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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Irene Paterka

Never Say No to a Therapist


April 1, 2004 … April Fool’s Day. The joke was on me, blithely tripping my way through life, assuming my happily-ever-after would never change.

That’s the day my Steve, a big steady guy, my hero-husband volunteer fireman with a heart bigger than his size 13 shoes, turned his head at work and felt something pop in his neck. A trip to the E.R., numerous x-rays, and a CT scan seemed to indicate a pinched nerve and they sent Steve home with a prescription for pain pills and physical therapy. But all was not well. Within seven short days, the unrelenting pain had turned my cheerful loving husband into a monster. Late on the night of April 8th, Steve collapsed on our kitchen floor, paralyzed.

One ambulance ride and a six hour wait for inconclusive test results and Steve was in another ambulance headed for a big city hospital fifty miles away. An MRI confirmed the grim diagnosis. A cervical epidural abscess filled with staph infection had ruptured at the top of his spinal cord. The staph ate away at his vertebrae, flooded his spinal column, invaded his bones and blood. Steve was dying as they wheeled him into the operating room where a team of neurosurgeons waited. Nine hours later, Steve woke up in the ICU, a total quadriplegic.

To say our lives were shattered doesn’t begin to do it justice. How could something like this happen? There’d been no car accident, no physical injury, no being thrown from a horse; yet my husband lay in a hospital bed paralyzed from the neck down. One week later, Steve was transferred to the hospital’s in-house rehab wing, where he spent the next three months working with therapists in an attempt to recoup some type of movement. Progress was slow. But there was progress. The twitch of a toe. The grip of a hand. The flexing of a knee. Three months later, when he left the hospital and took up residence at our local nursing home, Steve had graduated from being transferred in a full body sling to pushing his own wheelchair.

Only now do his doctors admit that his recovery has been nothing short of miraculous. While they had their doubts he would ever walk again, no one wanted to break the bad news to Steve. No one wanted to take away his hope. So they smiled and said little, save for some words of encouragement.

Like throwing a dog a bone.

Except that Steve grabbed the bone and ran with it.

Well, perhaps run isn’t exactly the right word … but he did start to walk. From a wheelchair to a walker. From a walker to arm canes. And finally, to walking on his own. Steve never gave up believing that he could do it. His faith was rewarded on Oct. 2, 2007. The champagne and tears flowed as Steve donned a black tux and proudly walked our daughter Abby down the aisle to marry her Patrick.

Make no mistake. Our lives are not perfect. Steve’s nerves sustained permanent damage. He tires easily. He still needs the assistance of a wheelchair in airports, electric courtesy carts at the mall, and arm canes when walking any particular distance. Plans have to be made in advance, and life is different than it used to be. But also so much better than it could have been. Steve survived. As a married couple, as a family, we’ve been truly blessed. And as a writer, I’m blessed to have my own personal source of daily inspiration.

I’m sure there were times when Steve was tempted to chuck it. Everyone would have understood if he’d said it was too hard, if he’d simply given up. But instead, he kept on going. With the help of some wonderful therapists, Steve gained new ground each day, strengthening his muscles as he learned to walk again. And though he admits there often were times he thought of saying it, Steve never told a therapist no.

More importantly, he never told himself no.

I’ve learned a lot about the art of perseverance and the writing life just from watching my husband. Writing is a lonely business, especially when the scene doesn’t flow or the plot isn’t working. When my critique partners actually criticize, and when figuring out the hero / heroine’s goals, motivations and conflicts seem like too much work. I’ll be honest. Sometimes, simply keeping my butt in the chair is hard work. It would be so much simpler to push away from the computer, to tell myself no, not tonight. No, I’ve got laundry to do and bills to pay. And what about that show on TV that I don’t want to miss? Just for tonight, I’ll tell myself no.

No big deal. Right?

Steve walking Abby down the aisle

Steve’s taught me that going after what I want takes work. Lots of hard work. I can’t afford to tell myself no. I am a writer, and if I’m serious about my craft, then I need to write. I need to trust that tiny voice in my head, even when I’m scared to touch the story, scared that the characters are pushing in ways that explore deeper emotions, scared to make myself vulnerable on the page. I need to remember the most valuable lesson learned from the man I love. My hero-husband who once-upon-a-time-not-so-long-ago depended on a wheelchair to get from room to room.

If you want something bad enough, you never say no. You never say no to a therapist, and you never say no to yourself. My path to publication has been a bumpy one, but Steve’s life took some major bumps and he survived. He taught me that it’s all about believing in myself … that I can do it … that my attitude will be the only thing holding me back. For it’s in the art of perseverance that we find our true strength.

~ NEVER, NEVER, NEVER QUIT ~ Winston Churchill

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