With the culmination of the graduation ceremony, I could now remove that goal from my list of things I wanted to do to prove the naysayers and nonbelievers wrong. The desire to prove people wrong was serving as my motivation. It was allowing me to use my competitiveness to continuously push myself.
The next thing on my list was to attend college. Still not quite independent yet, it was best that I attended a local university. With that, I chose the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC). The thought of attending college was exhilarating as I was expecting to not only be challenged academically but also socially. It was like being a student that attended the same school for K-8 grades where they knew everyone. However, after matriculating into high school they became one of the youngest students and doesn't know anyone. I was on a foreign campus without any friends, but once again, I would embrace the challenge. I knew that this experience was a part of proving myself, earning a college degree, and immersing myself back into the real world that wouldn’t cater to me because of my disability.
Despite only attending for two years, before transferring to Towson University, my time a UMBC was extremely beneficial. It forced me to be independent. I met new people there, which showed me that people would accept me and that I could have a great social life despite having a physical disability. There were even a few occasions when I had to catch the public MTA (Maryland Transit Authority) bus to and from school, which proved that I could navigate around alone. All of these things would build the confidence that would be important for the next steps in my journey.
Towson University would be where I would earn a bachelor's in science in Mass Communications. With my previous experience at UMBC, I was well equipped with the confidence needed to navigate campus and adjust to the environment. Oh boy…my ability to adjust would DEFINITELY be tested. During my time at TU, there was a major construction project underway. There was always an unexpected hurdle I would face. Street closures, closed or inaccessible sidewalks, and the lack of parking, which at times forced me to park extremely far away from my classrooms, were a few of the daily struggles. If you add in inclement weather, you might as well cancel my class because no telling how long it would take for me to get there. At times this was a hassle, however the fact that I was inches away from accomplishing another goal that was shot down by some many, kept me determined.
Similar to the emotions that filled me when I graduated from high school, my anxiety was growing as I neared my college graduation day. This ceremony was different though. I knew that once this day was over it would be time to figure out what I would do with my life. After so many years of schooling, it would be weird having a change of routine. I realized that I was so focused on my recovery and proving people wrong that I didn’t put much thought into what I would do after college. Anyway, the day was here, and I would do what I always did…figure it out later.
As my name was getting close to being called, I was instructed to make my way to the side of the stage and get on the lift. As I was being lifted to the stage, I saw the person who had been sitting next to me receiving their diploma. As soon as the lift door opened my name was called, “Van Brooks”. There was another accomplishment I can scratch off the list!
After the ceremony, I celebrated with my parents and friends before driving to visit the one person who couldn’t be in attendance. As I was driving, I was overcome with my emotions and burst into tears of joy and gratitude. “A few years ago, I was fighting for my life.”
Finally arriving at my destination, a senior nursing home, I rushed in to share the news with my grandmother. As soon as she saw me, she asked, “What’s wrong baby boy?” After explaining what I had just achieved, she expressed how proud she was of me and we talked for hours. Graduating from college was much bigger than something on a list to prove people wrong. I was the first to graduate from college on my mother’s side of the family and it was extremely important that I shared that milestone with her. I wanted her to know the legacy that she started.
During my entire time in college, I continued my weekly therapy regime. However, 8 years into my injury, I was becoming discouraged with my recovery. Despite standing in a standing machine, riding an electric stimulation bike, walking on the treadmill, stretching, and pretty much doing everything I could, I started feeling like I had reached the peak of my recovery. I stopped seeing an increase in my mobility, which opened the door to self-doubt. “What if they’re right? What if I never walk again?” One day I woke up and didn’t want to go to therapy. Despite that, I ended up in the car driving there. The entire time I’m driving I was telling myself to “turn around and go back home.” When I finally realized it, I was pulling into the parking lot of my therapy facility. At this point, I wasn’t going back home so I went inside the gym and told my therapist, Alison that I wanted to try and walk. If she wasn’t going to let me try, I was signing myself out and never returning again. Thank goodness she allowed me to try because I might not be sharing my story with you today.
After being placed in a harness for safety purposes, I was handed a walker, then boosted onto my feet by a remote-controlled lift that is connected to a movable track suspended from the ceiling. Shaking like an off balanced washing machine, the harness began sliding up my body and into places no one would like straps to be. From that point, I knew this was going to be a grueling process. Once the pain and uncomfortable feeling subsided, I was ready to attempt walking for the first time.
The process consisted of finding my natural stride and teaching myself how to walk again. Alison sat in front of me on a rolling stool and was physically pulling my legs in a stepping pattern one at a time. A therapy tech stood behind me, working in sync with Alison and I, helping me shift my weight from one leg to the other. I focused on mentally giving my legs the command to move accordingly.
At the end of my session Alison said congratulations “you took about three steps on your own.” Not quite believing it I replied, “we’ll see what happens the next time.” Up until that moment, no one, including myself and neurologist, had felt a flicker of controlled muscle movement in my legs. All there ever was were my uncontrollable muscle spasms.
My attitude about heading to therapy the next time was a little different. If Alison did feel something, I owed it to myself to find out for sure. Back in therapy, we went through the same process of getting harnessed and walking. At the end of the session, Alison said that I had taken 5 steps this time. Still not believing it, I told her I would see her the next time and we would keep trying. While driving home something hit me. The reason I didn’t believe I took the steps was because I was so focused on repeating “left, right”, as Alison physically pulled my legs in a walking pattern that I couldn’t tell the difference between her pulling my legs and me actually moving them.
Third time was charm…I’m back at the gym ready to go. This time I asked Alison to let me hang from the lift so that I could try to walk without her assistance. Nothing happened. After a few minutes I asked her to initiate the process of pulling my legs through for me. With my eyes closed, I was repeating “left, right, left, right”, as I was visualizing my legs moving with each command.
Imagine a steady stream of running water from a sink faucet. The water runs very smoothly as long as there are no interruptions. Now place your finger in the middle of the stream, what happens? Your finger is now an interruption, which causes the water to break its flow pattern. Despite that, notice that the water will still make it to the bottom of the sink, just not smoothly. That’s what’s happening inside of my body.
My brain is sending a command signal down my spinal cord to my legs. When the signal hits the damaged part of my spinal cord it is interrupted, which scrambles its flow. Like the stream of water, the command signal still reaches my legs just not in a smooth pattern. The result of this is uncontrollable muscle spasms.
“You did that on your own”, Alison said. She was right. I had actually felt myself taking those steps. I had mentally figured out how to control my muscle spasms and turn them into steps. I could feel “it”, an indescribable sensation. I didn’t say anything Alison though because I wanted to be sure. Moving forward, whenever I felt that I could take a step on my own I would say “got it”. That would let her know not to pull my leg and let me do it. Before I knew it, I really did have it. I walked a major portion of the gym and I have the video to prove it to the world.
“Never quit before the miracle happens”
I had just accomplished the hardest thing I’ve ever had to. “I did it”, I screamed as tears poured down my face. After 8 years my dreams came true! Everything I’ve been working for came to fruition. All of the grueling physical and mental (my sessions are more mental than anything) therapy paid off. This by far is my greatest accomplishment.
“Never quit before the miracles happens”, is a quote that my dad always said to me growing up in the hospital. That’s exactly what I almost did. After 8 years of intense therapy, I had reached my breaking point which was when God intervened. Out of nowhere the poem, “Footprints in the Sand” popped into my mind. This poem is hung on a wall in my home that I’ve walked by for years. It summarized everything that I had been feeling perfectly.
"You promised me Lord that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I’ve noticed that through the most trying periods in my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you the most, have you not been there for me?
The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”
Reflecting on my entire journey, as I often do, I finally had the answer to the question of “Why me?” The purpose for my life and the reason I was going through everything was made very clear.
I hope you enjoyed reading. Feel free to share this post on social media, throughout your networks, and with your family, friends, and colleagues. If you feel compelled, please let me know your thoughts by completing the form below. To receive exclusive content and more subscribe. For daily updates follow me on social media: Facebook & LinkedIn: Van Brooks | Instagram vanbrooks25