The changing faces of my heroes

Posted by Michael Collins in Life After Paralysis on August 08, 2018 # Health

When I was younger, and long before this spinal cord injury which now requires the use of a wheelchair, my heroes were probably the same as most of the members of my generation. We admired those who fought in and won the wars that saved our democracy, those early explorers in space and exemplary athletes in whatever sports we played or were following at the time.

That was soon to change, but slowly. I still have some admiration for their feats, but I have since learned that there are many more of a different type of individual who are far more worthy of my support and attention.

I have been extremely lucky because my résumé includes several positions that allowed me the flexibility to travel throughout the country and meet some amazing people. Many were dedicated advocates who helped draft and get passed our important disability rights laws, sometimes at great personal sacrifice; as just one example, I would not have been able to Mark Wellmanendure a sit-in at a federal office building for the better part of a month as they did in San Francisco. Tens of thousands of people have walked or rolled to the nation's capitol, often in miserable weather conditions, to demonstrate and inform policymakers about the issues that are important to all of us. They represented my interests, even when I was unable to join them in person.

Sports still interest me, but I am more likely to be found watching Paralympic athletes when they compete than those who are being overpaid to entertain us in the many types of professional sports. Prior to the creation of the Paralympics, there were some great pioneers who demonstrated the capabilities of athletes with disabilities in a variety of sports. Hundreds of amateur athletes too numerous to name here used their strength, stamina and perseverance to make it clear that every sport needed to be available to them and those who would follow. That is why there are now various "disability categories" at virtually every major running race, triathlon and even tennis tournaments.

What might be one of the most heroic feats is turning a personal tragedy into something that will benefit many others in similar situations. Some of the people in this "heavyweight" category of heroes had ample financial resources available to them when they became disabled, and others were already known by people around the country or the world. At a time of their lives when they could have focused inward, they instead chose to "pay it forward" for generations to come.

The story of the Reeve family and the foundation they created is obviously known to anyone who is reading this. When Christopher Reeve had his equestrian accident, it received a huge amount of media coverage and his many friends in the entertainment industry were at his side almost immediately and lending support for his commitment to find a cure for his injury. I witnessed some of that while living in California and often wonder if the billions of dollars that have become available for spinal cord injury research, especially the funding and approvals for the use of stem cells in that research, would have been possible without his tireless efforts speaking to elected officials who eventually made his desire a reality.

Christopher and Dana Reeve aren't the only ones in that category by any means. Among many others, the Buonicontis, with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and Sam Schmidt, with Conquer Paralysis Now, have helped to assure that the researchers continue their search for those elusive cures that may someday help many of us walk again. I also believe that every small donation made by people who are living on fixed incomes but believe in funding the research that might help them, their family members or their peers is just as important in its own right. Those small donations can add up.

The difference between this current batch of heroes and those that I had in my youth is not just the challenge of paralysis that we all share. Their sacrifices, and willingness to help others, inspire me to try to do more with my life rather than continually focusing inward on the day-to-day struggles that we all face; I think those are the best kinds of heroes to have.

© 2018 Michael Collins

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.