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How my Spinal Cord Injury Affected my Best Friend

Thirty years ago I was tumbling on the morning of July 11. My feet slipped on the wet grass and I sustained a C6-7 spinal cord injury. As others will tell you, many things in life are lost after a spinal cord injury. Independence. Plans for the future. Friendships and other significant relationships. What follows is the story of my best friend, Barbara. It reveals how a spinal cord injury affects the people in our lives.

Barbara and I were two peas in a pod. We had been friends since I moved to Louisville when I was 11 years old. Our involvement in gymnastics, school, and church activities had us together more often than apart during the five years prior to my inury. We had similar strengths and weaknesses, interests and abilities.

Neither of us were good communicators. Both of us had perfected the art of stuffing our emotions.

And we never talked about my injury.

Life just… went on.

Left-Kentucky State Meet, Middle-Bluegrass Games, Right-AAU Junior Olympics

What happened?

So what happened to Barbara after my injury? How did my injury affect her?

She was floundering.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know to what extent until we talked about what we both experienced after my injury. Twenty-eight years later.

It was a conversation long overdue.

“Do you remember us sitting in the pool the night before your accident?” she asked.

Barbara described sitting in the water at sundown, both of us wondering what it would feel like to be paralyzed.

Would either of us have remembered that night so vividly if the events of the next day had not happened? It’s unlikely.

Cheering and volleyball replaced gymnastics

Arriving at the scene

That morning she arrived to cheerleading practice late after taking a placement test for college. She turned onto Rock Creek Drive and saw a group of people huddled in a circle in the grass.

Her heart sank into her stomach. Barbara’s first thought was that someone must have been hit by a car. She remembers feeling a shock of electricity run through her body.

Barbara turned left into the school’s parking lot, parked her car, and got out.

Seeing her arrive, our teammate ran over and said, “Jenny slipped while she was tumbling.”

All Barbara remembers is crossing the street, pushing her way through the crowd and seeing me face first in the grass.

“She has asthma. She can’t be lying with her face in the grass,” she told anyone willing to listen.

“We can’t move her, Barb. She’s hurt her spinal cord.”

The hours that follow

The next few minutes and hours were a blur. She watched the medics stabilize my neck in a brace and roll me over on to the backboard. The next thing she remembers is all of the girls sitting on the far side of the school cafeteria at a round table praying.

She knew I was going to be healed. Every one of the girls was pleading with God. It didn’t matter to her what God’s will was for me. It was what she wanted for me. And she was 100 percent sure he was going to answer her prayers.   

Somehow she got to the ER. She watched as the medical staff cut off my clothing. Barbara saw the doctors cutting my new blue volleyball spandex shorts with white stitching. Details I don’t even remember.

“You can’t cut through her new shorts!” she shouted.

They brushed her aside as a doctor stroked a blunt instrument down the bottom of my foot, seeing no movement. I had no reflexes; a sign of spinal shock due to a spinal cord injury.

So many questions

Later while I was in ICU with traction rods sticking out of my head, she tried to carry on a normal conversation with me. All the while she was thinking, This is not real.  

Barbara wanted to ask me so many things, but didn’t want to make me uncomfortable. Did I feel like I could move my legs, but when I tried I couldn’t?

Her thoughts kept going back to our conversation in the swimming pool. How we wondered what being paralyzed would feel like. All of those questions in the pool were still in her head. But she didn’t feel it was the right time to talk about it.

And there never seemed to be a right time.

The anger, the questions and the guilt

Sitting in the ICU waiting room with a slew of schoolmates, she was livid as friends laughed, told jokes, and enjoyed their time together.

When a news crew arrived one day she thought, I can’t be the only one sitting here somber. She tried to laugh along with everyone else. Instead she wanted to hit everyone because she didn’t feel it was a time to be laughing.

On returning to high school for her senior year, Barbara saw everyone go back to volleyball and cheerleading. Living life normally. Without me. She was angry at God for not healing me.  

In Barbara’s mind there were certain things in life that were unfair. And my accident was one of them.

Plus she continually asked herself, Why her and not me?

She got to move on and I didn’t.

Alone with her thoughts

Just like me, she didn’t have the opportunity to process what had happened. She, too, was alone with her thoughts.

Raised to think one doesn’t talk about certain things, she just kept going. Anytime she did talk about my injury with someone it was more like, “I can’t believe what Jenny has to go through.”

It was all on the surface. She doesn’t remember even talking to her mom.

What was going on?

After I was discharged from rehab, I recall going to a Friday night basketball game at school. I was living vicariously through Barbara as she was tumbling.

“Barb, will you throw some back tucks or layouts?” I asked.

She simply shook her head no and walked away.

I was dumbfounded. Why wouldn’t she do something that I would give anything to do again?

Unknown to me at the time, Barbara was thinking, I shouldn’t be doing this because Jenny can’t.

Due to both fear and guilt, she never did back tucks or layouts again.

She felt she had done more than enough in her life and God had protected her. All good things come to an end. She was finished.

Divergence

This all happened at such a life-altering time. Everyone was going away to college.

Our paths diverged. Our friendship faded.  

She went away to college her freshman year, then moved out of state. Although I went to a local university and did well, she felt my life had been unfairly limited.

Barbara and I have stayed in touch over the years. Like many high school friends, I only see her occasionally.

Barbara doing my hair and putting on my makeup for me.

Words of wisdom     

I asked what words of wisdom she would give to someone whose friend has suffered a spinal cord injury.

“I would talk to you. I think back then I was more concerned about upsetting you by bringing it up. And upsetting myself, too. I knew if we talked about it, I was going to burst into tears. I didn’t want to put you – or myself – in that position. I think a lot of it was just self-protection.”

In hindsight she realizes she should have asked those questions in the ICU. Only years of life experience have given her what a 17-year-old couldn’t grapple with at the time.

It’s our story

Why am I telling Barbara’s story? Because her story is part of my story.

I often hear people with spinal cord injuries say their friends abandoned them after their injury. I wasn’t abandoned. But I did feel left behind as my friends returned to our regular activities and went away to college.

Somehow I always knew there was more to the story. I didn’t know what Barbara was going through at the time. But I did understand – at some level – that gymnastics was the glue that had bound us together.

And that was gone.

It’s never too late

The conversation Barbara and I had about my injury was the most authentic we ever had. We uncovered what was hidden. We shared our thoughts, feelings, and experiences as we never had before.

That is true friendship.

Are you feeling abandoned?

Are you experiencing the loss of friendship after a spinal cord injury? Your injury is now part of your friend’s story.

The pain. The loss. The questions.

They feel it, too.

Your friend may walk away. But they do not leave unscathed.

What can you do when you’ve lost a friend after sustaining a SCI?

  • It hurts. Admit it. Talk about it. Open up to others. See a counselor, if necessary.
  • I’d like to say, “Don’t take it personally.” But that’s just it. It is personal.
  • Don’t be scared to build – or re-build – a support system. See my tips on How to Intentionally Build Community
  • If there is the opportunity, open up the line of communication again. You never know what’s waiting behind a closed door.