The Other Eye of Superstorm Sandy

Erin Kelly found parts of herself in a story of the storm’s aftermath

“Luckily, I have saved up a number of vacation days that I am now using so that I don’t lose my job–but if I don’t get back to work soon, that’s a possibility.”

This quote comes from Frank Murtagh, a New York resident whose account of Superstorm Sandy was documented in a feature story here on The Huffington Post in mid-November.

I took the quote as something of the norm since stories about the ever-changing unemployment rate in the US have been booming since 2008. When I scrolled back up to the top of the page to give the article a second read, however, its headline painted an entirely different picture: “New York Man With Cerebral Palsy, Lost Wheelchair, Income, Van To Sandy.”

That changed the scope of not only the story, but also how I related to it. Having Cerebral Palsy myself, I could relate to this gentleman’s story in the sense that his motor wheelchair was a huge part of his livelihood, if not all of it. On the flipside of that, there was another side to Murtagh’s story I couldn’t relate to–having his home, handicap-accessible van, and most importantly, his livelihood destroyed, virtually washed away by Mother Nature.

As a result, Murtagh is currently using a manual wheelchair, which he is unable to push on his own. I related to that aspect as well. My family’s wheelchair-accessible van was totaled in a car accident last summer. The van was built to carry my motor wheelchair, but since we didn’t have the funds to purchase another lift van, we had to settle for an older vehicle that doesn’t have a lift. Now, unfortunately, we have an oversized, extremely uncomfortable manual chair at the ready because my parents can’t transfer my motor chair without assistance.

Considering that parallel between Mr. Murtagh’s story and my family’s current situation, it brought some issues to mind that I feel need to be brought to the forefront because they’re relevant today, and still will be decades from now.

If you take away a physically challenged individual’s wheelchair, it’s like cutting off an able-bodied person’s legs. That person loses a huge piece of his or her pride–and an even bigger blow to self-esteem comes with it. It gives even more of a negative connotation to the adage, “being pushed around,” but if you’re lucky, your “driver” will be compassionate (and hopefully, smart) enough to not be wild and crazy.

This, however, raises the question that seems to be on everybody’s lips these days–“How am I going to get by?” Not only is that question raised to an extremely personal level, but it also simultaneously raises another of equal importance–“How will losing my livelihood affect my family?” or in Murtagh’s case, “When will my family be able to go back to work themselves?”

In the video above, Murtagh’s wife, Chris, explained that because her husband is forced to use a manual chair now, she has to stay with him throughout the day to tend to his personal needs. That not only poses a problem for this family financially, but it also shatters their hopes of getting a new wheelchair or even replacing it, since Sandy destroyed the family’s doctor’s office as well. Yet another question can be raised here–repair and replacement costs.

Although those figures aren’t specifically mentioned, It’s been less than two months since Superstorm Sandy left a path of destruction along the East Coast, and the article goes on to say that many others with disabilities experienced similar situations like Murtagh’s. Thankfully, the people of New York are hard at work trying to bring aide to those who lost wheelchairs and other vital equipment in the wake of the devastation.

I think it’s important to point out that Murtagh is a man who takes care of his family. He worked at the Nassau County Office for the Physically Challenged in New York prior to losing everything. Now, the roles are reversed. For his family to step up and do everything from preparing his meals to carrying him up a rickety, old stand-alone flight of stairs in dangerously high water? It’s amazing. And it’s a testament to the responsibility a man has to take care of his family. In turn, it speaks to the love and responsibility a family has to keep that man strong. Call it physics. Call it old-fashioned. Call it whatever you want–but if you peel back the layers of this story–you’ll find the true heart of manhood and family.

Photo: AP/Jason DeCrow

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About Erin Kelly

Erin M. Kelly is a columnist, writer, and freelance editor with Cerebral Palsy who wants to be recognized for her work rather than her disability. She’s a 2009 graduate of Penn State Altoona, where she majored in Letters, Arts and Sciences. During her senior year, she was hired as a columnist for The Altoona Mirror, the daily newspaper in Altoona, PA. Her column entitled, “The View From Here,” runs monthly and addresses in a light-hearted, humorous manner the challenges she faces daily. Writing is her window to the world and gives her the opportunity to bring what’s inside out.

Comments

  1. Justin Barr says:

    I am currently enrolled in a master’s program in special education and part of one of my courses deals with physically impaired people like Erin and Murtagh. I never realized until some time ago the importance someone’s wheelchair has to a person. In fact I used to think, “oh that poor person’s confined to a wheelchair.” I see it totally different now as people shouldn’t think this way because truthfully most people who are physically impaired do not see themselves as less able. They just need to go about doing certain things differently. Anyway, the wheelchair is now a part of a person who relies on it to engage in day-to-day activities and this article gives credit to that notion from a first-hand account.

  2. Thanks, JB! I chose to do this story because, as I mention, it raises questions that are relevant right NOW, and still will be long after Sandy has gone. I wanted to add something to the original piece that wasn’t already there, and that’s what I hope to do with all my stories here. I just don’t want people to forget – or disregard – there’s two sides to every story: the one that’s in plain sight, and the other that you always have to take a second look to see.

  3. Dean Marcaurelle says:

    A wonderful, sensitive and insightful article, Erin.
    Your friend, DEAN

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