Driving Again - Part 1

A few months after my injury in August 2012, I recall having the feeling that I would not have the ability to do much--possibly for the rest of my life. I went from being an extremely active and athletic 36-year-old firefighter and paramedic (and retired professional surfer) to being a paraplegic with a C4-C6 incomplete spinal cord injury. I had a strong sense of helplessness. I simply could not imagine myself being able to do anything for myself again. I could barely lift my arm to get a fork to my mouth. I needed assistance with absolutely everything! I often thought would I ever regain a level of independence? Were things going to get better? Was I going to get stronger?

With a lot of hard work and tenacity, things did get better. I became stronger, day by day. In December 2013, approximately 1 1/2 years post injury; I received the astonishing news by a counselor that I may be able to drive a car. My first thought was, "This has to be a joke!” I knew I was stronger today than I ever thought possible, compared to my days of rehab at Shepherd Center, but there is no way I could drive a car. After a lot of encouragement from my counselor and family, my thoughts began to shift. Surprisingly I began to think, "Why not?”

I made an appointment in Pensacola at West Florida Hospital for a driving evaluation. I went with my mother, Arlene. She dropped me off at the front door and informed me that she was going to find the nearest store for some water--typically these appointments have a long wait time.

To my disbelief, I was greeted quickly and ushered into my first evaluation which was a Motor Reflex Function Test. This test would evaluate the strength of my left arm. It took only five minutes, and the therapist determined that my reaction time and function was good enough to put me behind the wheel again. I was astonished!

Before I knew it, we were in route to the parking lot. My next test was to transfer into a vehicle to determine my stability behind the wheel. Keep in mind, I had only been there for about 10 or 15 minutes and I was already getting behind the wheel of a car! With the assistance of another employee they were able to transfer me out of my chair into the driver's seat of an old vehicle. I noticed quickly the modifications on the steering wheel, breaks and gas pedal. I can remember, with great clarity, what happened next. There I was sitting behind the wheel of this vehicle and I looked up and saw my mother slowly driving past us looking for a parking space. She was going very slow and looked over to her right and made eye contact with me---sitting behind the wheel of a vehicle only 20 minutes or so after she dropped me off at the front door. I’m not sure, if it was a look of horror or disbelief, but whichever one it was, it stillAfter a few minutes of tests, the instructor didn’t need to tell me how I did in the car. I knew it. I did not do very well. I did not have enough strength in my left arm to turn the wheel 360°. My right arm was not strong enough to push and pull the brake and gas lever. My feeling of excitement, that rose so fast, diminished in an instant. My original feelings of doubt reared its ugly face again.

The instructor said to me, “it doesn’t look like this style of modification is going to work for you but I think you will definitely qualify for an electronic type of driving system with a joystick.” I felt like I could have jumped out of my chair and start walking again. He’d given me the news and the hope of one of the best things I could ask for, independence!

Read Part 2 of Danny's story.



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