When we had 6 young people in the rehab center one of the nurses suggested the idea of putting on a Friday night party for the young folks, all of whom had recently had terrible accidents and were in different stages of parapalegic. I worked with the recreation therapist, and we called it, ‘Lets Hang Out’. We consulted the nurses and provided root beer floats. One young men could not eat or drink, and another had to have the root beer float with thickened water.
The young folks gathere around in their wheel chairs and we talked about sports and hobbies, and this was OK, but everyone was watching and holding back. The conversation was slow until one young man asked, “So what happened to you guys?”
I had known the young man that asked this for quite a while. We had been through a lot, and it was great that he said this. He had been in the ICU in critical condition for a long time, and recently come to the rehab center, which was a big step. Everyone was happy for him to get there. He reluctantly came to the party and said he would only come if I were there. In the ICU he was closed-up and wanted to ask all the questions. He gave the nurses a hard time, and didn’t cooperate with his treatment very well. The nurses said he was very bored, and that I should visit him. In my interaction with him I volunteered things about myself instead of asking things, and commented on our surroundings, and he became interested in my visits. The nurses began to encourage me to see him a lot because they found it helped his mood. I played guitar with him and we talked about music. He finally told me his life story and all his feelings and concerns about what happened to him. He had been shot through the chest from the side, by his friend (at the time) while they were both very drunk, and he had a lot of conflicted feelings about this, and the lack of direction in his life. While in the ICU it had been his goal to get off intubation and to the third rehab center for a long time.
When this young man asked his question it suddenly led to a very in depth discussion. Each person told their story.
The first to tell his story was a 20 yr old black youth, lets call him Henry. He had been giving the doctor some trouble. He was a pretty nice guy but very reticent and guarded about doing some of his therapies. For instance the doctors were trying to talk him into using a motorized chair, but he didn’t want to be ‘that guy’.
He told us that it was hard for him to talk about what happened, and he felt scared to do so. But he began talking and told the whole story in amazing detail. Very briefly he was on a youth outing day on a little boat in a lake with a supervisor and other kids. He dived off, but the water was only 2 feet deep. Be broke his neck, and couldn’t move. He was in a life jacket, but face down. He said he panicked and struggled desperately for a time but could not move his arms or legs. He knew people were around and not far from him, but could do nothing. He needed them to notice. The man in the boat later said he thought he was playing. He was very angry with that.
He began to tell the story with a lot of passion and emotion. He said that he finally gave up. He knew he couldn’t move and there was nothing he could do. He was breathing in and out water, and accepted he was going to die.
The boatman’s wife who was working with little kids in the water grabbed him by the foot and pulled him, but she didn’t know he couldn’t move and didn’t turn him over for a time. Then she pushed him over and he breathed.
He started to repeat himself, but we all listened in complete silence. He expressed he had been traumatized. He talked about how he was cocky and felt he was invincible before, but deep down he said he knew he was out of control and needed to change, but didn’t know how to begin.
The next day the doctor asked me what happened with Henry. She heard I had had a party with the kids, and she said that Henry was much more interested and cooperative. She said that he suddenly wanted to use a motorized chair. He said he had seen the other guys in these chairs and he wanted one. The doctor was kind of amazed at the change in him.
Each young person talked about their experience. One young man had severe aphasia and could not speak well. I assisted him a little in getting attention and interpreting what he said for the others, because I had visited with him and his dad several times and knew his story. It became kind of a fun game to understand what he was saying, and all the youths wanted to help him get his story out. (This young man suffered an off-road motorcycle accident).
There was a general theme the youths shared that went like this: They said that they knew inside that my life was getting out of control, but they didn’t pay attention. They felt they were wasting their time and nothing could happen to them. A couple said that now they know they need others, and they know who really cares about them. They said that they feel that they are still here for a reason, and that they want to give back and be a team player, not a lone wolf.
I felt that hearing each other speak in this way had a profound effect for them beyond what I could bring. I stayed with them until everyone was ready to go, about 7:00. It was a deep bonding experience for all of us, to respect each other and let each other share.