Early Summer, 2014 was a tough time for my family. My wife had cancer. My grandparents died within 2 days of one another. We lost a beloved Uncle. And my doctors saw fit to put me in a comical, full-leg cast to heal a minor fracture.
As tough as those circumstances were, none would upend our family as completely as my father’s broken back.
Driving home from a chaplains’ conference in the mountains, he lost consciousness and flipped his car. I arrived on the scene just after the ambulance had gone.
Unsure of where they’d taken him, I began dutifully collecting his personal items from the wreckage. I tried to ignore all the blood.
Later, in the emergency room, I was finally allowed to see him. He was laid out flat on a gurney in a hallway, cocooned inside a medieval bouquet of braces, restraints, and supports.
And he was telling jokes.
My Dad was a hospital chaplain for many years. Unlike most of us, he’s quite comfortable in hospitals. He spent his days comforting others, meeting their pain with prayer, loss with love, and hardship with humor.
But now the tables were turned. My father lay alone in his hospital room—broken back and legs no longer working. After weeks of surgeries, therapies, and bad news getting worse, there was nothing left to laugh about.
That’s when Andrew Skinner rolled in.
Overcoming Fears, Pain, and Limitations
Andrew Skinner is the founder of Triumph Foundation, a non-profit whose primary purpose is to encourage people with spinal cord injury to overcome their fears, pain, and limitations by pursuing an extraordinary and active life.
For newly-injured patients laying in their hospital beds facing the reality of a future in a wheelchair, Andrew is not another able-bodied doctor with flyers, advice, and platitudes. Paralyzed and in a wheelchair himself, he has instant credibility with those he visits and counsels.
And they listen. Andrew knows which path to take because he’s been there. His wisdom and hope sees beyond a patient’s current challenges as he guides them down the path to a destiny they cannot see from their hospital bed.
Think Gandalf. Think Yoda. Think Dumbledore, but with wheels instead of a wand.
Christmas In Rehab
At the time of this writing, Andrew and his team of Ambassadors and volunteers are in the midst of a two-week blitz visiting nearly every hospital and physical rehabilitation center in Southern California. They invite all the patients to come celebrate Christmas together and participate in a brief support group session. I went along again this year to see Triumph Foundation’s impact firsthand.
“Christmas is very special for me,” Andrew told a group of patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehab Center. “I spent my first Christmas after my injury in the hospital, and I know how lonely it can be. And that’s why we’re here—to show you you’re not alone, and you do have a bright future ahead.”
The room was a full house of people at various levels of recovery. There was a woman in her sixties who had fallen at home and was just getting used to working her robotic chair. There was a young man who had been in an auto accident who was just cleared to walk short distances using his cane.
One older woman, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, had a look of despair and terror on her face. She is paralyzed, in a country she doesn’t know, with nowhere to go when she is discharged, and no family to visit her.
Perhaps the most difficult to see was the two injured children (both under 10) strapped into robotic wheelchairs. Amazingly, the spirit of youthfulness and joy was still apparent on their faces as they tried their best to do what they could on their own.
Triumph’s Ambassadors of Hope
Triumph’s team of Ambassadors, trained counselors also in wheelchairs due to spinal cord issues, use these Christmas parties to introduce themselves, share their stories, and make other patients feel welcome.
“For me it was very depressing,” Walter Escamilla, a Triumph Ambassador who shared his story. “Cause i was used to going to work 10, 12 hours a day. Very active guy, playing basketball, do anything! Go out every weekend. Then after an injury like this, I felt like the world came to an end.”
Patients around the room nodded their heads. They relate to Walter’s story because they’ve experienced the exact same despair he described. He went on to share that his daughters became his inspiration to stop dwelling on his losses and start focusing on the positive things he does have.
“I thank God I live in this country where everything is accessible. Want to go to a Laker game? There’s accessible seating. Want to go to a concert? There’s accessible seating. And they treat us like rock stars.” Sweeping his arm like a maître d’ Walter beamed, “Right this way, Sir!” The patients nodded and laughed at the hopeful perspective Walter shared.
“My daughters can never say, ‘We never go anywhere because my dad’s in a wheelchair.’ On the other hand, they say, ‘Nah, we will go everywhere AND my Dad’s in a wheelchair.’”
Someone Who’s Been Through It
“And that’s the key,” said Jeff Harrison, one of Triumph’s board members and long-time volunteers. “You need someone who’s been through it, knows how tough it can be, knows where your turning points are gonna be and just guide you down the rough patches and get you out the other side.”
Of course, a Christmas party isn’t complete without gifts, so Andrew and his Ambassadors passed out stockings, treats, and “Care Baskets” full of gifts and resources to help them move forward and triumph over their obstacles.
Andrew wrapped up the visit with an encouragement that hit home for everyone in the room, paralyzed and able-bodied alike. “I like to say that paralysis is a club nobody wants to join, but once you’re in, you’re family.”
As I walked to my car, I thought again about my Dad. He spent his entire career encouraging people in the midst of their suffering. After his accident, he too could have been left without hope or a path to recover from the injury. God knows I wouldn’t have had the experience or insight to help him through the darkest hours.
But he wasn’t alone. When Andrew rolled into my Dad’s room that day, he brought with him an active and welcoming community of people who live lives full of hope and potential despite their injuries.
For all of our friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, uncles, aunts, grandparents who have been broken in accidents, who are lying in hospitals this holiday season, who may or may not ever walk again, please consider a generous donation to Triumph Foundation before the year ends. Merry Christmas.