Friday, April 26, 2013

Spain Park High School

There are times when I suddenly realize just how much I love my life, and one of those times was last week.  The administration of Spain Park High School in Birmingham, Alabama invited me to speak to their faculty and student body, so I packed up my truck and made the five hour trek the day before.  I did the same thing for Hoover High School in Birmingham last year, and it only seemed fair to meet with Hoover’s rival, the Spain Park Jaguars, as well.  I’m glad I did.

I’m from Mississippi, and our natural rival is Alabama.  I pull for the Golden Eagles and the Running Rebels at every turn, but life in ‘Bama centers around the Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers.  And while this football and basketball rivalry is fierce, it ends on the field.  When it comes to hospitality, the people of Alabama can’t be beat.

When I arrived last Thursday, I spent an hour with the faculty first thing in the morning, and they were as generous of spirit as anybody could be.  I gave my testimony, and the thing that the teachers focused on most was forgiveness.

“Dwight, how were able to forgive Posey, the drunk driver who severed my spine, I so quickly?” asked one teacher.  “I don’t think I could have done it.”

My answer was simple.  “After the accident, I needed to focus on me, on my own recovery and my own health.  If I focused on revenge and on Posey, I probably wouldn’t be here. Forgiveness is freedom.” I emphasized every day and every second counting for something.

As wonderful as the faculty was, the kids were even better.  They were more interested in justice and jail time for Posey than forgiveness, but they peppered me with questions at each session.  I spoke to each class in turn from the ninth graders to the seniors, and each class was more receptive and attentive than the one before.  They quickly got over any shyness and asked honest, direct questions. 

“Can you drive?”  Yes.  (I’ m totally independent.)
“How can you drive in a wheelchair?”  (Not as hard as you’d think. I drive with my hands)
 “Do you enjoy taking care of your daughter Brailey?”  (Yes.  It’s my favorite job.)
 “Do you ever tip over in the wheelchair?”  (Hmm.  A few times, but I have also rolled uncontrollably down a hill and smashed into a car. Lol.)
"Why are you so full of joy?" (Because I'm still here!)

They heard about my surgeries.  They learned about my grueling rehab. And most importantly, they saw first-hand what one self-indulgent, thoughtless act could do to another human being.  Did they really want that on their conscience?  I think they all asked themselves that question, and I think they knew the answer.
Actions have consequences, and while I want kids to be kids and test themselves in every reasonable way, I don’t want them drinking and driving or making any choices they will later on regret.  Nobody wins, and they saw that first hand.  I didn’t preach or lecture.  In fact, I laughed a lot.  But the message was clear all the same, and they got it.  Drinking and driving is no laughing matter, and as prom night nears for Spain High, I think many of them will keep that message in mind.  I hope so.

I take off my hat to faculty and students of Spain High.  They were wonderful hosts, generous listeners, and more than friendly to their Mississippi neighbor.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

“The Joy of Driving”

Most of us take it for granted, but driving is liberation.  It’s mobility.  It’s freedom.  And for me, it was probably the most important thing in regaining my confidence and self reliance after my accident.  My dear friend and author of “Still Standing,” Jon Praet, is legally blind.  That seems an odd condition for a writer, but he can zoom the computer to 250% and manage quite well.  What he can’t do is drive.  And while he handles his vision problems with humor and dignity, at least most of the time, his one persistent complaint is that he can no longer drive.  I understand his longing better than most.

I’ve written about this before, but the day I got my truck after it had been modified so I could control speed and breaking with levers on the steering column, I left Tamika and my mom in the driveway and took off.  I just said, “See you later,” and went off for the day.  I went to Jackson and back, drove throughout my county, and didn’t even let bad drivers annoy me.  I had a smile on my face all day, and it was glorious.  I probably took it a bit too far because I didn’t even answer my cell phone.  I returned that evening to two very angry women who couldn’t wait to let me have it.

“Dwight, you didn’t even answer your cell phone,” Tamika said angrily.  “You could have been in a ditch or had an accident.  That was thoughtless and rude.”

“Yeah, Dwight,” my mom said because she was anxious to join the fray.  “You had us worried sick.  What were you thinking?  I’ll tell you what you were thinking.  You weren’t thinking at all.”

This went on for fifteen minutes, and if one lost steam, the other picked up the slack.  They were a tag team dedicated to the proposition that I should feel miserable for my sin. I finally gave my answer after we all took a collective breath.

“I know it was thoughtless of me, and I apologize,” I said.  “But understand this.  For the past year plus I have been flat on my back or rolling around in a wheelchair.    Even though I’ve tried to do everything I can for myself, up to now, other people had to drive me everywhere.  For the first time in over a year, I felt freedom.  I could go where I wanted, drive alone with my thoughts, and feel a sense of independence that you two take for granted every day.  I am sorry, and I know I was inconsiderate, but I loved every minute of it.    I can finally do all those things you do and don’t even think about, and it feels great.”

It was more of an explanation than an apology, and mom and Tamika still had to nurse their anger a while longer, but they understood.  Mom went home after complaining about me throughout dinner, and she couldn’t quite leave without getting the last word.

“Dwight, I forgive you, but I raised you to be more thoughtful than you were,” she said.  “Do it again, and I’ll throw your keys in the pond.”

Tamika, who is also fond of getting the last word, said: “You won’t have to, Lesa.  I’ll drive his truck in the pond first.”

And with that, we made up, and I think we all learned some lessons.  They understood just how important it was for me to drive again, and I agreed that I would never take off for the day and ignore their phone calls.  I think we all grew a little bit that day.

As of now, no one can take me off the road as I continue to strive to bring joy and inspiration to the lives of others.

Dwight Owens

Friday, April 5, 2013

“Forrest General Hospital – WE CARE”

I like to write about people and organizations that make a difference in this blog.  One of the best of these is Forrest General Hospital.  This may seem an odd choice because hospitals are engaged in the business of making people better.  Of course, Forrest General does this in spades.  They saved my life and put me back on the path to health.  That’s their job.  But the truth is, they do much, much more.

I have kept up my relationship with Forrest General over the past eight years because of the genuine care they show for their patients.   This isn’t simply a paragraph in some operational manual, it’s their way of doing business.  They have ongoing staff meetings with senior administrators, doctors, nurses, and other hospital professionals to review feedback from patients and make course corrections to improve their service.  They invite patients back to speak to hospital staff about what was good and was, well, less good about their stay in the hospital.  They constantly review their operations, and they are open to change.  In short, they are willing to admit they can do it better, and then they do.
A few months back, I spoke before a large group of professionals in the hospital.  They wanted to hear about my month-long experience in the hospital, and no critique was off limits.  I spent a lot of tie in the hospital after my accident, and I had a lot to say.  In my case, I wanted the hospital staff to understand that it’s important to show something of their personalities, to show me who they are.  I already knew they were experts at what they did, but medicine is more than just diagnosis and treatment. 

I told them about my favorite doctor in the world, Dr. Duncan Donald, who is a trauma surgeon.  But he’s more than that.  Each time I dealt with Dr. Donald, he spoke with me in an open and frank way.   He explained in non-technical terms what they were about to do and why they were doing it.  He told me what to expect, described possible complications, and patiently answered my questions.  He explained why each procedure was necessary, and what I was likely to feel as a result.  Dr. Donald was also willing to share a joke or a story and put me at ease.  He exuded confidence and concern for my wellbeing, and in my view, that’s every bit as important as all the technical knowledge in the world.  Dr. Donald wasn’t the only person like that, there were many others.  And over time, I came to trust the staff at Forrest General and realize that I wasn’t just a patient to fix and move along.  I was truly their “client” and the focus of their attention.

What Forrest General does makes a difference.  This hospital reaches out to the community, seeks input and feedback from the people who need their services, and is open-minded.  They want their staff to focus on the entire patient, not just on the case before them, and while no hospital visit is ever pleasant, they make it as bearable and painless as possible.  That’s my idea of what a great hospital is all about.

Dwight Owens

To learn more about my story, to purchase "Still Standing," or to get involved, visit