It’s a great time to be paralyzed!

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on October 10, 2018 # Mobility

“Rich people think five years ahead.

“Poor people think about Tuesday all day Tuesday.”

There is no better time to be paralyzed in the history of man than right this minute. For most of civilization, people in wheelchairs have been regarded as useless, helpless, sickly, and soon to die -- simply a burden on everyone who had to deal with them. One meaning of “white trash” is that others think that poor white people are just that – disposable trash. No one ever coined the phrase “handicapped trash” or “disabled trash,” but the thought has been there for eons. Upon hearing that her son, Franklin, had become paralyzed from polio in 1921, his mother, Sara Roosevelt, was said to have commented, “What good is he now?” She wanted him to lie around the house for the rest of his life.

The treatment of paralysis and the acceptance of paralytics took great leaps in the 20th century. After antibiotics like penicillin became widely available after World War II – a major step in managing infection, often a death sentence for the paralyzed – there was still the shame/humiliation/freak-feeling factor. In Marlon Brando’s first film, “The Men” (1950), he plays an anguished paralyzed vet whose own fiancée is afraid to marry such a lifelong invalid and he tumbles into self-pity. Now, certainly, almost seventy years later, most paras I know aren’t the least bit shameful, at least while fully clothed. Paralysis is no longer viewed as a cruel curse and far from a death sentence. The ADA, in this brief recap, brought social mobility, at least physically, and accompanying social ease and acceptance. And that was only 28 years ago. Whole areas of psychological and social inclusion have yet to be dealt with but speaking for myself, turning 73, the modern factors of advanced medical practices and pharmaceuticals and a greater level of health consciousness have extended my life thus far and hopefully farther.According to one legit-seeming on-line source, the life expectancy rate after paralysis for someone of the type and age of my injury is 69 years old. I should have been dead at 69.That seems insanely low to me. People with paralysis do live on average shorter lives than the non-paralyzed, the reasons for which are still hotly contested. It could be as much psychological as physical.

Which of course leaves to something undreamt for all of recorded human history – repair and recovery. I won’t go over all the details of the new report in “Nature Medicine” on how via epidural stimulation, some patients are now stepping on their own because A, you can read a full explanation on this same site and B, I’d muck it up. But even if you won’t be a potential candidate for this therapy as it rolls out over the next few years – at my age, I’m an unlikely candidate myself – you can celebrate this historic achievement and appreciate its life-altering effects. In a word, it’s mindboggling.

When Christopher Reeve began talking about recovery in the mid-1990’s, some of the paralysis world thought him impractical and pie-in-the-sky and others, just wrongheaded. I’m sure this will be said elsewhere more eloquently, but from my knowledge, he saw in his mind’s eye these formerly-paralyzed people crossing a floor with a walker. He knew it was coming. The fact that this Foundation is so closely identified with these new medical milestones is a tribute to his foresight.

Okay, this turned into a bit of a puff piece, but daresay, taking a long view of history, this disorder millions of us live with is far less deadly, less frightening, less destabilizing, and less of a soul killer than even 50 years ago, let alone 5000. It is a great time to be paralyzed.