I met my most cherished role model while falling off a pair of uneven parallel bars. We both fell at the same time, landing with a loud, sickening thud on the thick protective floor mats beneath us. If I think about it for too long, I can easily remember the shooting pain down my right arm as I used it to brace my fall. I'd like to say that I recovered faster and just jumped back up on the bars, but that wouldn't be true. Chuck did, and he did it with a smile.
Chuck and I are not athletes and I can safely say that we never will be. We met at the University of Miami rehab facility for patients with spinal cord injuries. Chuck and I both suffered nerve damage from separate car accidents within a few days of each other. Although we had never met before, we became roommates at the facility and friends for life.
Chucks's damage was far more serious than mine and he knew from day one that he faced an uphill struggle. While several vertebrate were still intact, he faced extensive physical therapy to regain even partial use of his legs. His days as an avid tennis player and teenage heartthrob were over, at least for awhile. His parents were heartbroken and didn't know how they would be able to pay for his extended care. But to meet Chuck and not know his prognosis, you'd be convinced he was just facing a few days of simple exercises.
My reaction to my injury was very different. I was a feisty, 20-year-old daredevil who totalled my car and my left leg trying to drive in an ice storm. My parents plead with me not to drive that night, but I insisted I'd have no trouble handling the car for the scant three miles between the campus and home. It's amazing how wrong I was. Fortunately, fate spared me from permanent damage, but not from excruciating pain. I broke four bones in my left leg and needed extensive surgery to repair them. I also needed physical therapy to rebuild the torn muscle and damaged tendons. For the first time in my life, I needed to focus my energy on getting well.
I turned the corner the day I met Chuck. Here was someone a lot like me: young, smart, and funny, who was sharing a similar experience. We were kindred spirits in many ways, and bonded the only way possible: by competing. My life's focus became doing better than Chuck. If he could do nine leg lifts, I had to do ten. If he survived ten minutes of massage, I had to have fifteen. We co-ordinated our therapy sessions for the same days and times and found that it really improved our mood. The doctors supported anything that helped our progress. Chuck was always an inspiration for me. He cheered me up when I felt down and challenged me to do better when I was making progress. I didn't realize when he hit a plateau.
After three months I was able to leave the rehab center and return home. I left not knowing that Chuck would never leave his wheelchair. We talked by phone every few days and he never let on that his prognosis had been downgraded. His doctor was pessimistic for recovery of his legs and his family made plans to move him to a group home a few hours away. He needed to switch his focus from recovery to adjustment. By the time I made plans to return and visit Chuck, he had already moved.
Chuck is my role model for many reasons. He survived a debilitating accident without showing anger or self-pity. He kept his keen sense of humor and invested energy in helping a stranger get well. He offered friendship and support at a time when most other people, including me, would have only been takers. He was a fighter, but he accepted defeat graciously when he realized his life would never be the same. He was a survivor.
It isn't often that I meet another person my own age with so much character and maturity. I am proud to call Chuck a friend and I wish that I could do more to help him. We remain close via telephone and email and I'm sure he will be successful in life. His legacy to me is his selflessness. The next time I'm faced with a real challenge in life, I have Chuck as an example of how to handle it with grace and style. Whenever life knocks me off the parallel bars, I'll think of Chuck and pick myself off the mat and keep on trying. He'd expect nothing less of me.