By Gordon Palmer
“A day in the life” is a term personal injury attorneys usually use to refer to a video they will show to a jury to profile how a person lives after they have been injured.
I wake up early, before my personal care assistant gets here to get me up, but that’s not unusual — due to sleep apnea, back or hip pain or other reasons. If I remember, I say a prayer of thanks for another day and still being here 35 years after my SCI and all that entails. The days start early and are usually long, but that’s the way I like it.
On weekdays, Dave, my PCA for the past 12 years, comes in at 6 a.m. I am lucky to have him, especially since he is always on time and extremely dependable. He’s wearing out, though, and I worry about the day he cannot work anymore. As any quadriplegic will tell you, good help is hard to find. He gets me up every day, seven days a week, unless I go out of town with someone else, like my live-in PCA.
Every day we start the morning routine with passive and active range of motion exercises. Every other day I do a bowel program. On those days, he plugs in the suppositories, then does the range of motion. He then transfers me to the shower chair and finishes up the program while I’m in the bathroom and shower. Gravity, laxatives and stool softeners help. The shower helps too, since I sweat a lot whenever I do a program these days. After the shower, he transfers me back into bed and takes a break.
Afterwards, he feeds me breakfast in bed. Between bites, he gets out medication and clothes for me to wear and does other miscellaneous tasks that I need done to get up and get going. He then puts on my pants and shoes and transfers me to the power chair. Once I am in the chair, he makes the bed and puts my shirt and hand splints on. Afterwards, it is back to the bathroom to take medication and fix my hair, which is usually pretty messed up by now. I am then finally ready to go to work. On bowel program days, this is a three-hour process. And this is with someone who knows the routine well and we are doing it at home. How long it takes on the other days depends on how much range of motion and exercises I do and other little things like changing the ileostomy bag, clipping fingernails, etc., but it is usually at least two hours. The routine gets routine, so the television or the stereo or often both (TV with the sound off) are always on.
Dave then drives me to work in my modified van. Fortunately, I live close to work, less than two miles, since Dave is on the clock.
After we get to my office, Dave comes in and brings any work, lunch or other items I need and turns on the computer and leaves. I then get one of the secretarial staff to refill my gallon water pitcher and arrange case files to where I need them. When she leaves, I am finally ready to start my workday. Some days I’m worn out from just getting up, but I feel better after a while. Other days, I think it helps that I have to get motivated to have to deal with people even though I may not be feeling 100 percent.
Sometimes it seems amazing that I can hold a job or even get to work since there are at least a dozen things that can go wrong. My PCA could have a problem with his health or his vehicle, I could have a health problem, my wheelchair or the shower chair could have a problem, a transfer could go wrong, my van could have an engine problem or ramp problem. Despite all these possibilities, most days everything works all right and I make it on time by 9 a.m. or close to it. Thank God I work on a salary and don’t have to punch a clock.
I have been working at this job for 23 years. I never expected to be here this long, but it has worked out well for me. When I started, Voc Rehab made a work station for me that I still use today. It is basically an L-shaped desk with no drawers underneath and support beams only on the ends so I can pull up under it anywhere. It is very helpful for sliding files around since I cannot pick them up. I use Dragon Dictate to type my work on the computer. I also use it at home and could not function without it, even though it can be irritating at times.
Periodically throughout the day I have to ask for assistance with getting documents out of the printer and moving files in and out of the office. The support staff/secretaries are very helpful, as well as my attorney co-workers. In addition to getting assistance with work, I often ask for assistance with snacks (I have a candy jar in my office that several of my helpers and colleagues like) or with taking medication or at lunchtime. Lunch involves someone either cooking a microwave meal and putting it on a plate so I can feed myself, or feeding me a sandwich or takeout meal or something we have delivered. Once or twice a week during good weather, I will go out to lunch with one or more co-workers or other friends. This involves putting the wheelchair in high gear and driving it down the side of the road or sidewalk about a half mile to one of several restaurants along a busy highway near the office complex where I work. It is much easier to drive the wheelchair than coordinate transportation with a PCA or a friend, although it limits the places I can go. However, I prefer it that way so I can come and go when I get ready (I have a strong independent streak, but have also been rained on more than once).
The best thing about working in the same job for so long is that many of my co-workers are close friends that I have worked with for more than 10 or even 20 years. Occasionally, there are wheelchair or personal disability-related problems where I have to ask one of them for assistance. I try not to, but sometimes it just has to be done, and usually they are willing to help and are understanding. Sometimes, the goal is just to make it through the day, and of course, get the work done.
Several times a day I tilt back in the wheelchair to do a pressure relief. I am fortunate I can do this and my job at the same time, which is appellate review of unemployment hearings and involves listening to the hearings and writing a case summary and other documents.
At the end of the day, usually around 5:30 p.m., I call my live-in PCA to come pick me up. I have a window office so I can see him pull up, but he can also call me on his cell phone or I might go outside and wait if the weather is good. He helps me run errands like grocery shopping, drops me off at volunteer meetings and then we do something for dinner. Occasionally I drive my wheelchair home from work either because of necessity (i.e., a transportation problem, whether it’s my van or my PCA), or just because I want to be outside because it’s a nice day. These power wheelchairs have a long distance range, and I use mine since I do not drive.
After dinner, I usually read the paper or a magazine and then get on the computer with the TV on in the background. I also try to exercise my arms every night. During the week, I usually follow this routine and head to bed around 10 or 10:30 p.m., tired after a long day. My live-in PCA puts me in bed and is available during the night if I need anything.
On weekends, anything can happen, from going to a party, the beach, a nightclub, a volunteer event, to church or to a Florida State football game or maybe even a date. I also try to catch up on work during the weekends, or more accurately, time missed during the week due to doctor’s appointments, etc. I like to maintain a high level of sick and annual leave for financial security, so if I ever have to be off for an extended time due to surgery or other reasons, I have the leave time. However, I do use some of that leave to take vacations when I can find someone to travel with me.
To say that it is difficult working full-time and being a high-level quadriplegic is an understatement. You have to be strong and sometimes, you have to ask yourself how bad do you want it. Every day is a new day, and almost every day has its challenges. However, it’s worth it. I like being a productive member of society and staying busy — I would be incredibly bored if I did not work. I also like making money and having money to be able to cover the basics, like owning a wheelchair-accessible home and a modified van and paying for medical expenses, as well as being able to go places and do things. I also appreciate the comprehensive medical insurance that my job provides, which has become more valuable to me as I have gotten older. Working full time is getting more difficult as I’m getting older and my body is wearing out, but I plan on doing it for as long as I can.
Now, in May 2013, I have spent twice as long in a wheelchair as I did walking around. When I was first injured at 18 years old, two weeks before my high school graduation, I had absolutely no clue how things would work out and did not think I would be around this long. For the first few years after my accident, I had a real tenuous will to live, especially after my mom suffered through colon cancer and died when I was 23. Although I still had the support of my dad and siblings and friends, I knew I needed to go to college if I wanted to do anything because they can only do so much, and they would only be around so long and they have their own lives. I also knew that I could not do physical work with my paralyzed body and was determined to keep my butt out of a nursing home, especially after meeting a couple of quads who were living in them.
I never imagined I would be where I am today, but with the help of family and friends, Voc Rehab, luck and blessings from above, it all worked out. I’m very happy it did.
Gordon Palmer lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and is an attorney for the state of Florida. He was injured in May 1977 in an automobile accident two weeks before his high school graduation while drinking and driving.