We had already been married for 30 years and probably had gotten through all the rough patches and we were truly okay with ourselves and the world. Our three children were grown up, our work years winding down and the immediate future looked damn exciting and full of adventure. We had planned a trip to Cuba for a long time. Michael wanted to return to the island where he had lived during the formative years of his childhood. It was on our sixth day, driving through a rain soaked village where people lined the street going to the open market, that Michael suddenly veered the wheel to miss a chicken (he thought was perhaps a child) that ran in front of the car. That split second changed our lives. Michael was seat belted behind the steering wheel, yet he knew as he hung upside down that he had broken his neck and had no movement or feeling in his legs. He reached toward the keys to turn off the motor, but his fingers wouldnít work. He was the only one of us in the car, seriously injured. Yet it was the one injury that everyone fears the most probably. We were in a foreign country that was medically bankrupt having little medicine, working equipment and supplies. Yet our new life, in what would become our new direction, began with a sense of forward motion to survive.
As Michaelís wife, I became the number one caregiver and leader of this new team that instantly began to take shape. At first, being in shock, fear and pain, I was not the most affective, yet those around me gave me time to take charge. One should delegate that responsibility until your ready, but donít take too long to be ready. Your attitude, your presence and your belief that things will be okay again, are essential to your loved one. They read your eyes and body language and they know. Hope is the most important element of healing. It is your first task and probably will be the most important one.
The statistics on how relationships survive after a catastrophic injury are shocking. Most marriages will end in separation and divorce. Family relationships are challenged and strained. It affects everyone around the injured person. Having gone through this, I know today that it is essential to understand that change and shifts must occur, and once again you can survive and maybe even benefit from what lies ahead.
I learned immediately, while sitting in the Cuban ICU room with cots and no blankets, that our team was going to be required to move obstacles that couldnít be imagined in order to get us out of Cuba to Miami where Dr. Barth Green, SCI Surgeon and Director of the Miami Project To Cure Paralysis, was waiting for us. Individual friends seemed to be stepping to the plate to perform tasks that each had an ability and expertise in. I donít know what we would have done without them. I was with my sister-in-law, Toni, who stayed by my side and her brother's, throughout those first days and weeks. What lesson did I learn? Recognize your team and let them work. Choose someone to be your assistant, coordinator and documenter. Use our 10 point program to guide you.
I knew that my role was important, but I didnít acknowledge at first that my health and stamina was key for how I would and could perform. Sleep, food, exercise and perhaps therapy need to be on your priority list. You have to be highly functional on several different levels. Avoid alcohol, drugs and other stimulants as a means to escape your present reality. They wonít help. If you need help with this, get it. I did by doubling up my AA meetings. I was 10 years sober when Mike was injured. Instead of letting my old addiction take me down, I used the support team that was available to me. They carried and protected me.
I took over most of our financial affairs and business affairs. With the advice and guidance of our tax and financial advisor, I terminated Mike as an employee from our privately owned Company so he would be eligible for his much earned disability insurance. (He worked for Coca-Cola for twenty years before we purchased the San Diego master franchise of PostalAnnex+) Mike can not work because of his age and right to draw disability, but he can consult and direct, which he does freely and often.
Am I a caregiver? Well yes, but I think of myself more as being the president of Mike Thomasís fan club. He gets most of the attention and admiration. But there is no one, who doesnít wink and smile and always let me know that they know what part I have played in his recovery. My advise to you; always give yourself credit. Value your input, your stamina, your patience and your incredible ability to go with the punches and remain standing. Someone has to while the other works to get their legs back. So, you have a new job and a new purpose. Shift from sadness to excitement. You are on a new path where Spinal Cord Injury and regaining function, is your new focus and goal.