It will get better | Peer Mentor blogger Will Rigby

Posted by Reeve Staff in Daily Dose on March 06, 2018 # PFSP

It was 17 days before my 40th birthday when I dove into the pool, traversed the length of it and before I could resurface, hit my head on the opposite side’s wall. It wasn’t that hard of a hit and I must have hit it at just the right angle, but I knew immediately what had happened. I had broken my neck. My entire body went numb as I began to sink to the bottom and struggle with what little movement in my arms I still had to swim to the surface. It was to no avail and I drowned. Luckily my friends were nearby and two of them were well versed in CPR. They pulled me out and revived me. I was officially diagnosed as a C6/C7 incomplete spinal cord injury living as a quadriplegic.

Immediately after surgery, the doctors assessed that I had pneumonia and MRSA. The situation was dire. They told my wife that if I lived, I would be on a breathing tube and feeding tube for the rest of my life, unable to move from the shoulders down.

I spent 21 days in ICU recovering from pneumonia. I assumed that my life was over. I even suggested to my wife that she take our two boys and leave me so that her life would not be ruined as well. Of course, she did not. I slowly regained the ability to breathe on my own and on my 40th birthday, the nurses removed my breathing tube. It was the best birthday present I had ever received. I then began working on the eating part. First a liquid diet, then gradually more and more solid foods. I started regaining motion in my arms and was quite impressed with myself when I could hold my right hand above my head. Eventually, a physical therapist started coming to my room in the ICU and would try and get me to sit up on the side of the bed. It was literally the hardest thing I had ever tried to do and I remember thinking that it was hopeless. Every day however, I did a little bit better. I remember though dreading seeing that therapist every time she walked in the room.

From ICU I went on to rehab where I spent three months. Working every day on my rehabilitation, I didn’t realize at the time but I was taking tiny steps of progress towards the goal I thought I could never achieve. I remember one of my therapists asking me to turn cards over from a deck one at a time. It was so hard. Today I work full-time, can write, work at a computer with the keyboard and mouse, flip through pages like it was nothing. I can also transfer smoothly to and from bed, with the help of a sliding board, on my own.

During my time in rehab I had many ups and downs. One aspect of my injury and recovery that I always make sure and talk about is the fact that I unknowingly developed a dependency to the pain medication Hydrocodone. While in rehab, I was using my arms transferring, pushing a manual wheelchair and they had to overcompensate for the lack of any other functioning muscles. The pain was unbearable and I was prescribed Hydrocodone to help deal with it. While in rehab, a nurse would administer the Hydrocodone on a scheduled basis. After getting home however, I had a prescription and would take it randomly. Sometimes I would take just one pill a day, other times I would take five pills in one day. I did not know it, but I was sending my body into withdrawals. I spoke with my doctor to cancel my prescription and I have not used it since.

It seems as if during some of my lowest points a peer mentor would show up from the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation at which point things would take a 180° turn for the better. It never mattered what I was dealing with. During some of my most tearful and painful moments, a peer mentor seemed to show up to let me know “IT WILL GET BETTER”. I honestly don’t know how I would’ve gotten through those early months without those peer mentors, some of whom I am now good friends with. There was one guy in particular, TJ Griffin, who showed up on a regular basis. To this day, TJ has been an invaluable source of encouragement and inspiration. We have become good friends. His wife and my wife have even become good friends and they share experiences as well.

Fast-forward over three years later. I’ve been driving for almost two years, I’ve gone back to work full-time, I’ve been on vacations including a cruise. Yet some of the most enjoyable times I have are my times as a peer mentor talking to newly injured spinal cord injury patients. I remember what I was told when I was in their place: “I know it’s really hard, I know this sucks, but IT WILL GET BETTER”. I can only hope that the words I tell them convey as much meaning and inspires as much confidence as the words did to me.

I know I would’ve eventually been okay if there had not been that peer mentor miraculously showing up from time to time, but I hate to think of the way it would’ve been if they had not.

I’m not sure what else to say. I broke my neck, I drowned, I was revived, I flatlined twice more while in intensive care. I have overcome more than I was supposed to have overcome. I still have a long way to go, but based on what has transpired so far, nothing is impossible. I don’t think I could’ve done any of it without the help of family and friends, the support of the Reeve Foundation’s peer mentoring program. Now I love getting back and talking to newly injured patients whenever I am called upon and able.