What makes a good, strong man? Barbara S F Davis sits down with California native and local hero Lynn Murray to answer that question.
The man’s face is tanned and his posture is erect. He exudes authority as well as amiability. He doesn’t lead with his looks, but with his humor and intelligence. His t-shirt warns Don’t Make Me Get Up!
“I remember leaving school after coaching football one afternoon and walking down to the local diner. Judy Peterson was coming toward me in her wheelchair. To this day I can’t forget what I did next. I crossed the road to avoid having to pass by her, or speak to her.”
This is the signature irony of Lynn Murray’s entire life.
Now a spokesman for the largest–and most silent–minority in the US, Northern Californian Lynn Murray reveals that there is only a difference of degrees between what he affectionately calls Walkies and Gimps.
“Bernie has my vote now, but I was a card-carrying Rush Limbaugh fan,” he grinned as we sipped our coffees. “I was super-conservative and myopic, lived in the full-on Red half of Oregon. Naturally I wore boots and drove a big truck! After the injury I found out how the rest of the world lives.”
Lynn Murray coached sports and taught English in East Oregon high schools for 32 years. More than a decade later, students still write letters, attributing success or averted disaster to his influence. One girl said she didn’t kill herself because of something he said. Lynn keeps the letters in a folder with his poetry.
“I climbed every major peak in the Pacific Northwest except Rainier and Jeff; climbed St. Helens before she blew. Didn’t exactly stand on top of the world, but got up there a ways.”
He had always worked construction during the summer, and decided to return full-time in 2002. The health routines he now identifies as essential began to fray. He didn’t take his epilepsy medications regularly and was drinking a lot. He’d go long periods without eating, was under emotional and mental stress, and working hard.
In 2004 he was under the influence and working on a roof when he had a seizure. He went unconscious, fell thirty feet, broke his back and was helicoptered to the hospital. Although his mental functions were completely intact after the accident, the overwhelming losses plunged him into a two year decline.
He’s never taken another drink.
“The day my then-girlfriend walked in and said, ‘Okay, lie there in bed, make that hole deeper and die,’ was the day I got rolling, in both senses of the word.”
He rolled to the library, met Alison Clement and transformed his life.
Necessity is a Mother
Sitting at his table in Placerville’s celebrated Cozmic Cafe, Lynn’s sure of himself, smiles easily and often, dons and doffs his glasses with a professorial air. “We love Lynn,” revealed host Steve. “He’s the kindest person,” smiled chef Gabby. No wonder the table is perpetually reserved.
For a man who looks to be in his 50s, Lynn had to show his license to prove he’s 69.
Seeing him from the waist up, you couldn’t know he’s paralyzed. He has plenty of strength in neck, shoulders and well-formed arms. “I have a two-pack instead of a six-pack,” Lynn winked.
But he doesn’t smile when transmitting his message. “The choices in life are simple,” declares Lynn. “You either go or not. If you have a compromised body it’s easy to say no. Don’t do your self-pity party in front of me. I don’t care if you’re a C-3 quadriplegic (paralyzed from the neck down) who can only move three fingers on one hand. Get out of bed and do it.
“Anthropology teaches that walking upright is a fundamental distinguishing human feature. Unwittingly, we have accepted the myth that human is defined by walking. Persons with a disability are seen as unfortunate illustrations of what can go wrong.
“Even today people will see I’m in a chair and raise their voices when speaking to me. I’m not deaf!”
There was no support group for the mobility impaired in serene Placerville, nestled in the hills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. Lynn realized he needed fellow Gimps to get through “some stuff.” The nearest group was at U. C. Davis, too far away. It appeared he’d have to start his own.
As The Huffington Post’s Lorenzo Ligato writes: “At 19 percent of the U.S. population, people with disabilities represent the largest minority group in the country, but basic technologies are often inaccessible to them.”
Alison Clement was and still is a medical librarian and researcher at the library where Lynn began what was to become the Placerville Mobility Support Group. She assisted his research.
“One day I rolled into the work room and gave her a kiss. We were married a year later. After one spouse is confined to a chair, the other may leave, so our marriage is unusual. Having her with me is a huge reason I can say my life is not about just surviving.
“My surroundings have been filled with Ali’s presence. I used to be impatient, impetuous, more than a little crass. Basically, rough around the edges. Ali is even-keeled, polite, thoughtful and patient. I’d be up the proverbial shit creek without her influence.”
After the Fall
“When I woke up in the hospital, my brother was standing at the foot of the bed. Tears were running down his face, and that’s when I knew.” Lynn’s spinal cord damage is T-6 incomplete (the cord at that thoracic vertebrae was not severed completely) and T-10 and 11 complete (severed in a burst fracture).
“They put you in a two-piece, form-fitted turtle shell so that your torso doesn’t move. I was strapped in from shoulder to groin for at least a month, maybe two. Metal Harrington rods were installed down both sides of my spine and screwed into place. I went to rehab every day, a real poster boy at the gym. I could even go from lying down to sitting, so I didn’t really go into a depression.
“When they started taking me off pain medications and steroids, I noticed serious inflammation. On Day 26 my legs swelled to two times their size. They took me to Emergency to do TPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a procedure usually done with stroke victims. They inserted chemicals to break up blood clots, then used a ‘roto-rooter’ to finish pulverizing them. Mine were so old that the reamer started to tear up veins and I had internal bleeding. I had a 60% chance of dying.
“That’s when I started going down. They put me in a room with a guy who was actively dying. The gym had been my salvation. I could enjoy successes. When those were taken away, I was hopeless.”
Upon release from the hospital, he returned to the woman with whom he had a tumultuous relationship. “But she did help care for me, including the rather intimate personal care needed by an individual paralyzed from the chest down. She locked up the .44. If not for her that first year, I’d be dead, plain and simple.”
Lynn intuited the next question before it was spoken. “No, I haven’t recovered completely. I don’t think anyone can recover from an event that results in permanent paralysis.”
His bodily functions take more attention and effort than if he were not paralyzed. He is in danger of infection more than the average person. A mountain-climbing sports coach who depended on strength and agility, Lynn does not dwell on having legs that would splinter if he put any weight on them.
“I am recovering, that’s the best way to say it,” Lynn said.
Caring for the Mind, Heart and Body
Since Ali works full-time, it’s up to Lynn to keep active on his own initiative. He exercises at a fitness center and, confined 100% to the unmotorized wheelchair, rolls about five miles a day.
Members of his Placerville Mobility Support Group (PMSG) include individuals with all types of disabilities from quadriplegics to persons with cerebral palsy and post-polio syndrome. Lynn’s always on the look-out for the others.
PMSG is California’s first official chapter of the United Spinal Association. The group’s activism is vigorous. In addition to home and hospital visits, members provide advice to local businesses on ADA compliance issues. They suggest easy, inexpensive fixes that are business-friendly. PMSG provides scholarships to the annual Yosemite Rock and Roll, a week of handcycling the Valley floor and trying some rock climbing with Mark Wellman, the first paraplegic to summit El Capitan and Half Dome.
Wheelchair rugby player Dwayne Nystrom is the current chairman of the Placerville Support Group. “I found out about Lynn when I was injured in 2009. Part of my rehab was to find a local support group. They are few and far between, unlike AA and other groups.”
Dwayne’s voice grows softer. “On my second day home from the hospital, Lynn came over to welcome me back into the community as a disabled person.”
Their motto is Get Up, Get Out, Get Better. Lynn feels justified getting in people’s faces with his theme because there aren’t many who have endured what they have, and lived to tell about it. “Some persons with disabilities feel a sense of entitlement. ‘The world owes me everything because I’m in the chair.’ Dwayne and I are kindred spirits because we do not do me first, it’s all about me.
“We’re in the business of improving the physical, mental and emotional health of persons with any form of ambulation impairment,” says Lynn. Board member Amy Heilman, who became a quadriplegic ten years ago, was impressed that Lynn inquires about people’s mental and emotional as well as physical health.
“One school of thought in rehabilitation is if you develop the body, the mind and heart will follow,” said Lynn. “The other school says develop the psychology first. I wish rehab across the board would place more emphasis on psychological factors.”
Amy Heilman had more praise for the Placerville Mobility Support Group founder. “I have seen how he cares for others, and his starting the group has affected so many people. We look forward to the monthly meetings. We talk about everything; personal, private and embarrassing stories are typical. Just meeting him made me expand my mind. Now I want to help others, which is why I’m on the Board.”
A Difference of Degrees
“Ali and I took the train from Sacramento to the Sierras. The conductor went from compartment to compartment, taking meal orders. When he got to us, he glanced at me and then turned to my wife to ask what I wanted for dinner. I’m not casting blame, I’m just saying stupid things happen and yes, the public needs educating.
“The general population doesn’t think a wheelchair user is normal, they don’t accept it. We’re whole persons before and after injury. The difference between wheelchair users and Walkies is one of degrees. Whether a slight downturn of the mouth due to a stroke, a bad leg due to polio, or kitted out with a trachea and tubes coming out of the abdomen, you still get to laugh, get to cry, get to love, get to hate.”
Dwayne Nystrom echoed this sentiment when asked how life is for him since his accident. “I’m still a husband and father of three. I still have a life.
“I just do it sitting down.”
Friend to the Marginalized
For Lynn it is essential to point out that some have injuries much more severe than his. He is their champion.
“I know six quads, and I’m astounded how they can make it, how they can survive and go beyond. They have worthy lives. Rick Mason did the Alaska Highway in his handcycle before it even was the Alaska Highway. When you’ve been in the chair for 30 years, your body sinks and collapses in a bit, but in his handcycle, Rick is killer. He sets the Quad Gold Standard.”
“Thea Rosa is one of our success stories, a USA Cycling National Champion. A life-long rider, her horse rolled over her and she was paralyzed from T-12 down. Two months later she got a trainer to work with the little buckskin. The horse can now get down so that Thea transfers from her wheelchair to the special saddle.”
“A man with Cerebral Palsy can’t get words out but is highly intelligent. He is full of rage that no one sees him. Once he told me how much he loves his wife. He finally got the words out, but cussed in the gaps when he couldn’t quite form them. His wife is also in a power chair. They’re in love. Sure, it looks different from the so-called normal marriage, but that’s an outsider’s perception problem. ”
Lynn admits he’s pretty easily emotionally touched. He believes he’s sensitive sooner than a Walkie would be. “Part of it is age, not just the chair. With the years I become more responsive to things that pull at the heart strings.” He feels that empathy is the overarching difference between the fully athletic man he was and the wheelchair bound man he is.
After the interview, outside on his own, Lynn pushed the chair across the street. His head dipped down. He looked a bit smaller, more frail. He had stepped off stage. The truth is that Lynn Murray has to fight inertia, gravity and all the internal laws of digestion, bones, blood and nerves to move at all.
He’ll push uphill to get home to his Ali, a blinking red light on the traffic side of his chair giving him some security. He’ll pick up his classical guitar or write a poem.
I watch the swallows dance – / Their swoop, sweep and glide. / I don’t need legs to fly. / You taught me that. / Now we dance through our air / with smiles.
He and Alison will tend to the chickens who have a spiffy, skunk-proof coop.
Tomorrow he’ll rejoin his campaign for understanding between Walkies and Gimps. He’ll be on the look out for the rest of the wheelchair users, those locked away in depression and isolation, needing support but not knowing where to find it.
“The way I see it, it’s pretty simple. I’m damn lucky to be here. So, if there’s anything I can do for folks going through the stuff I did already, then I’m on it.”
One in five Americans has a disability. According to the Americans with Disabilities 2010 report, “30.6 million had difficulty walking or climbing stairs, or used a wheelchair, cane, crutches or walker.” The Christopher Reeve Foundation reports that 1 in 50 Americans are paralyzed, approximately 6 million people.
Photos courtesy of author.