The Oldest Living Paraplegic Tells All

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on February 02, 2016 # Health

If you are like me and ruminate about death now and then, here's my advice – don't read actuary tables. When it comes to the average life expectancy of a paraplegic, they lie. Or maybe their statistical universe dates back to people paralyzed in the Spanish-American War. In any case, they paint a picture that strikes me at completely contrary to the experience of real people living in 2016, i.e., me.

If you Google up and ask the question – “What is the life expectancy of someone paralyzed at age 50?” – the answer is depressing. According to most reports, or at least the ones I could decipher, the answer is an additional 19.75 years or the age of 69.75. (The figures differ depending on the age your injury occurred). The open forum bulletin boards have anecdotal answers that are all over the place. One inquirer asked, “Do people in wheelchairs live longer than non-wheelchair users?” The best answer was, “No, it just seems longer.”

I was injured at 50, so my actuarial life expectancy is in fact 69.75. Since I'm already 70.25, I've beat the odds. If I had never read that statistic, it would have never crossed my mind that I'd be gone before the age of 70. It seems patently absurd. What would I have died of? Falling off of a cliff? I never get close to anything higher than a two foot curb. Probably the likeliest cause would be mortal complications from a systemic bacterial infection resulting from skin breakage or maybe a deadly UTI. This is a genuine threat to the much more compromised condition of a quad, but to a simply T-10 para like me, it would mean some of the best Infectious Disease doctors on earth had seriously dropped the ball. I've had one of the worst kinds of infection out there, necrotizing fasciitis, colloquially known as flesh-eating bacteria, and no one in charge thought I was going to die. I felt horrible and came close to losing a leg, but nothing more lethal.

If you live in driving distance from a first-rate medical facility, the MRI's and CAT scans and high voltage antibiotics and doctors who are experienced in these matters will most likely get you through. If you stay healthy, exercise, sleep well, and don't eat cheeseburgers and drink gallons of Coke, you can go along ways to getting yourself through. Stuff happens, of course, that you can't predict and you shouldn't minimize or ignore the potential health hazards of paralysis, but I'd say the odds of carrying on are much greater than expiring at 69.75 years.

Every doctor I've ever asked has said I should live as long as I otherwise would have without an injury. So I'm thinking 85, many more. Who knows, maybe I can live long enough to reach the coveted status of Oldest Living Paraplegic in America. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the oldest living quadriplegic is Wally Dutcher, 78 as of a year ago, and still starting trouble. You probably know a quad in that range or older, or you yourself are that person. The elderly crip is definitely a trend.

Why would anyone want to live so long? Well, just like the Alan Gurganus character, and bestselling novel title, “The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” you can look back on a big chunk of history and see all the progress you've experienced. By the time I'm 85, I will have lived to see a whole new world for people like me. First and foremost, there will be paralytics regaining precious mobility, thanks to the Reeve Foundation support of epidural stimulation therapy. Or wearing an exo-skeleton like an Armani suit. Who knows what miracles await?

For those who won't be candidates for such transformative therapy, the social climate will be radically different in the fifteen years between now and 2031, when I hypothetically leave this cosmic realm. People with disabilities will be a common and accepted sight on television and film, whatever form those media take in 2031, and the guy at the next desk at the office will be trolling around in a wheelchair and wasting time talking sports with another colleague in a wheelchair. Airlines will have figured out how to get the wheelchair crowd on and off of airplanes in some comfortable and confident manner. I know, dream on.

In 2031, it will be flat-out easier to live life in a wheelchair and live a longer and higher quality of life. Getting there will be like pushing a boulder up a steep hill, but if you don't think progress will come, then I'd have to say you're not thinking like an American. It's a national cliché that Americans see the future and march toward it, just like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, the Facebook guy, and geniuses who came up with epi-stim.

If you don't believe in that progress, just stick around as long as you can, hopefully well past 2031, and you might find yourself the Oldest Living Para or Quad in America, get your picture in the newspaper, and regale your great-grandkids with tales about how awful it used to be.

© 2016 Allen Rucker | Like Allen on Facebook


Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

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.