Returning home was all I wanted since my injury. I even tried to run away from the rehabilitation center with my cousin. However, now that that day was upon me, I was completely confused by my mixed emotions. “I’m happy to go home but I don’t know what to expect,” I was actually scared. So many concerns ran through my head. “How am I going to get in my house? How will I move around? How will I get upstairs to my bedroom? Where will I sleep?” were just a few of the many questions I asked myself. All of which I would soon have answers to.
During my time at the rehabilitation center, unbeknownst to me, my dad had been preparing our home for this day. With 20 plus years of carpentry experience, he was adding a ramp outside, building a two-story extension on the back of our home, as well as having an elevator installed. This task should have required a home makeover; however, it didn’t because we had a patio and large enough yard space to permit the necessary alterations.
While my house was under construction, I slept downstairs in our family room in a similar bed I had in the hospital. It was weird, despite being home, the only thing I was comfortable with was that bed. Having to interact with my once comfortable environment, now a quadriplegic this was truly life changing.
According to Merriam Webster a quadriplegic “is one affected with partial or complete paralysis of both the arms and legs especially as a result of spinal cord injury or disease in the region of the neck.”
Now back to the story…Despite my parents’ best efforts to make me comfortable, I was still completely dependent on them. Often times I couldn’t help but to think, “They must feel like they have a newborn baby…a 16-year-old baby!” It also didn’t help that we used a baby monitor so that they could hear me if I needed assistance at night.
Despite my vulnerability, I tried my hardest to maintain positive thoughts. However, the feeling of being a burden was growing extremely fast. One of my parents had to get up and rotate me side to side multiple times throughout the night and day so I wouldn’t get a bedsore. Someone had to cook for me…feed me...groom me…bathe me…dress me…AND transfer me to and from the bed EVERYDAY. And that was just to get my day started.
At the end of a long day, often times I would overhear my mom say how bad her back was hurting. “I can only imagine”, I would think. My mom is 4’11 and I’m 6’1. Adding to the burden I felt I was, my mom’s life revolved around tending to my every need. During this time, I also started losing friends. Additionally, even family members stopped coming around. The phone conversations, visits, and check-ins all gradually stopped, except for a select few. This constant reminder of the burden I was, hurled me into a state depression. As a result, I became extremely angry with God and eventually lost my faith and sense of self-worth. “Does anyone accept me anymore? Before my injury I had a great social life…invites to the parties and sporting events. I received a lot of love and had a lot of friends.” Now I felt used, alone, and angry. “How could people who called me a friend or family leave me during the worse time of my life?”
Desperately needing a morale booster, I learned that I would be starting rehab at a new facility that specialized in spinal cord injuries. I often said to myself, “This is exactly what I need. I’m going to bounce back fast.” However, starting therapy this time presented an entirely new set of challenges and an emotional rollercoaster ride that I wasn’t expecting. Every day I had to face the devastating reality that my life would NEVER be the same. When I started, I couldn’t sit up on my own, move my hands to my mouth, or pick up things. I also hated my appearance, and I became extremely insecure about the bright pink surgical scare down the front of my neck. This experience was foreign. Going from being a three-sport athlete with no insecurities this body slammed me mentally and physically into the worse space I’d ever been in my life. I would start crying for no reason. I would take my frustrations out on my parents and therapist. I needed an outlet and I guess that was my way of expressing it at that time.
Despite my lashing out, my parents never left me, and my therapist always greeted me with a smile. Their consistent encouragement coupled with hearing my dad in my head saying, “God is going to do his part, I’m going to do my part, and I need you to do your part.” It wasn’t easy but I had made a commitment to myself that I was going to see it through. Beaten but not broken, day after day, I would motivate myself to “get better. “I’m going to accomplish everything people said I wouldn’t.” As an athlete, I lived for challenges, and this would be the ultimate.
Embracing my new mindset and understanding that I would now have to rely on my education to achieve success, I was eager to return to school. Not only that, but I also wanted to graduate ON TIME with my class. However, not being physically able to return to campus, I was assigned a tutor who would bring me up to speed. It was exciting to have a tutor, but the work was entirely too easy. In spite of that, the couple of hours a week I spent with my tutor kept me active and my mind off of my condition. It felt really good to have someone else to talk to.
THE GAME CHANGER
Eventually, my parents would purchase a blue Dodge Caravan that could accommodate me traveling in my power chair. This would allow me to get out the house more and have daily therapy sessions. After months of intensive specialized therapy, the “miracle” began to happen. My mobility was improving dramatically and very fast. By the summer of 2005, I was back on campus being tutored at Loyola to make up my work. I also began taking driving lessons IN MY WHEELCHAIR!! I didn’t even know this was a possibility. The excitement I had was priceless. It was the first time I realized how close I was to reaching my goals of getting back in school and getting my independence back. You know…it is one thing to tell yourself that you can do something. It’s totally different to truly have it within reach.
With the help of so many people, I made up all of my class work and returned back to school for my senior year. Returning to school fulltime was an adjustment. Like returning home, I had to come to terms with interacting differently with an environment I was once comfortable in. I also had to readjust to being around so many people. Still uncomfortable with my appearance, I was very insecure. In addition, I really didn’t like all of the attention I was receiving. Everyone meant well, but it could be very overwhelming.
After a few months, however this would subside. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, what emerged was a feeling reminiscent of what I once thought love was. Despite my reservations about what that was, I now had new challenges to deal with. Learning to open the doors, learning to write fast enough to keep up in class (my stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to ask for help majority of the time), and catching flats in my wheelchair tires. Well, the flat part was an easy fix. My parents gave the campus maintenance man a spare inner tube.
Halfway through the school year I was in the swing of things. Maneuvering around campus became easy, as I found solutions to the challenges I mentioned above. My classmates understood and respected my boundaries. I began going to the football and basketball games, which was a big deal for me. Initially, I thought it would be difficult being around the games, considering my accident, but surprisingly it wasn’t that bad. It actually helped me come to terms with my injury while also inspiring the teams. The coaching staff allowed me to participate in all of the team’s activities, which made me begin to feel accepted again on campus. I also completed driving education and STARTED DRIVING myself back and forth to school. This was one of the biggest milestones to gaining my independence back. It was also an enormous confidence booster that would eventually aide into everything that I would achieve after.
As the end of the school year approached, I anxiously waited for graduation day. June 2006, I sat nervously waiting for my name to be announced. As my classmate returned to his seat, I knew I was next. As the announcer said my name, “Van Brooks”, screams rang my ears and a standing ovation proceeded. I tried very hard to hide my emotions, but I couldn’t. “I did it”, I thought while accepting my high school diploma.
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