“You have a phone call.”
How many loved ones have heard those five words? I heard them on November 8th, 1995.
Russ, my husband of barely four years, had sustained a thirty-foot fall, during his job as a commercial painter. I was instructed to get to the hospital, as soon as possible. I drove there, not even knowing if I was already a widow. His injuries were severe, and, among many other things, caused him to become a paraplegic that day.
I didn’t know much about his job, except that he had painted large structures in the Seattle metropolitan area, including the Space Needle, University of Washington’s Husky Stadium, and the Narrows Bridge in Tacoma. I certainly didn’t know that it was common practice for him to unhook his fall harness whenever the “safety guy” wasn’t around. I learned that, later.
I also didn’t understand the difference between complete or incomplete and temporary or permanent when it came to paraplegia. His injury was complete and permanent and required a fourteen-hour back surgery (on Thanksgiving), where stainless steel Harrington rods were inserted, on both sides of his spine, so that he would not hunch over. In the months and years that followed, I learned everything I never wanted to know about being a nurse.
Adapting to Our New Reality
Fortunately, Spencer, our two-year-old son, adapted pretty quickly, enjoying riding on Russ’ lap, and holding wheelchair races for his birthday party games. Russ relearned to drive with hand controls and remained pretty close to independent for about 20 years. We have gotten through all his unexpected challenges with faith and humor. (Those of you who have met Russ, may question his sense of humor!) Our “happy places” also include riding our motorcycle/sidecar, and trips up to Alaska, to see family and go fishing (I always catch the biggest halibut!) Our now-grown son Spencer and his wife have a home in Juneau, and so we will probably be “summering” up there soon. We both also enjoy volunteering with the two-year-olds, at church and love spending time with our dog, Tater.
We are always asked, “How do you do it, with 32 surgeries, and all of these numerous complications?” I ask, “How do we not?” It has been our life for twenty-five years, and we are grateful for every moment that we are gifted. We have been so fortunate to be able to share our story with tens of thousands of individuals all over the country, and, hopefully, have convinced some of them that if they make an unsafe decision, it could change their family members’ lives, too.
Whenever we start to feel we are letting that “poor me” attitude seep in, we count our blessings! We are so fortunate that Russ isn’t a quadriplegic, that he didn’t sustain a severe enough head injury to drastically change his personality, and that he wasn’t killed.
He may be a grump sometimes, and I may be a nag occasionally (maybe more than occasionally?), but he’ll always be my grump, and I’ll always be his nag. We are celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary this year, and we honestly wouldn’t change a thing. What would our purpose have been, had he not been injured? Although some days are much harder than others, we choose to be thankful, EVERY day!
Recommended Actions for Employers
I hope that employers and coworkers understand that the best thing you can do for an injured worker is to not forget them! Keep in touch and continue whatever the relationship was previously. If you used to play poker, invite them! If you used to good-naturedly give them a hard time, keep up the banter! More than anything, they want to feel “normal”, and if you treat them that way, you are helping them more than you’ll ever know!
It’s often lonely without seeing your work family every day, and besides the physical challenges, there is the fact that you cannot do what you want to, the way that you want to, and when you want to, anymore. Often, the individual feels that they are not able to contribute to the family and to society like they used to. Depression can definitely set in, so be aware, and ask questions, often, about how they are doing (how they are REALLY doing!) Think about those workers throughout your career, who suffered a severe injury. Do you ever hear about them anymore, let alone see them?
Remember the “caregiver”, too, whether it be the spouse, child, sibling, or parent of the injured worker. Their lives have been permanently affected, as well. They may not take time to care for themselves and may even feel that their physical and mental health should come “after” the injured family member’s needs. We hear a LOT of stories about injured workers, and they are often much sadder than ours. Besides the worker themselves, their spouse or children often end up turning to drugs, alcohol, or suicide.
The victims of one work-related accident are numerous, and it is very sad how far that ripple extends, but it doesn’t take very much time or effort for employers or coworkers to reach out and let the affected individuals know that they are not forgotten…
As a volunteer “peer editor” for a monthly column on the CFMA website, thank you to Laurel and Russ for sharing their personal story. Shortly after moving to Washington State, I heard the Youngstrom’s speak at the Washington State Governor’s Safety & Health Conference. Years later, I remain struck by the positive message Laurel and Russ delivered. As CFMA shares perspectives of “lived experience” on mental health and overall wellbeing, I believed this message would provide hope to others facing uphill challenges.