Continual Adaptation, Continual Growth

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on April 29, 2021 # Lifestyle

By guest blogger Tim Gilmer

In my first blog, I shared my belief that adapting to paralysis is a continual process. I’ve been doing just that — and not always because I wanted to — for more than 55 years. Each day I wake up, nothing has changed with my body. I’m still paralyzed, still have the same difficulties, the same list of things I can no longer do. But my attitude and my outlook can change periodically, and it should, for the key to happy and productive living with a major disability is continual adaptation. This is an inherent trait we all share. We all have the potential of being resilient, of imagining a future, and of continually conjuring hope, no matter our circumstances.

I’ve talked with so many people who have had this experience, but one of the most dramatic turnaround stories I have ever covered came at a time when I was embarking on a comeback of my own.

In mid-December of 2005, I had awakened during the night with chest pains. At the time, I was 60, about the same age as my father and grandparents when they died of heart attacks. My wife drove me to the emergency department at the nearest hospital, where I learned that all of my major coronary arteries were substantially occluded, one 95% blocked. The surgeon told me that, without surgery, I had a 50-50 chance of dying from a heart attack sometime during the next year. I signed the consent form and underwent quintuple bypass surgery the next morning.

Three months later, still recovering, I saw a TV program featuring a quadriplegic hoisting the first-ever Paralympic flag for the 2006 Winter Paralympics. Something about the image of a then-46-year-old quadriplegic, Sam Sullivan, the mayor of one of Canada’s largest cities, hoisting a Paralympic flag from a special adaptive harness with a TV audience of millions looking on brightened my outlook instantly. Immediately I made plans to travel to Vancouver to meet this man who was making history. But it wasn’t history I was interested in; it was his personal story.

My wife and I spent the better part of three days with Sam and his partner, Lynn. We learned he had been injured at the C4-5 level in a skiing accident when he was 19. His first seven years paralyzed were extremely difficult, and he ended up living in welfare housing, alone, depressed and suicidal. Unable to see a way forward, he considered numerous plans for taking his life but couldn’t find a method that wouldn’t harm friends and family, so he staged an elaborate ritual suicide — call it a virtual suicide. When he had bid adieu to the old Sam Sullivan, something remarkable began to happen. It was as if some new presence, an embryonic new soul of sorts, began to form within him.San Sullivan with partner Lynn

One day he woke, did his time-consuming routine for bathing and dressing, and went to the bank to deposit his welfare check. Still, the doors had just closed at 3 p.m. Frustrated, he looked for ways to simplify every step of his morning routine and shave valuable time — and made significant progress. This led him to devise a novel way to use elastic straps to pull his pants on independently. One adaptation led to another, and soon he found himself fully engaged in life again, so much so that he re-discovered sailing using sip-and-puff technology. In time he founded an organization for people with disabilities that allowed them to sail as well. One foundation led him to begin another, until he had started up a total of six different nonprofits, each with a specific focus on empowerment for disabled individuals.

In 1993, now an emerging public figure in Vancouver, he ran for city council and won. This, in turn, led to multiple terms, right up to the day he filed for mayor in 2005 and surprised everyone by being elected mayor, where he served one term. He went on to serve in British Columbia’s legislative assembly from 2013-2020 (see photo of Sam and partner Lynn Zanatta celebrating his election victory). Each step along the way of his decades-long journey from depression and suicidal ideation involved some new adaptation in his routines and outlook and interests. It was a period of sustained growth that brought him to where he is today — an inductee of the Order of Canada, founder of the Global Civic Policy Society, and winner of numerous awards.

As for me, more than 15 years have passed since my heart surgery. I am still writing and active, still planning my next project.

Very few of us will have the kind of remarkable success that Sam Sullivan has achieved, but we can all take heart in knowing that as long as we stay interested in living and seek out new ways to adapt and re-invent ourselves, continual growth will be our reward.

Read more about Sam Sullivan’s remarkable journey on the New Mobility Website and check out the Sam Sullivan Disability Foundation.

Tim Gilmer graduated from UCLA in the late-1960’s, added an M.A. from the Southern Oregon University in 1977, taught writing classes in Portland for 12 years, then embarked on a writing career. After becoming an Oregon Literary Fellow, he went on to join New Mobility magazine in 2000 and edited the magazine for 18 years. He has published upwards of 100 articles, 200 columns, occasional movie reviews and essays. He and Sam, his wife and companion of 47 years, also own and operate an organic farm south of Portland, where they live with their daughter and son-in-law, four grandsons, and a resident barn owl.

This project was supported, in part, by grant number 90PRRC0002, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.