Steve Chapman | Perspectives Program Mentor | Rehab and Mobility Systems
The night of my injury is a night I will not forget, and neither will my family or friends who experienced it with me. On August 31, 1984, I had a motorcycle accident that left me laying in an apple orchard with a broken back and a collapsed lung for 14 hours through the night, surviving a thunderstorm that brought hail and high winds. Amazingly, I was found by a friend in his helicopter the next morning. Later at the hospital, I learned I was paralyzed. The doctor explained that paralysis meant that I would never walk again, and that having sex and children were impossible. The doctor told us that because I wouldn't be able to take care of myself, my parents should be looking for a nursing home for me, that my life expectancy would be 45. I looked at my mom and dad and told them to bring my gun. Life as I knew it was over. I was 19.
But, my parents didn't accept that future for me. They had me air-lifted to the University of Michigan Hospital where I had back stabilization surgery and three and a half months of rehabilitation. And, I was assured that what was said to me before was not true. Still, at 19 I was holding on to what I had already heard: my life was over.
Being a paraplegic at 19 also meant that I had to learn quickly about my new life in a wheelchair in addition to the life as a young adult. Day-to-day routines were suddenly harder than I had imagined. I had to learn about a daily bowel program and had to re-learn basic hygiene routines that would keep me healthy long-term. Some of the typical things that able-bodied youth are challenged by, like dating and sex, were even more stressful for me, and a romantic life seemed out of reach.
I'm blessed that my family and friends were there, pulling me through that mindset. In addition to treating me like the person I always had been, they helped me to remain active in the things I had loved before, like snowmobiling, 4-wheeling, hunting, and canoeing. But no matter how hard they tried, I was still feeling alone in the wheelchair. I felt that as able-bodied people, they couldn't possibly understand what life was for me now.
Those first few years were difficult for sure. But then I met Lee, who I now see as my first mentor. Though Lee's situation is different than mine, he was the first person I met in a wheelchair, who could understand more of what I was going through. He introduced me to wheelchair sports like basketball and tennis. I met a host of individuals in wheelchairs, both athletes and non- athletes. He introduced me to peer mentoring by taking me with him while he volunteered at the local rehab hospital. He instilled in me the importance of giving back by mentoring and sharing my story and experiences with others. Through my interactions with others in wheelchairs, I finally felt understood. This gave me the much-needed confidence I didn't have when I was first injured.
However, the road was not always so smooth. I found myself masking my pain and insecurities with alcohol. I used it to gain the courage needed to meet people and try new things, to accept myself for who I am in a world that would never accept me in my wheelchair - or so I thought at the time. In 2010, I was introduced to a new group of peers: those who dealt with addiction. Through their stories and their commitment to sobriety, I was able to get sober. This process helped me to see more deeply how people can have many different kinds of problems, and again that I was not alone, and that my wheelchair did not define me. I learned the power in listening, and being open to sharing our own stories in the process of healing.
Over time, and with the help of my mentors, my my friends, and my family, it seemed as though the limits I had invented in my mind had melted away.
Now, I lead a healthy, active, and independent life. I travel across the country to compete in handcycle racing. I ski in the mountains in Colorado and I water ski. I captain my boat all over Lake Michigan. I drive four-wheelers. I hunt deer. I am a happy, healthy 55-year old, outliving the doctor's prediction by 10 years. I have a 20-year old son, and a happy love life. In short, I have proven that first doctor wrong, and I can do whatever I set my mind to.
But most importantly, I have been blessed to be a mentor by sharing my experiences - both failures and success - as a lifelong athlete and outdoors enthusiast. For over 30 years, I have been involved in various programs to help others learn to be physically active and involved in sports such as the Junior Wheelchair sports camps, and the Mary Free Bed Company handcycling team. I have helped the others learn to ski and try many other sports for the first time, or to re-learn a sport played before their injury. I also advocate for the larger community by serving on various boards of of organizations for people with disabilities.
Through the Perspectives program, I see great potential we have as a collective of people with similar challenges, but who also have stories of empowerment and hope. My goal is to bring groups of people together to share these stories, to learn from each other about how to adjust to even the simplest of things, to find solutions to things we first see as complicated, and to develop self-confidence and strength, as I was taught from my earliest mentors. - Steve Chapman