Stuck in a Pile of Dirt (Henry-1)
Reconstructing identity after spinal cord injury
Posted Sep 24, 2017
Henry bought his house when he was 18 years old. He’d been working construction, moving up rapidly from hard manual labor to skilled operation of huge pieces of equipment. He had ambition and confidence, and had persuaded his boss that he was worth four dollars more per hour than the usual starting rate, and negotiated raises regularly by working extra hard and being extra smart, often providing suggestions to make the work run smoother. He took over the maintenance of the machinery by the time he was 20, and it was clear to his colleagues and the boss that he would take over the business when the boss retired. Everybody liked him: he’s open, energetic, and principled. He could drink a few beers after work but maintain a limit. He was helpful when people needed a hand, funny when people needed a laugh, and generous when people needed a few bucks to get them through a shortfall. Wildly successful in his career at an early age, he seemed untouchable, golden.
Henry’s high school girlfriend moved in when they were 19. Vicky suggested they work on prettifying the house and yard, and they did a major renovation to the fixer-upper: expanded back, making the kitchen twice its original size, transformed the pantry into a laundry room, laid new wood floors, refurbished the second-story loft into a master-bedroom worthy of Architectural Digest. Vicky worked as the business manager for an interior decorator in the nearby college town, and though she wasn’t particularly interested in interior design, she had absorbed a lot of information and ideas. Like Henry, Vicky set goals and worked hard. Henry did the construction work and Vicky did the finishing; the house had doubled in value by the time they were done. It stands out on their old street as a manicured home amid less-tended rentals. Even the separate garage that houses Henry’s shop has painted shutters and honeycomb shades on the large windows.
One afternoon Henry comes home from work, stressed that a backhoe’s forward clutch pack has failed, leaving the loader stuck in a pile of dirt. The cost to replace the clutch pack is substantial, and Henry can’t figure out why the operator hadn’t told him the loader didn’t have enough slip before the clutch pack burned out. Did he not notice? Was he not competent to operate the loader? It’s Friday afternoon, and Henry will have to work on the machine over the weekend. He decides to unwind by riding his dirt bike before dinner. After a quick call to his buddy Mike to meet him at the trail, he’s off, pulling out of the driveway just as Vicky gets home. He pauses to kiss her and tell her he’ll be home in an hour.
Mike is waiting for him at the top of the hill, and they greet each other, put on their helmets, and start their bikes. Mike gestures Henry to go first, and Henry starts up the hill toward the trail. As he nears the top, he glances over his shoulder to see how far back Mike is, and automatically slows the bike down to two or three miles per hour to go over the crest, which is rocky. At the top, he hears the gears grind, feels one of the tires catch on a rock, and flips off the bike.
Henry tells me: "Mike pulled up and was laughing. ‘Nice job, man!’ he said. ‘You went flying. Scared the crap out of me! Now get up and let’s get going.’ When I told him I couldn’t move, he didn’t believe me. I had to tell him three times I couldn’t move my hands, my feet, my legs, or my arms before he believed me. I knew I shouldn’t take my helmet off but it was digging into the back of my neck so bad that I thought I was suffocating, so I got him to take it off me. He dialed my cell and held it while I told Vicky what had happened, that I was paralyzed and she needed to call an ambulance.” Henry shifts his focus from the memory to me, and I realize I haven’t been breathing. My eyes are wet and my lips are trembling. He sizes me up, and continues.
“Vicky has to get our daughter in the car before she can follow me, and by the time she gets to the hospital they have air-lifted me to Capital Med. I’m in the ICU for 14 days, and then go the big spinal cord injury rehab place for two months. They want me to stay another month, but I say no, I got to get out of there. They tell me my insurance won’t pay if I don’t stay until I can do everything on the discharge list, so I tell them to give me the discharge list and I work non-stop till I can do everything on it. It takes me 5 days to do what they expect to take 30. I was desperate to get out.” I can imagine: Henry’s energy, normally very high, would be off the charts in the confines of a hospital. His natural athleticism, combined with intense motivation, made him superhuman.
He smiles at me. “I’d sneak outside sometimes, go roll around a park across the street till the security guard came after me. We’d share a smoke and he’d send me back inside. Some of the nurses turned a blind eye, others scolded me, and one reported me to the doctor. I felt like I was in elementary school again, misbehaving and being sent to the principal’s office.” His brown eyes are laughing as he remembers childhood exploits, or their parallel resistance efforts at Spalding.
“You were used to being really active, weren’t you? Probably since you were in kindergarten.” He nods. “Before that, actually. My mom said I was the first kid to flunk out of daycare because I couldn’t keep still.” I’m pierced by the cruelty of his now being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
I speak slowly, carefully. “Henry. What do you do with all that energy now?” A streak of grief flashes across his face, and then he gives me a half-smile, meeting my eyes. “It’s pretty hard. There are some things I do, but lately I haven’t been doing them. I’m a little concerned about that.” “Depressed?” “Yep, I think so. That’s why some people in the Spinal Cord Injury group told me to call you for therapy.”
We talk briefly about some of the issues: changes in his identity and self-worth; family dynamics; caregiving responsibilities; loneliness. When we’ve identified the initial focus, he’s looking tired. “Listen, Henry. I’m pretty sure we can figure out what’s getting in the way right now, why you’re struggling to do the stuff that helps, and maybe even find some additional things that will help you. You are going to get over this bump in the road.”
He’s silent a moment, staring down into his lap. Then his body language changes: his head comes up; his gnarled fingers grasp the handles of the wheelchair. “Good,” he says. “We can work on putting a new forward clutch pack in me, okay? Because I don’t like being stuck in a pile of—” Humor sparkles in his voice and his eyes. “Let’s just say, I really want to get out of this pile of dirt.”