by Adam Helbling on Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 7:33pm ·
When the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2011 I found myself alone working on New Year’s Eve. I spent the night working as a valet and was stuck working until 2 AM. This was the first time in my life that I found myself alone at the start of the new year. I swore to myself that I would never let this happen again. When I got off work and arrived back to campus I could not get a hold of any of my friends and I was forced to spend the first night of this new year alone. I took a walk down High Street to pick up something to eat. To my relief I ran into one of my best friends and his girlfriend. Their excitement to see me brought a smile to my face. It was just what I needed. They were on their way home so once again I found myself alone. 2010 was one of the best years of my life. It was capped off with winning a national championship for waterskiing. One year later I find myself staring at that national championship ring around my neck wishing I could go back. I had a bad feeling about this year from the minute it started.
Two days earlier my cousin had passed away from a brain bleed that he received from simply falling and hitting his head on the pavement while walking out of work. He was only 29 years old. It was a reminder of just how fragile we are and how life could change at any second. My family was devastated from the news. We spent the first week of 2011 in Florida for my cousin’s funeral. It had been many years since I had last seen my cousin. That summer we were planning a family vacation where we would all get to see each other. My cousin was really looking forward to seeing all of us again but that never happened. I talked with his girlfriend and his best friend the day after the funeral. They both thought that I was so much like my cousin. I wish that I could’ve spent more time with him.
I will never forget that week in Florida. Not just because of the funeral but also because it was one of my last weeks that I was able to walk. I vividly remember taking a walk around my uncle’s neighborhood. I remember walking through the airport and I remember every store I walked in and even the type of sandwich that I ordered for lunch. I remember every last detail of my last few weeks on my feet before the accident.
We flew out of the Tampa Airport to our connecting flight in Atlanta. From there I was supposed to fly with my parents back to Akron but we missed our connecting flight. The next flight back to Akron would not arrive until late that evening and I would still have a two-hour drive back to Columbus. Instead of flying to Akron I chose to fly to Columbus because I had an exam that I had to study for and take in the morning. I tried to study for the exam on the plane but did not make much progress. When I got back to Columbus I e-mailed my professor and asked if I could take the exam at a later date. He said due to the circumstances that would be okay and we arranged to take the exam on Friday. I regret not flying back to Akron with my parents to get my car because for some reason I think things could have turned out differently and my accident would have never happened.
I remember every last detail of the week leading up to my accident. That Friday I kept getting signs as if God was trying to warn me of something. After I took my exam that morning I went to the restroom and in the grout between the tiles was written “Jesus loves you.” In my book I will go into much more detail about the signs that I received that day but they were constant. That afternoon my parents drove down from Akron to bring me my car. We went out to lunch and then afterwards they headed home and I headed to work.
I came back from work and opened the door to my apartment. As soon as I opened the door my neighbors came running in laughing and throwing toilet paper all over the place. As easy-going as I am I started to laugh and then took all the money out of my pocket that I made at work and threw it in the air making it rain. Then in the corner of my eye I noticed my friend take out a lighter and light the toilet paper on fire. He laughed as I stomped on the toilet paper to put it out. I wasn’t even upset that there was a burn marks on my carpet. The burn mark gave me flashbacks to my sophomore year when I lived in that three bedroom townhouse by myself. I threw 64 team beer pong tournaments and after the first one I realized it was a bad idea to have a hookah room because the coal had spilled multiple times and burned the brand-new carpet. It was getting late but for me the night had just begun. I wrote on Facebook, “I need to get the hell out of my apartment.” I then went over to a friends place to pay him back some money that I owed him.
When I got to my friends he opened the door and I threw the wad of cash at him. I hung around for a little while until my one friend asked for a ride home. We walked to my car a couple streets over and then drove to his house. We stop at Giant Eagle along the way to pick up some late-night munchies. That night the signs kept coming. We got to my friend’s place and he had a big picture of Jesus above his fireplace. I found myself staring at this picture and having this strange feeling. We then went to the basement where there was a drum set, a guitar, a keyboard, and everything else to make music. The jam session started and I was having the time of my life. We jammed out for about an hour or so and by this time it was about 3 AM. I got into my car to drive back to my apartment on High Street.
As I got close to my apartment I decided that I did not want the night to end quite yet. The music was blasting and I was wide awake. I used to always take a cruise downtown and a lap back to my apartment. This was the plan but for some reason once I got downtown I was not ready to turn around. I got on the highway and eventually got on 70 West. I was singing out loud while listening to music. I kept getting these signs whether it was a billboard, a line from a song, or a street sign I felt like someone else was there to protect me. This caused me to drive a little faster.
I crossed over into Indiana and was surprised that time had passed so fast. Then as I was driving at about 90 mph I lost control of my car and it spun around backwards and went backwards down the highway for about 5 seconds. Then it spun right back around. This should have scared me and caused me to slow down and turn around and go home but instead it made me feel invincible and feel protected like someone else was there. I continued to drive down the highway not even phased by what had just happened. I put the pedal to the floor and took off. The last thing I remember is looking down at my speedometer and seeing 120 mph. I then looked in my rearview mirror and saw police lights way back in the distance. Then everything went black.
I found out a few days later that my car had flipped 9 times and I had landed upside down in a field. When the paramedics took me away I had no pulse but I came back to life. It was not my time to go. God has bigger plans for me and that is why I am here today. I could feel that there was someone or something there protecting me which is why I was not scared.
I was taken to Rushville Hospital near Indianapolis. These were the doctors that saved my life. They inserted two chest tubes into my side for my collapsed lungs and put me on a ventilator. I was then life flighted to Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. It was just my luck that this was the number two trauma hospital in the entire country. They did emergency surgery on my neck which was fractured at the C6 and C7 vertebrae. My elbow was also severely dislocated so they inserted a fixator with four screws into my bones.
The next day I woke up surrounded by my entire family. I noticed right away that I could not move my legs. That was the scariest moment of my life when I found out that I was paralyzed. I looked at my family as if I wanted to know if this was actually happening. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask but there was a breathing tube shoved down my throat for three days. For three days I did not know if I killed anybody and I did not know what happened to me. I go into much greater detail in my book about my time in the hospital. I will just say that I literally lost my mind in Indianapolis. The signs that I got on the drive to my accident kept coming as if God was trying to say that he was there for me during this difficult time.
I had been laying in bed for two weeks before I started physical therapy. On my first day of therapy the therapists said that they were going to work on getting my blood pressure regulated while sitting up. They wrapped my legs tight with ace bandages and strapped an abdominal binder around my waist to help keep my blood pressure up. The therapists sat me up and I thought I would have no problem sitting on the side of my bed on my own but I was falling all over the place. Not only were my legs paralyzed but I was also paralyzed from the chest down so I had no abdominal muscles. Two therapist had to hold me on either side so that I did not fall down. I lasted about 45 seconds before blacking out. The next time around I lasted about 2 minutes. Every day I made a little progress from 2 minutes to 5 minutes to 9 minutes to 17 minutes. By the end of the third week I was able to sit up for a total of 30 minutes. All I could think was how am I going to walk when I cannot even stand sitting for a short period of time? But that didn’t stop me. I was going to beat this just as my dad did 30 years earlier from his spinal cord injury.
I was transferred by ambulance 6 hours to Cleveland Metro, the number 2 spinal cord rehabilitation hospital in the country. Lucky once again that it was in my own backyard. I spent 3 months in Cleveland. It felt like a prison and I felt like I was never going home. The entire time I was there I was confident that I was going to make a full recovery. I was always the type of person that had things come to me fast. This journey was to teach me patience.
Therapy did not involve me trying to take steps with a walker or anything like that. But every day I would have to watch others learn to walk again. I would tell them that I can’t wait to be doing that and I encouraged them every step of the way. It was hard to watch people three times my age with better mobility than me. My therapy was divided between occupational therapy, speech therapy, and physical therapy.
During occupational therapy I spent my time working on my right hand. When I was first injured my right hand was curled up and it took months of therapy to get back to normal. My left arm was in a fixator for the first six weeks so it just sat there and withered away. When my arm finally came out of the fixator it was so stiff that I could hardly bend it. The orthopedic surgeon came to visit me after the surgery and told me that I would never bend my arm more than another 45°. The occupational therapist thought differently and together we both proved that doctor wrong. After months of stretching I was able to bend my arm up to 5° away from normal. But my elbow is still very stiff to this day.
Working with the occupational therapist she switched the focus from my right hand to my left hand. I had little movement in my left hand and I thought it was all because of the fixator. But when the fixator came off my hand could still barely move. I asked the therapist about this and she told me it was because of my spinal cord. When I heard this I broke down crying. All I had to rely on was my right hand. I was losing hope until I met a new friend who had a spinal cord injury a little over a year before. He told me that his hands were just like mine but after working them he got them back. But still almost one year later my hand is the same as it was back when I was at Cleveland Metro. No longer can I play the guitar or play video games. Life would be much easier with two hands but I guess I should just say that I’m blessed to at least have one because my right hand should be just like my left.
Around your spinal cord there are blood vessels that lead to your brain and if they are cut off you could suffer serious brain damage. So I spent three weeks in speech therapy proving that I was all still there. Every day I would pass nearly every test with way above average marks. But still every day I would be asked to come back to prove myself once again. This drove me absolutely crazy until she said I was finally ready to end speech therapy.
Physical therapy was always at the end of the day for me. Since my legs just sat there all day they became very stiff so therapy started with a great deal of stretching. I laid there on my back feeling helpless and unable to move as the therapist did the stretches. I also did work with weights on my right arm. After losing 45 pounds from laying in bed for weeks I had lost nearly all of my strength. I had been working out 4 to 5 times a week since the 10th grade and now all of that was gone. Instead of lifting an 80 pound dumbbell for chest press I was lifting 15 pounds. I felt like I would never get back to my prime. Once my left arm was stable enough I started working out with a weight machine that was handicap accessible. They should have one of these in every gym in America.
Every night after I would get my bed bath I would look down at my legs and try to move something. After months of not being able to move anything I became extremely discouraged. My dad who had a spinal cord injury when he was 32 said that his legs started to come back after only two weeks. One night the nurse asked me to try and move my toes. I looked down thinking, “Yeah right… I’m just going to feel more discouraged.” But when I looked down it was the opposite, they moved! I started laughing and then I started to cry. I called everyone in my family. My mom, my cousins, and my aunt were all at my house and they all started to cry. My dad went out and bought three cases of beer. When I posted it on Facebook my phone kept ringing all night long. It was the first sign of hope I had seen in two months and it really got me going again.
The support that I have seen throughout this entire experience has been extraordinary. On March 31st my friends from the Ohio State Water Ski Team hosted a benefit for me at Gooeyz on campus. That night I received tons of phone calls from friends at the event telling me just how crazy the night turned out to be. Hundreds of my friends showed up at the event. I was told that the line for food was an hour and a half long. They raised a great deal of money for me at the event and really raised my spirits by showing me just how much support I really had. I have the banner from the event hanging in my room and I read the comments every day from my friends. It was the largest crowd that Gooeyz had ever seen. Even bigger than when Archie Griffin was there the week before. When I came down to visit Columbus I went to Gooeyz and talked to one of the bartenders that was working that night. She said that after the event their business really picked up. When I return to Columbus there will be a fundraiser for the Water Ski Team at Gooeyz and a welcome back party for me. Come out to support the waterski team and welcome me home.
On April 17th my family and some family friends organized a benefit for me at a local Mexican restaurant. With a maximum capacity of 150 people the tickets to the benefit sold out fast. In the hospital I was only allowed to leave two days out of my entire stay. The 1st day I got a day pass and went to the South Park Mall with some friends and family. For my overnight pass I used it on the day of the benefit. This was the first time I got to go home in three months. I cannot even describe to you the feeling of coming home after three months in a hospital. I cried as the van drove down my street to my house because I was so happy.
The benefit that night was overwhelming. I spent almost the entire time having people come up to me to say that they had been praying for me and thinking about me constantly. There were a couple of times that I had to leave the restaurant to get away from the crowd because I was so overwhelmed. The support that I saw that night was miraculous. People had come from as far as Arizona and New Orleans. That night I was so thankful to be alive and to be surrounded by the people that love me.
A week before I was to be discharged from hospital I fell into a deep depression. My hopes of walking out of the hospital had faded away. When I was discharged from the hospital on April 27th I did not feel as happy as I thought I would. I was disappointed about my situation. When I got home I quickly realized how different life was. No longer could I just jump on the couch or get into bed by myself. I could not go downstairs. I could not get into any car that I pleased only the rusted out van. To go anywhere I had to have someone drive me. The freedom of driving my car anywhere I pleased was now gone.
There was so much that I needed help with. Three months earlier I lived by myself in an incredible apartment on High Street right in the center of the Ohio State campus. I was extremely independent but now my independence was stripped away. I need help with getting dressed and undressed. My bladder no longer works so I have to use catheters now to go to the bathroom. Every time I go to the bathroom I need help. Instead of just simply sitting on a toilet to go to the bathroom I need an enema every other day to get my bowel routine going. I have lost my privacy as I even need help with showering. I used to love to cook but now I need help preparing every meal. I absolutely hate being so dependent on others. It is amazing now looking back and seeing how much I took for granted.
One of the things I miss more than anything is being comfortable. My sensation from my chest down is very poor. A pair of sweatpants feels the same as a pair of jeans. I cannot feel hot and cold so a shower is no longer comforting. My legs are always very stiff and very spastic. When I go to sleep at night I need help with getting pillows propped behind the back, and a pillow in between my legs and booties on my feet to avoid pressure sores. I have to wear a condom catheter so that I do not wet the bed. When the light goes out and it is time to go to sleep on most nights I have to try and fall asleep while my legs spasm. If I’m uncomfortable I cannot move my legs or rollover to try and adjust myself. I am stuck in the same spot for the entire night.
This year has really opened my eyes to just how great I had it. When I was in the hospital I would look at the pictures of my family and friends on my wall and on my Facebook. It made me realize just how blessed I was to live the life that I lived for the first 24 years. It made me cry to think about how happy I was and I cried even harder thinking about how happy I will be if I get it all back. I have lived an amazing life and because of all my experiences it makes it incredibly hard to let go. There are so many things that I cannot do now.
This summer I spent so much time dwelling on what I could not do. For the first time in my life I was no longer able to water ski. My passion for waterskiing was as great as you would say any professional athlete’s love for their game. This summer I went to my godfather’s lake to watch them ski and I just could not take it. As we drove through the slalom course I could see myself rounding each buoy and it brought tears to my eyes. I could not even watch and I wanted to go home. This year before my accident I was chosen to be the coach of the Ohio State Water Ski Team. As I looked at pictures of this past season it was hard for me because I know that I should have been standing there with them.
Baseball, basketball, sand volleyball, lifting, swimming, Cedar Point, longboarding, bike rides, camping, boating, tubing, rope swings, jumping off bridges, driving, and many more were things that I had to say goodbye to this summer. I had to watch my brother and his friends go on trips and play sports that I could not be a part of. Each season brings about different memories of different things from the past that I am now missing out on. In the winter months I missed out on snow skiing and sledding. In the spring I missed out on the trip to Louisiana with the Water Ski Team. In the summer I missed out on my greatest passion in waterskiing and I missed out on all the tournaments and our trips to the Clarion River. My family took a trip up to Kelly’s Island and we went to the beach for the day. To get on the beach I had to be put in a wagon and then pulled to a beach chair. For the entire day I sat there and watched my family play in the water and the sand. I could also see Cedar Point right across the way. Will I ever ride those rides again? It killed me to just be a spectator and not be able to play with my family. I never got to take that trip out to California to visit my friend Mitch. I was supposed to graduate on June 12th but that didn’t happen either.
Last December on my 24th birthday I wrote, “I have a feeling about this year. It just takes a hold of me when I think about it. There is this sense of optimism. It could only mean one thing to me. This is my time. It could have started a few years back but it did not feel right. It just took a couple of years to let it all soak in.” I never would’ve thought that I would’ve spent this year paralyzed. I thought it was time to graduate and show the world just what I’m made of. To build a successful career and make all my wildest dreams come true. I thought that I would’ve bought a new car but instead I watched all my close friends graduate and buy their dream cars. I thought I would have started a career but instead I watched my friends all get hired while I collected disability.
This year I learned that life can change in an instant. I learned who my true friends are and just how blessed and loved I really am. I learned how to be patient from all the times laying flat on my back waiting to get dressed and to get out of bed. I’ve had to wait for everything this year and rely on others. I learned that my family will do anything for me. I’ve learned that everything happens for a reason. Many people have told me that I have inspired them to appreciate the little things in life and to not take anything for granted. If this never happened to me then I never would have been able to reach out to people. Maybe my suffering is necessary to help others going through difficult times.
Before my accident I could always see what was ahead for me. I knew what I wanted and I went after it relentlessly until it was mine. I could see myself 5 even 10 years down the road. Now the future is not so certain. For once in my life I felt completely lost and I got completely down on myself. I went to school and pursued civil engineering so that I could build waterski lakes and cable parks for wakeboarding. Now that I can no longer ski this no longer really interests me. Maybe now I have a future in making the world more handicap accessible. I think it takes a civil engineer with a disability to really build it right.
What I really want to do is to make a difference in the lives of as many people as possible. Over the last couple of years I have been writing a book about what I’ve been through. I have 280 pages of material and there still is a lot more of the story to be told. I’m hoping to have this book published in 2012 and to start promoting it at Ohio State and then spread out from there. I want to do some public speaking in Columbus while I am back down there. There is so much that I have learned from this experience and it would be a waste not to share it.
I want to help people to forget about stressing about the little things in life. Like getting a job or making more money than your friends. I want to help people focus on what they have and not on what they don’t. Every day is a gift and we should live life to the fullest. Try what you think you’d like and pursue what you know you love because tomorrow you may not have that opportunity. Never be afraid of what others are thinking of you. Dance like no one is watching and sing like no one is listening. In the weight room don’t worry about what the guy next to you is lifting because results take time. A professional is not born but rather created through practice. Experience as much as you can in your lifetime. Don’t look around at what the other guy has. Dream big and relentlessly go after your goals. Don’t let your life pass you by. Remember that money is not the key to success but rather happiness is the key to success.
Once again I have this sense of optimism about 2012. The hardest part is over and of course it will be much better than 2011. I am extremely excited about my return to Columbus. In the last month I made some extraordinary progress in physical therapy for the first time since moving my toes. I was suspended over a treadmill in a harness and I was able to take steps with my right leg. On the first day I took 15 steps and from there I went on to take 40 steps then 104 steps to 295 steps to 369 steps. It was the first time I could see measured progress since getting my blood pressure up. In Columbus I was accepted into a program called locomotor training where I will be suspended above a treadmill and two people will be moving my legs in a walking motion. This is supposed to retrain my spinal cord how to walk. Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe one day I will get up and walk again.
In addition to my physical therapy I will also be taking classes at Ohio State. I only have 6 classes to finish my major in civil engineering and my minor in entrepreneurship. I found a place to live at Creative Living on 10th Ave. This is a place for people with physical disabilities. Most of whom have spinal cord injuries. I will have a call light in my room if I ever need help from the resident assistant. I will also have nurses and an aide to take care of me. Everything is all set for me to move down on January 1st. I am excited and nervous about my return to Columbus but I know that the support will be there. I ask you for your help while I am down there. To be patient with me because I will not be as quick to do things as I used to be.
It is time to bring in a new year and a new me. It is time to not dwell on what I cannot do and to focus on helping and shining the light on others. It is going to be strange coming back to Columbus in a wheelchair. Before all of this happened to me I had so much freedom. I rode to class on a longboard and at one point even on a Segway. I stood out but now I will stand out once again in my bright green wheelchair. Not quite as cool as I looked before. I ask you not to feel bad for me and not to give me that awkward smile to try and make me feel better. Treat me just as I was before. I’m still the same person that I was before just with a different head on my shoulders. I would say that I’m a little less outgoing than I used to be. I’m still just not used to living life paralyzed and I don’t think I ever will be.
Thank you for all of your support this year! It really has meant the world to me. Thank you for all the cards, the flowers, the gifts, the text messages, the phone calls, the Facebook messages and wall posts, the prayers, the visits and for everything else you’ve all done for me. Let’s make 2012 a much better year. Who knows, it could be the last year of all of our lives. I died this year but now I’m alive so I need to make it count. I nearly lost my mind once again but God spared it for a reason. In 2012 I will make use of what I have. I am so happy to still be a part of all of your lives. Let’s make every day count and find meaning in the lives that we live. I wish you all a very happy new year!