Saturday, January 26, 2013

“Famous People in Wheelchairs”

The first time I was asked about famous people in a wheelchair, I was hard pressed to come up with any names.  That failure was mine, however, because some of the greatest dignitaries on the world stage live their lives in a wheelchair.  I had simply never thought about it. I thought it might be fun to run through a partial list. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt:   FDR was the 32nd President of the United States and arguably the most important President of the twentieth century.  He certainly was in office longer than any other in our history.  He was first elected in 1932 shortly after the Great Depression, and was then reelected three more times.  He guided us through the greatest depression of our history, was one of the three most prominent leaders of WWII on the winning side along with Churchill and Stalin, and is responsible for the implementation of Social Security.  He contracted polio in 1921 and was paralyzed from the waist down as a result.  This, of course, didn’t stop him, and he became one of the most prominent figures of the century.

Stephen Hawking:  Hawking is one of the most famous and revered physicists and mathematicians or our age, and he has been in a wheelchair for the past forty years.  He has defied numbers because he was told he would not live to see his 23rd birthday.  Hawking was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is a motor neuron disease that results in the gradual and complete deteriorate of his muscle.  He can no longer sit up, hold his head up, or move his hands,, but he sure can think.  He wrote a best seller called “A Brief History of Time,” which tried to explain his theories of time and physics without using math. 

Teddy Pendergrass, Sr.:  Teddy was a drummer for the Cadillacs, which later merged with Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.  He later became the lead singer for the group jumping from the rear of the stage to become its foremost figure.  In 1982, Pendergrass severed his spine in an auto accident and was paralyzed from the waist down.  After numerous surgeries and a lengthy rehab, he got back to the studio and recorded the album “Love Language,” which included a duet with the then unknown Whitney Houston.

Christopher Reeves:  Perhaps best known for his role as Superman in four films, Reeves was an actor, producer, and director.  Reeves was paralyzed in 1995 after being thrown from a horse in an equestrian event.  He went on to lobby and raise funds for spinal cord research and became Chairman of the American Paralysis Association and Vice Chairman on the National Organization on Disability.  He also continued his career primarily as a director at the same time.  He died at 52 from cardiac arrest leaving behind the legacy of doing more than any other person to raise awareness about persons with disabilities.

Itzhak Perlman:  An Israeli-American, Perlman was one of the most distinguished violinists and conductors of the twentieth century.  He contracted polio as a youngster but was able to walk for a long time using crutches.  He became wheelchair bound later in life but continued his remarkable performances in the largest performing halls in the world.  Critics often say his remarkable skills were matched by the joy he expressed in playing the violin.

Dwight Owens:  Okay, so this one’s not so famous.  But like these giants before me, I am doing the best I can to make my life count.  I and hundreds of thousands like me live our lives as fully as possible and embrace each day as a gift.  And I don’t feel the least bit disabled.  I just do things a little more slowly than most people.  I think there are many more adventures for me in the future, and I look forward to each of them.

Dwight Owens

Friday, January 18, 2013

“A Good Man, A Great Doctor”

“Dwight, I’m afraid you’re paralyzed from the waist down,” he said gently and then waited.

A few days into my time in intensive care, my attending physicians came to see me.  He tested my plantar fascia reflexes, and there was no response.  He poked and prodded up and down my legs, and still no response.  He had studied the results of all the medical tests, and he had been with me every step of the way.  I liked him, and I had come to trust him.  In retrospect, his verdict should have been obvious to me before he said it, but I was still groggy and in pain.  I wasn’t thinking straight.

I didn’t really comprehend what that simple sentence meant.  “You mean for now?” I thought. 

No.  He meant forever.  Eight years later, I’m still not sure I fully understand that simple, direct sentence.   It made grammatical sense, but it didn’t “life sense.”  What I did understand, however, is that Dr. Donald is a kind and a great physician.  He would do everything he could to ease my path.  That was true eight years ago when I learned that I would never walk again, and it’s still true today. 

Dr. Donald was a trauma surgeon at Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, Mississippi where I spent my first month after being rear-ended by a drunk driver.  He deals with unbearable situations every day and makes them bearable.  He can’t make them go away, nobody can.  But his quiet self assurance, his calm demeanor, and his willingness to explain complex medical matters in a direct way bring hope to the hopeless.  As time went on, Dr. Donald performed multiple surgeries on me, explaining every time what the surgeons were doing and why they were doing it.  He was a source of comfort who has mastered the art as well as the science of medicine.

I mention all this because Dr. Donald is not only an expert in his field, he has become a friend.  After two years of surgeries and relentless rehab, I still had regular setbacks.   When I hurt my foot badly not realizing I had been banging it by accident against the side of a motorized bike during exercise, Dr. Donald figured out the best course of treatment.  When I had surgery several years later for bladder stones the size of a grapefruit, Dr. Donald was there with advice and information.  He always seems to put my worries at ease. Whether it’s a UTI, circulatory problems, or some harm I caused myself by being inattentive, I always know who to call.  Dr. Donald.

He usually smiles and says something like: “Dwight, what do we have this time?”  He then gets to work, we share a brief story or two, and I learn the verdict.  I cross my fingers and hope it’s not those two words I hate the most.  “Bed rest.”

Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t.  What I do know is that time again Dr. Donald has met me without appointment.  He smiles and is very enthusiastic during every visit. Although he loves his work and takes it very seriously, he adds personality into it. That brings a feeling a comfort to me and his other patients. He has spent more time than might seem with me necessary from a strictly medical perspective, but it was time I needed.    He has followed-up to check progress when others might not.  And somehow I always know he puts my interest first.  Mostly what I know is that Dr. Donald has helped me make unbearable situations bearable, and that’s a remarkable accomplishment.

Dwight Owens

Friday, January 11, 2013

“Back in the Saddle”

“Welcome aboard, 2013.  You won’t be able to match 2012.”

Last year was a remarkable time of life for me.  I managed to get a new truck, which is a great joy in my life.  A Ford pick-up that I wrapped with the “Still Standing” logo.  And speaking of “Still Standing,” we finished the final edits and got the book published earlier this year.  It has been a wonderful experience for me, and I get terrific feedback about it every day.  But one thing trumps all the rest.  Brailey Samara Owens, my daughter and first child, arrived on December 12 (12/12/12).  She is the exclamation point to a memorable year, and Tamika and I have been dreaming about her since we first got married.  A buggy, a book, and a baby.  That’s a lot to get in one year, and I am grateful.  But now it’s back to work.

As many of you know, I give presentations to many groups throughout the year.  I want to tell my story, and I want that story to be full of hope and humor.  Many people think my accident and subsequent paralysis were tragic.  I disagree.  As it turns out, my accident was only a detour, a temporary setback.  With God’s grace, the support of a loving family, and a wife I adore, I am blessed in more ways than I can count.  But to whom much is given, much is expected, and I have to pull my weight.  To me, that means appearing before high school and college students to talk about responsibility.  I don’t give stern lectures or try to scare them straight.  I just let people see what drinking and driving can do, and then I ask them to keep my image in mind before they get behind the wheel.  I also tell stories and anecdotes about rehab, life in a wheelchair, and mostly about hope.  Life is a remarkable gift, and we should treat it as the treasure it is.

“Back to work” also means promoting my book more broadly.  It means periodic appearances on television and radio, giving interview for newspaper and magazine articles, and mostly making public appearances.  It also means book signings and meeting many people face to face.  With all the other activity of 2012, along with some medical problems that set me back a few months, I did less of that than in the past.  This is a new year with new challenges, and I look forward to the adventures.  If any readers of this blog would like me to appear at your school, church, or other organization, please contact me at and we’ll try to make it happen.  In the meantime, I wish you all a prospering and life-satisfying new year.

Dwight Owens

Friday, January 4, 2013

“Hoover High”

In October, Tamika and I traveled to Hoover, Alabama for a few days to meet with the students and faculty of Hoover High School, the home of the Bucs.  The school purchased many copies of “Still Standing,” and the book is now part of their advisory curriculum.  It has been received enthusiastically, and the school’s administration asked me to appear for two days before the student body.  I eagerly accepted the invitation.

Tamika and I packed our bags, drove the four hours to Birmingham, and settled in the motel on Sunday evening.  Monday and Tuesday were going to be big days.  Hoover’s administration took good care of us, paid for transportation, lodging, and meals, and made sure our needs were catered to.  And as gracious as they were as hosts, the students were even better.  They had all read the book and were excited to meet the person it was about.  I was equally excited to speak with such an earnest and diverse group.

The school held several assemblies where I met with the freshman and sophomore classes and then the juniors and seniors.  I enjoyed any Q&A time.  The kids learned forward to hear what I was saying, laughed at some of the stories, and peppered with me questions afterwards.  They wanted to absorb it all and couldn’t get enough information.  I think I’m a good public speaker.  But, it was more like they knew already as an old friend and felt comfortable asking whatever crossed their mind.

In addition to the large assemblies, I met individually with some classes and got to know the students more personally.  They would come up to me and give me a hug or shake my hand.  Many shared some of their personal struggles and said my story helped them find the grit to face their situations head on.  Many laughed with me, and some cried. 

The school is a wonderfully diverse group of students and faculty.  Asians, whites, blacks, Latinos, Middle Easterners.  It didn’t matter.  They all seemed to get along, and when I asked a teacher about this, he said: “I think it’s because this is what they’ve known all their lives.    One kid might get into an argument with another, but it never seems to be racially motivated.  There is never any racial strife at all, and even our Muslim students and those who don’t speak English as a first language fit in.”  It all struck me as a wonderful experience for the kids, and it was even more fun for Tamika and me. Go Buccaneers!

Dwight Owens