Guest Post: I Have Come a Long Way Since Being in a Coma by Ryan Atkins

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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Ryan Atkins (C3/C4 SCI, 2009), a speaker and writer sharing hope and inspiration for eternally minded living at Flatonmyback.com.

My first fall home after returning from the hospital after breaking my neck, I sat with a group of guys watching Monday Night Football. We cheered exuberantly, bantered endlessly about trivial matters of the game on TV, and consumed gobs of processed food. In the moment though, I couldn’t help but notice how much of the evening had to be catered toward me due to my physical limitations.

I would have preferred not having to rely on a friend to feed me. It would be nice to join in the high-fives after a touchdown rather than leave my motionless arms resting in place by my side. It also would have been ideal not being restricted to my parents’ home since my wheelchair could not get into other friends’ houses.

Then the thought hit me like a wrecking ball: I should be on a feeding tube.

Multiple times since my car accident in 2009, I have been reminded of a quote that was plastered on the front of the spinal cord injury facility where I received physical therapy upon returning home:  “Do not focus on the road ahead without remembering the distance already traveled.”

The night my car flipped off the side of the highway and I was airlifted to the hospital, the emergency room doctor on staff was quick to tell my parents I had sustained a Christopher Reeve type injury and would be dependent on a feeding tube and a ventilator to breathe while being unable to move anything below my shoulders for the rest of my life.

Talk about instilling hope from the get-go.

The picture below gives a glimpse into how bleak my situation may have looked to an outsider. This was taken two months after the accident, exhibiting immense weight loss, muscle atrophy, and skin as white as a ghost. (While I gained a great amount of weight and muscle back, I still haven’t found the answer for the paleness over 10 years later):

For weeks after the accident, I was not only unable to move anything below my shoulders, I could not talk, I could not eat, and I could not breathe on my own. For those wondering, I enjoy doing all three of these things quite a bit.

After two months I eventually managed to get off the ventilator and return home to my parents’ house, a drastic contrast from the fraternity house I had lived in months prior.

Adjusting back to life with paralysis was quite a wake-up call. Basic life activities such as putting a shirt on in the morning, sending an email, or showering not only take much longer than usual, they often require the assistance of someone else.

But here’s what I know: sitting in the frustration of no longer having much independence can be dangerous if it is not replaced with a new perspective.

It’s interesting how so many times I will focus on what I don’t have, what I can’t do, instead of what I have, what I can do, and what I’ve been blessed with. While I currently may be limited with what I can do physically, I do not want to take for granted basic life luxuries such as talking, breathing and eating.

While I am quite pleased to have those basic human functions needed to survive, I am incredibly thankful to have been able to go well beyond that as well. See below, for example:

  • 2011: First speaking opportunity
  • 2013: Launched my blog Flat on my Back
  • 2015: Graduated from the University of Cincinnati
  • 2016: Married my second-grade crush
  • 2020s: The best is yet to come

The road along the way may have been rocky, but being forced into a difficult situation allowed for perspective to be refined, priorities to be redirected, and gratitude to increase.

I may not currently be able to go for a jog or climb the stairs, but I can participate in meaningful work in writing and speaking. I may not be able to hold my wife’s hand, but I’m thankful to have a life partner to make memories with and navigate trials together.

It may not always be easy, but when I am able to genuinely thank God for the distance traveled rather than worry about what’s ahead, what is missing from a physical standpoint in the moment begins to diminish in importance. Giving thanks in all circumstances keeps my focus on how far I have come and doesn’t allow me to fixate on what’s lacking. Keeping this concept always in mind will ensure I am doing my best to keep the proper perspective needed to make the most of time I have left on this earth.

What belief or idea has reframed your perspective in the most helpful way?

– Visit Ryan’s site for life advice, his book and more, here: Flat on My Back

– Visit Ryan on Instagram at @ryansatkins

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