Lessons From a Tomato Can

As a professor, I reject out of hand students’ protests that they can’t do something, that they have never done that before (they don’t seem to realize that no one who hasn’t done it hasn’t done it before), or that they won’t even try. Here’s the reason.
September 28th, 1980, I had just come back from a two-week camping trip with three teens in the wilderness expanse of the Sangre de Christo Mountains in New Mexico. I went to work that day, ran five miles after work, and then joined some friends at the Bombay Bicycle Club for happy hour. I had a few drinks, and then dinner before going home.
Once home, I watched the news, talked with my wife and son for a while, and then went to bed. An hour later I woke up screaming. I was in intense pain and I couldn’t speak. I found out later that I had aphasia. I could think the words I wanted to say, but I couldn’t speak them or write them. I experienced confusion, apathy, fatigue, ringing in the ears, and depression. My arms were paralyzed.
Depression doesn’t really call to mind what I experienced. Have you ever heard someone say, “I felt a wave of depression?” That’s what happened to me; I literally felt the depression crash over me like a wave. There was no warning, no precipitating event. I would be normal one moment, the next I was crying uncontrollably. I found that most people are disconcerted when a man starts crying desperately.
I also learned that I, as a man, had defined some of my personhood as being able to do things. Since I was paralyzed, I couldn’t do things. I had to have people help me. I lost that part of my manhood.
After a few days, I went to the hospital and once there, I was put into rehabilitation. It was to last three years. Every time I reached the level my physical therapist wanted, she would raise the bar.
One day she told me I wasn’t like other patients, she said, “Most people give up.” I told her that as long as I could gain a single skill back, I would never give up.
At the end of three years, the hospital dismissed me from its outpatient rehab program. Their reason for dismissing me? I could lift a 10 ounce can of tomatoes ten times. By their definition, I was now normal. Before being paralyzed, I was a weight lifter. I don’t consider being able to lift 10 ounces as anywhere near normal. Before I left the hospital, I asked the physical therapist to help me with a home PT program.
I set up some pulleys and weights, and began my home physical therapy on my own. Every day after work, I did an hour of PT.
One day my son asked me if he could take Tae Kwon Do. I told him sure. We began going to TKD several nights a week. (I could use a car, but it probably was not safe for me to do so, looking back on it.) After watching him for a while, I went back to the hospital and asked my physical therapist what she thought about me doing TKD. She said, “Anything you do to get your arms moving and keeping them moving is good for you.”
The next day, I asked the TKD instructors if I could join their school. They welcomed me. When I reached this degree black belt, one of my friends asked me if I knew what my nickname was when I joined the school. I didn’t. He told me it was, “The basket case.”
Everyone referred to me as the basket case and all knew who they were talking about. Then he said, “You are anything but a basket case now.”
In time, I gained my strength back, stopped having depression, and overcame fatigue. I eventually earned nine black belts.
During my worst days, I realized I could have died from my reaction. I found out I was allergic to Bactrim. It sank in on me that I could have ‘bought the ranch.’ I decided I was going to do the things I had always said I wanted to do, but put on the back burner.
I went back to school and earned my Ph.D. continued with my martial arts training, and took a cut in pay to get a place at a community college. I went on to learn Spanish and how to play the guitar. I also began writing fiction.
I hope you’re beginning to understand why I hate to hear students say, “I can’t…” before they have tried. They are self-limiting just like I was before I realized that the things I was putting on the back burner would stay there unless I made the decision to do them and do them now.
I keep the 10-ounce can of tomatoes on my desk. It’s there for those times when I start to think I can’t. It’s there to remind me I can.