​Worst Advice I Ever Received

Posted by Tim Gilmer in Life After Paralysis on December 14, 2022 # Lifestyle

Gilmer FamilyThree weeks following my life-changing accident in 1965, the doctor in charge of my rehab came to my bedside to visit me. The immediate reason for his visit was to tell me I was about to have a spinal fusion and introduce me to the surgeon who would do it. After the newly introduced surgeon left, I asked the doctor in charge a number of questions you might expect from a young man who was worried about his future. Would I be able to return to college? Having just finished my sophomore year, I had no clear idea what I wanted to do. Would I be able to get around on campus? No one had talked to me about that. Was there any chance that the operation would lead to some kind of return of motor or sensory ability? He waited for me to exhaust my anxious questions, then said, “My best advice for you is to find something you can do with your hands.”

What!? That’s it? What kind of wisdom was he dispensing? Was he telling me I might look forward to working on a production line somewhere? Was that his best advice? As he stood there, I couldn’t help but notice that he was balancing himself on forearm crutches. His hands were what kept him upright. He was a polio survivor and a respected orthopedic surgeon himself. In his defense, it was 1965, a time when mainstream expectations for wheelchair users were low, at best, if for no other reason than we were rarely seen in public. I got the impression that, no matter how skilled or respected this doctor was, he viewed himself as an exceptional achiever, and he saw me as someone who would be limited to doing something menial with my hands. What did he tell his quadriplegic patients?

A year later, I returned to that same hospital with a bad pressure sore on my right ischial area. I had returned to college in a wheelchair and tried to keep up with everyone else. I made the mistake of living in the fraternity that I had joined before my accident. Now I was going to have to have an operation. I was in denial. I found it hard to believe all that I had been told. The horror stories I had been told about large open sores certainly couldn’t apply to me.

Once again, I faced the surgeon in charge of my case. Since they were going to operate on my butt, I asked him if he could remove the stainless-steel Harrington rods that had been placed in my back a year earlier to stabilize my spinal fusion. Pain was my constant companion, and with my hands, I could easily feel protruding lumps that the rods made, as if they wanted to break through my skin.

“No,” said my doctor. “You will have them there for life. It isn’t safe to remove them.”

“But my back is strong. The pain is due to the rods poking me in the back.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It isn’t wise.”

Now I was facing a life with pain from steel rods, and I still had no idea what I would do to earn a living. So, I returned to his office the day before my ischial surgery and insisted that he remove the rods. Grudgingly, he made me sign a document absolving him and the hospital from anything that might go wrong as a result of removing the rods.

That was 56 years ago. As of today, my back has not given me any problems, and I’ve learned to do all sorts of things I never expected — three careers’ worth — with my brain, my imagination, a great deal of support from family, friends, and yes, even a few doctors.

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. An excerpt from a memoir about his early post-SCI years, as part of a compendium of his writing over the past 30 years, can be read at his website — All You Need

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.