Tuesday, October 04, 2005

the comfort we've received

Last Wednesday my daughter Grace and I drove to Baylor Institute of Rehabilitation (BIR) in downtown Dallas. I knew exactly where to park, where the elevators were, and how to get around. It was all familiar territory, because our family spent most of the summer of 1996 on BIR's third floor, where my son Jacob received treatment for brain injury after his drowning accident.

But this time we came as visitors. Several weeks ago a friend told me about a young man, Eric, who'd suffered spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident. Eric's original prognosis was total paralysis, but he'd recently begun to show evidence of sensation and mobility in his fingers and toes. My friend suggested I might be able to encourage Eric and his family in their BIR journey, having walked a similar path. After several e-mail and phone exchanges, we arranged for the Wednesday afternoon visit.

Grace and I approached Eric's room just as a transport tech was in the process of transfering a slender, 6'7" young man from a wheelchair to the bed. I was amazed to see him raising his arms in what was obviously voluntary movement. He turned his head toward us and smiled.

"Are you Eric?" I asked.

"Yes. I just returned from swimming."

As we waited for the tech to position him in bed, a blonde woman walked up beside us and smiled warmly. I extended my hand. "I'm Jeanne. Are you Eric's mom?"

"Yes, I'm Sam. Jim told me you'd be coming by."

Grace, Sam, and I entered the room together. The tech raised the head of Eric's bed so he could sit. His lower body was covered by the blanket, but he still wore only swim trunks. Skin grafts, surgical scars, and pink skin from road burn covered large areas on the left side of his shirtless upper body. Thanks to an excellent helmet, his face and brain escaped injury when he crashed on an exit ramp going more than 100 mph. His motorcyle bounced off a concrete wall into a curb and slid across the asphalt. The handlebars punctured his side but struck no vital organs. He'd been through several surgeries for broken bones.

Eric has been on this road to recovery for three and a half months now. He's a 21-year-old former athlete, and he's just beginning the long, exhausting therapy process that may or may not enable him to walk again. Wanting to show us how he could slightly grip, he stared intently at his fingers, willing the signal to move through his damaged spinal cord, down his arm, and to his hand. The fingers fluttered forward, and Eric grinned.

So much trauma and pain. So far to go in the healing process with no guarantees. But Eric's smile radiated calm trust and even joy. The soul that spoke in his shining eyes said, "All is well."

The previous week he'd found the brain connection to raise and bend his arms. He can push his hair back. He can place his hand over his mouth. This brings him great delight.

Sam told us about taking Eric home for a visit. He was sitting in a leather recliner and requested her help to get up, but somehow as they attempted a transfer, the cushion slipped out of the chair and Eric slipped with it to the floor. She ended up beside him. Then they did about the only thing they could do. They laughed. And for the next little while, they just stayed there on the floor, talking and laughing.

He laughed as he told Grace and me about his mom's attempts to fix his hair the way he likes it. He laughed when a therapist I remembered from nine years ago entered the room and I reminded him he'd worn a pony tail back then. I never sensed the slightest hint of bitterness in Eric. No blaming. No whining. No asking, "Why me?" There was only peace, peace, peace.

Eric has gotten to know most of the other patients on the spinal cord injury floor. He expressed his concern for some of them and said he's tried to help them face their anger and questions. We talked for at least an hour. And always there was that smile. Always that light in his eye.

Finally I said, "Eric, I came here hoping I could encourage you. But I honestly think you've encouraged me more."

When we said goodbye to Eric and his lovely mother, it felt like leaving old friends. Dear friends. I will follow his story with much interest, because I know it will be beautiful.

I remember a line from an Amy Carmichael poem. "In acceptance lieth peace." There are things in life we would love to change, but we are powerless to do so. There comes a time when we have to decide we either believe there's a God ruling the universe or we don't.

I believe. Eric believes. It shines in his eyes and lights his smile, falling like a gentle benediction on anyone who enters his presence.

We comfort others with the comfort we've received. I visited Eric at BIR. And I was comforted.


T. Suzanne Eller said...

It just occurred to me that your son's friend shared her story of being Jacob's friend (before and after his accident) in my first book. Is this right?
It has been such a long time that I failed to remember or put the beautiful story and you and your family together.

Jeanne Damoff said...

That's right, Suzie. Natalie and Jacob were best friends before his accident, and she was his daily support and most enthusiastic cheerleader during his recovery, until she left for college three years later.

When Natalie got married, she paused and hugged Jacob on her way down the aisle. I'm convinced her unwavering love made a huge difference in his determination to get better.

Thanks for remembering.