was the first time I realized my family was now different. People stared as dad carefully planned his transfer from his wheelchair to the passenger seat.
To this day, I find myself teaching adults that staring is impolite.
We got him home safely. His entrance, however, was deflating. He wasn’t as thrilled to see the renovations to the house as we were to show him. Nearly the entire lower level was remodeled by my uncle, cousins and family friends to better fit his needs. The project was nicely done, but, to him, it was just another sign that life would never be the same.
Dad had to learn an entirely new way of life, from basic care to transportation. He sold his car to purchase a new one with doors that would swing wide enough for him to place his wheelchair in the backseat. The car was installed with hand controls, and after a few classes, dad relearned to drive. He found a new job when his current role proved to be too difficult in his condition.
Life threw us more curveballs than we knew what to do with. There were easy fixes, like buying new clothes and finding ramps instead of stairs. There were tough days of slips and falls and equipment needs. There were even tougher days, weeks and months of hospital and rehabilitation center visits with no clear end in sight.
I learned early on that this world is not built for people like dad.
Early on, the challenges were hard to face without getting upset. A lack of handicapped parking spots or a joke about people with disabilities set me off. I couldn’t comprehend when waitstaff didn’t pick up on the cue that “we don’t need this chair” or friends talked about traveling the world with their dads.
But after years of measuring doorways and trying to find apartments on the first floor so dad could visit; after dozens of fights because we were just so frustrated with the cards we were dealt; after countless unplanned holidays and birthdays in healthcare facilities, I am more patient. I am stronger. And I am so grateful to have my dad in my life.
I made it my mission to dance with dad at my wedding. After a very emotional walk down the aisle, slightly worried he’d run over my dress, we celebrated at the reception by swaying to “My Girl”. Dad smiled from ear to ear as he asked, “Are you having fun?” Fun was a major understatement.
Dad is doing great. He’s been out of the hospital and healthy for months. He’ll be 60 this year. After a few years of attempting to adopt a service dog, and getting bumped to the bottom of the list each time he got sick, he ended up taking in a non-trained puppy as a companion. He plans to teach “Scout” himself. He speaks excitedly about visiting me in Colorado, where I now reside. It would be his first flight since his injury, but after all he’s been through, what’s not possible?
Recovery is not easy, and it’s never-ending. It is a lifelong journey of struggles, triumphs and opportunities to shed light onto others. I’ve never seen dad so happy when he donated his standing wheelchair to another paraplegic man he met through someone at work. New challenges will arise. Times will be frustrating and sad.
Watching someone you love struggle is one of the worst feelings a heart can know. But although recovery is messy and nonlinear, taking each day in stride makes you more equipped to handle the next. Beating the odds is something you’ll never regret. It makes you wiser and better qualified to help others. And if we continue to practice patience, strength and gratitude, it will all be OK.
Thanks for sharing part of your story, Danielle! Anyone who has endured their own like-it-or-not experience knows how powerful it can be to tell your story AND to hear from others about strength and courage and everyday messy moments.
Interested in sharing part of your story of survival or recovery with the LION community? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org