26: Yes, I’m a Train Wreck

26: Yes, I’m a Train Wreck

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries

Yes, I’m a Train Wreck

Gird your hearts with silent fortitude, suffering yet hoping all things.

~Felicia Hemans

Most people in upstate New York remember March 15, 1993 as the day the blizzard of the century paralyzed our region. That day had a profound impact on me, too, but not for the reasons you may think.

The place where I worked after school had closed down early that day. The storm was coming fast, dumping six inches of wet snow in less than an hour. It was five o’clock and I was glad to be heading home early. At eighteen years old, I didn’t care too much about the impending storm. March meant spring was finally here, and the only thing I was thinking about was graduating from high school in a few short months. My grades had put me at the top of my class and I had just been accepted into engineering college, a hard-earned dream come true. I was on the swim team, played in the orchestra, and had a girlfriend. From my perspective, eighteen was the best age ever. I didn’t have a worry in the world.

As I headed out of work that day, I glanced up toward the gray sky that hung low over the town. I couldn’t see much in front of me, just the thick snowflakes that stung my face and mounded quickly around my feet. The wind was relentless so I flipped my coat collar up high, put on my headphones, and headed down the road. In hindsight, I guess this is the place where I went wrong. But it all seemed innocent enough at the time. I turned the music up full blast and strongly considered taking the forbidden shortcut home along the back railroad tracks. It would be okay, I reasoned. After all, the news report said a state of emergency had been declared, meaning the trains couldn’t possibly be running, right? I decided to go for it. I sneaked up over the back bank and walked out onto the blustery trail, the metal train tracks guiding my way home already invisible. It was getting worse outside, but no big deal. My house was only a few minutes away.

The music blaring from my headphones was so loud that I didn’t hear the warning blast of the train whistle. The snow was blinding me and muffling the sounds around me. It wasn’t until my feet rattled beneath me that I turned around. Looming over my head was the face of a huge, black metal train, staring down at me through the dusk. With no time to think, I did the only thing I could do. I jumped high in the air and tried to get out of the way.

That’s it. That’s the last thing I remember of the blizzard of the century. One mistaken decision, one rumble from the ground, one flash of black in the storm, and my life was changed forever.

I learned about the rest of my ordeal from my parents. They learned about it from the people who witnessed the accident and its aftermath. The conductor said I bounced three times off the front of the train before I was tossed into the air like a rag doll. The police officer said I was thrown fifty feet from the railroad track. The emergency response team said they searched much of the night before finally finding me, unconscious, buried in three feet of snow. The doctor told my parents that I would be dead before morning.

My dad was a minister who believed strongly in the power of prayer. I’m not sure why God decided I should stay here on this planet. Maybe it was because of the people from all of the different countries who prayed for me that night. I don’t know. All I know for sure is that my dad started a prayer chain that began at my hospital bed and traveled around the world and reached as far away as China. I made it through that night, and the next night, and the night after that. The doctor just shook his head, telling my parents not to get their hopes up. I still might not make it and if I did I might remain in a permanent vegetative state. But live I did. And seven months later, I emerged from my deep coma wondering what the heck hit me.

“A train.” my mother said. “You were hit by a train.”

“Who gets hit by a train?” I asked her. I truly thought my family and friends were playing some kind of joke on me. Unfortunately, the doctor echoed her words and that’s when the denial set in. It couldn’t be as bad as they were saying. Never walk again? Never swim or use my arms or hands? Memory and speech problems? They were all liars. My life would go back to normal and it would happen soon. But soon didn’t happen. After months in rehab, I reluctantly realized they were telling me the truth. For the next thirteen months, I would fight to keep depression and anger from suffocating me.

I went through a long stretch of time when I was mad at everyone: my parents, the doctors, even God. What gave them the right to decide for me that I should stay on this planet and work so hard—just to regain a small semblance of my old life? I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to stay! And I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be the guy whose identity was stolen by a beaten up brain and body. I had to learn how to talk, how to eat, and even how to breathe—a shock to a kid who was on the swim team. My lungs had multiple punctures in them, to the point where I swear I could hear the “wind” whistle when I took a deep breath. I couldn’t even sit up without support. I called myself the blob because it took months for me to regain the use of my torso muscles. Nothing worked right anymore. But worst of all, my life didn’t work anymore either. Facing that fact was the hardest part.

But deep down I am an eternal optimist. Through it all, I hung onto a good-sized chunk of denial, in spite of the reality of my situation. I am grateful for this piece of denial, because without it, I would have fallen into a severe depression, one that I might not have had the wherewithal to climb out of. Actually I may still be living in denial. But that’s okay. Brain injury or no brain injury, I am very bright and my deficits aren’t going to ruin me. Yeah, so I have a few problems. Who doesn’t, right? Now, eighteen years and an entire lifetime later, I still spend my days in a wheelchair. I have poor vision, spasticity in my left arm, and little use of my hands. Just going to the bathroom can be a major ordeal. The doctors still tell me that I will never get better. That is depressing, yes, but I view it this way: never say never! I’ve made a lot of progress through the years and I intend to keep it up for many years to come.

You might ask what my driving force is, what keeps me going every day in spite of the fact that I am so impaired. It’s simple. I stay strong for all of the people who have been strong for me. On rare occasions, when I catch myself wishing that the train did end my life, I think of my friends and family and how it would be for them if I gave up. If I start feeling sorry for myself, I try to remember that a lot of people look up to me. I’m a survivor, not because I want to be, but because I have to be for the benefit of those who see me as an inspiration. I am a reluctant role model.

Many people ask me how to deal with hard issues in their lives, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual. I know they look at me and think, if a train couldn’t put him down, nothing can. Then, I think—hell, yeah! I’m a survivor who has used my inner strength to reinvent my life. I go to work every day and have my own apartment. I have many friends and I love to go to restaurants and flirt with the waitresses. And, best of all, I have a sense of humor that makes all those long-faced non-survivors realize that life can be a joy—if you let it. I have a lot of insight to share. If my opinion was pay-worthy, I’d be rich.

This experience has made me realize that I can create my own miracles. I’m still working on staying happy for myself, on being my own motivation. But in spite of it all, I am a happy guy. And, I am rich. Wouldn’t you agree? I am rich in friends, stamina, and in life.

My life rocks.

~Jon Nathan Blair

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