I’m Jon and this is my story.
Most people in Upstate New York remember March 15, 1993 as the day the Blizzard of the Century paralyzed our region. That day had a profound impact on me, too, but not for the reasons you would think.
My workplace had closed down early that day. The storm was coming on fast, dumping six inches of wet snow on the ground, trees and power lines in less than an hour. It was 5:00 and I was glad to be heading home early. At 18 years old I didn’t care too much about any impending storm. March meant spring was finally here, and the only thing I was thinking about was graduating from high school in a few short months. My grades had put me at the top of my class and I had just been accepted into engineering college, a hard-earned dream come true. I was on the swim team, played in the orchestra, and had a girlfriend. Eighteen – the best age ever. I didn’t have a worry in the world.
As I headed out of work that day, I glanced up toward the gray sky that hung low over the town. I couldn’t see much in front of me, just the thick snowflakes that stung my face and mounded quickly around my feet. The wind was relentless so I flipped my coat collar up high then stuffed my Sony Walkman earphones into my ears and headed down the road. In hindsight, I guess this is the place where I went wrong. But it all seemed innocent enough at the time. I turned the music up full blast (the only way to listen to music) and strongly considered taking the forbidden shortcut home along the back railroad tracks. It would be OK, I reasoned. After all, the news report said a state of emergency had been declared, meaning the trains couldn’t possibly be running, right? I decided to go for it. I sneaked up over the back bank and walked out onto the blustery trail, the metal train tracks guiding my way home already invisible. It was getting worse outside, but no big deal. My house was only a few minutes away.
The music blaring from my Walkman was so loud that I didn’t hear the warning shouts of the whistle. The snow had turned to sleet, blinding my sight and muffling the sounds around me. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until my feet rattled beneath me that I turned around – and was startled to see the dire situation I was in. Looming over my head was the face of a huge, black metal train, staring back at me through the dusk. With no time to think, I did all I could do. I jumped high in the air and dove for my life.
That’s it. That’s the last thing I remember of the Blizzard of the Century. One mistaken decision, one rumble from the ground, one flash of black in the storm, and my life was changed. Forever.
I learned about the rest of my ordeal from my family. They learned about it from the people who spent hours searching in the dark for my body. The conductor said I bounced 3 times off the front of the train before I was tossed into the air like a rag doll. The policeman said I was thrown 50 feet from the railroad track. The emergency response team said they searched for 2 hours before finding me, unconscious, buried in 3 feet of snow.
The doctor told my parents that I would be dead before morning.
Everyone has their religious beliefs and mine have been granted to me by my family. My dad was a minister who believed strongly in the power of prayer. I’m not sure why The Big Man Upstairs decided I should stay here on this planet. Maybe it was because of the people from all of the different countries who prayed for me that night. I don’t know. All I know for sure is that my dad started a prayer chain that began at my hospital bed and traveled around the world. It even reached as far away as China. I made it through that night, and the next night, and the night after that. The doctor just shook his head, telling my parents not to get their hopes up. I wouldn’t live, and, if I did, I would be nothing more than a vegetable. But, live I did. And 7 months later, I emerged from my deep coma wondering what in hell hit me.
“A train.” my mother said, “You were hit by a train.”
“Who gets hit by a train?” I asked her. I truly thought my family and friends were playing a mean, sick joke on me. Unfortunately, the doctor echoed her words and that’s when the denial set in. It couldn’t be as bad as they were saying. Never walk again? Never swim or use my arm or hands? Memory and speech problems? They were all liars. My life would go back to normal, and it would happen soon. But, soon didn’t happen. After months in rehab, I reluctantly realized they were telling me the truth. For the next 13 months, I would fight to keep depression and anger from suffocating me.
I went through a long stretch of time when I was mad at everyone – my parents, the doctors, and even God. What gave them the right to decide for me that I should stay on this planet and work so hard – just to regain a small semblance of my old life? I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to stay! And I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be the guy whose identity was stolen away by a beaten up body that hardly functioned anymore. I had to learn how to talk, how to eat, and even how to breathe – a shock to a kid who was on the swim team. My lungs had multiple punctures in them, to the point where I swear I could hear the “wind” whistle when I took a deep breath. I couldn’t even sit up without support. I called myself the blob because it took months for me to regain the use of my trunk muscles. Nothing worked right anymore. But worst of all, my life didn’t work anymore either. Facing that fact was overwhelming. This was definitely the hardest part.
Truth be known, though, I am, down deep, an eternal optimist. Through it all, I hung onto a good-sized chunk of denial, in spite of the reality of my situation. I am grateful for this piece of denial, because without it, I would have fallen into a severe depression, one that I may not have had the gumption to climb out of. Actually, now that I mention it, I guess I’m still living in denial. But that’s OK. Brain injury or no brain injury, I know that I am “smarter than the average bear”. I am very bright and my deficits aren’t going to ruin me. Yeah, so I have a few problems. Who doesn’t, right? Now, 18 years and an entire lifetime later, I still spend my days in a wheelchair. I have poor vision, spasticity in my left arm, and little use of my hands. Just going to the bathroom can be a major ordeal. The doctors still tell me that I will never get better. That is depressing, yes, but I view it this way – never say never! I’ve made a lot of progress through the years and I intend to keep it up for many years to come.
You might ask what my driving force is, what keeps me going every day in spite of the fact that I am physically a “train wreck”. It’s simple. I stay strong for all of the people who have helped me. On rare occasions, when I catch myself wishing that the train did end my life, I think of my friends and family and how it would be for them. If I start feeling sorry for myself, I try to remember that a lot of people look up to me. I’m a survivor, not because I want to be, but because I have to be for the benefit of those who see me as an inspiration. I am a reluctant role model.
Many people ask me how to deal with hard issues in their lives, be they physical, emotional, or spiritual. I know they look at me and think, if a train couldn’t put him down, nothing can. Then, I think – hell, yeah! If a train couldn’t put me down, nothing can! I’m a survivor who has used my inner strength to reinvent my life. I go to work every day and have my own apartment. I have many friends and I love to go to restaurants and flirt with the waitresses. And, best of all, I have a sense of humor that makes all those long faced non-survivors realize that life can be a joy – if you let it be. I have a lot of insight to share. If my opinion was pay worthy, I’d be rich.
Awhile back, I went to visit the doctor who, all those years ago, told my mother I would be nothing more than a vegetable. I went into his office and said, “So, what kind of vegetable do you think I am?” It gave me great pleasure to see the surprised look on his face. It gave him great pleasure to see how far I had come. This experience, though small in comparison, let me know that I can create my own miracles. I’m still working on staying happy for myself, to be my own motivation. But in spite of it all, I am a happy guy. And, I am rich! Wouldn’t you agree? I am rich in friends, stamina, and in life.
My life rocks.
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Jon’s Words of Wisdom
“After your accident, you need to be understanding and patient with yourself. It takes time to get better. The hardest part is to learn how to give yourself a break. Give yourself credit for what you have accomplished, even if that accomplishment seems small. And teach others to be patient with you. It is a 50/50 deal. You have to work together. You have to tell people to slow down and give you the time you need. It is hard when you could once do everything for yourself and suddenly you are limited. It is very frustrating when you find you can’t even wash your own face. It all takes time and practice. Just don’t give up. And remember – when you are feeling sorry for yourself and your lot in life, there is always someone in worse shape than you. Everyone has their problems that seem just as insurmountable to them as our problems seem to us. No one gets off easy.”
Good luck to you all, and thanks for listening.
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Words from Jon’s Mom, Ginny and his Dad, Joe
“Lots of times parents are told that their child would reach a plateau and never get any better. This just isn’t true. Sometimes, the progress is a bit like watching grass grow, but progress does happen.
About 6 years ago, Jon moved into his own apartment. I was terrified and many people told me he couldn’t succeed alone. But succeed he did, and it was the best thing we ever did for him. Yes, he needs help with cooking, shopping, scheduling and laundry. But he is self-sufficient and learns new skills on a regular basis.
Jon is still making progress that surprises all of us. The accident left Jon without the ability to do many of his favorite things. One of those things was swimming. But, just last week, after 18 years in a wheelchair, Jon stood for 5 minutes on the side of a swimming pool. Just standing is a miracle in itself, but Jon raised his good arm and dove right into the water. It was awesome.”