God’s mercies on the journey from tragedy to triumph.
by Jewell Johnson
I see the skateboard every time I walk into our garage — a sad reminder of another time. Our grandson left it at our house one Christmas. He will not use it again. Brandon is now a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair.
Early one Sunday morning, our phone gave a shrill ring. “Brandon had an accident!” our son shouted. “The doctor says his spinal cord is bruised and he’s paralyzed.” While running on an inflatable obstacle at a school event, fifteen-year-old Brandon fell, landing on his head. He instantly lost feeling in his legs.
Our family had not dealt with an injury of this magnitude, and it left us stunned. What would happen now?
Immediately, my husband and I knelt in our living room and cried out to God for help. Because both Brandon’s parents had jobs and I am a retired nurse, the family asked me to stay with him during his time in the rehabilitation hospital. So later that Sunday, I flew 800 miles to be with Brandon.
I was more than glad to help my grandson. The rehab nurses taught me to suction the area of his tracheotomy, an opening in the trachea through the neck to allow the passage of air. While I knew I was helping him get rid of unwanted secretions, seeing him gag and choke on the catheter unnerved me.
Twice a day I helped get Brandon in a sling, lower him into a wheelchair, and take him to physical therapy. There the therapists and I placed the sling under him again and lifted him to a mat, where they exercised his lifeless limbs. If the whole process seemed tedious to me, what did it seem like to Brandon? He didn’t complain.
Three times a day Brandon and I went to the dining room, where I attempted to feed him. But often waves of nausea came over him, and we had to leave before I got two bites in his mouth.
Every evening after the nurses had settled Brandon for sleep, he and I watched a movie — the same one every night: The Gladiators. It’s the story of a young warrior in ancient times who fought many battles to conquer his enemies.
For those few, precious moments, we forgot catheters, IVs, and wheelchairs as the young man on the screen slew the villains in his path.
Prayers and dreams
Most nights I slept in the same room with Brandon. As I listened to his even breathing, I begged, “Please God, heal his spinal cord.” In dreams, I pictured the tiny nerves reconnecting and sensation returning to my grandson’s legs and feet.
Every night I claimed Jeremiah 29:11 for him: “For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” (NIV). But over time, when I saw no positive change, I simply prayed, “God, help Brandon find a purpose for this new life.”
Days in the hospital seemed to drag on, but visits from Brandon’s parents, friends, and his high school rugby team made the time pass faster. His friends helped suction and turn him. Soon I knew all of them by name.
At the end of each day, family and friends joined hands around the bed and prayed, pleading with God to allow Brandon to walk again.
One morning Brandon’s new occupational therapist came up with an idea. “We’re going to the zoo on Friday. Want to come along, Brandon?”
The zoo? Is she crazy? I said to myself. But the therapist wasn’t joking. The patients, most of them on respirators with tubes and catheters, were wheeled into vans and taken to the zoo. As the sun baked on Brandon’s pale face, I pushed his wheelchair on a gravel path. Through dull eyes, he gazed at polar bears and giraffes.
I understood the concept. The patients needed to get away from the hospital, yet the whole process seemed like a lot of work to me.
Laughs and victories
Still, Brandon got the idea, and the next week we piled into a van with other patients bound for miniature golf. How can these people hit a golf ball when most of them can’t even lift a fork to their mouth? I wondered.
Brandon gave it his best swing. The laughs we shared during those games had nothing to do with golf.
Brandon and I learned to be happy for small victories — meals in the dining room when he could eat and not become nauseous. And I cheered when the respiratory therapist said that Brandon could breathe on his own and that she’d remove the tracheal tube.
After two and a half months, Brandon finished his time in the rehab hospital. He returned home and began the hard work of adjusting to life in a wheelchair.
One of the greatest challenges for paraplegics is managing their bowels. Two hours before school every morning, Brandon’s caregiver initiated a bowel program. Because paraplegics have no control, Brandon always worried about an involuntary movement.
The skateboard wasn’t the only sport Brandon would forgo in his new life. His father had recently given him a new motorcycle — something he enjoyed riding. It broke my heart to see Brandon sitting in his wheelchair in the garage, staring at his shiny black motorcycle and knowing he would never ride it again.
While this discouraged Brandon, his dad remained positive. He reminded his son, “We can eventually have a car converted to hand controls, and the rehab people will teach you how to drive it.”
Attending high school in a wheelchair proved a big adjustment for Brandon. “Everyone is the same,” he said on his first day back. “But I’m totally different.”
Perhaps that’s when he began to feel depressed. Brandon is a quiet, private person, and it was difficult to read his emotions. But soon it became apparent he needed relief from sadness. Thank God for helping my grandson endure in his day-to-day adjustments.
Despite the challenges, Brandon persevered through high school, graduated, and went on to attend a state university. Because he had little use of his hands, I wondered how he’d manage to do his assignments.
I need not have worried. Brandon learned to work the computer with his knuckles. Other times he used Dragon, the program that records when a person speaks into it.
Brandon also became friends with several Christian athletes on campus. When Bible studies were held in a dorm without an elevator, a wheelchair was no problem to these young men. They easily lifted Brandon from his chair and carried him up the stairs to the dorm room.
I continued to pray our grandson would realize the plans God had to prosper him as he viewed it from a wheelchair. That prayer was answered when Brandon learned to drive a car. It was answered again when, through misty eyes, I watched a confident, handsome young man, with plans for his future, maneuver his wheelchair across a stage to receive his college degree.
Only God knows those plans. Considering what He’s done so far, I am confident He will be with my grandson every step of the way.
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