My mom was in a serious car accident with my dad when she was twenty years old.
They were driving on a mountainous road in Oregon. They missed a hairpin curve as they were driving in the dark in the rain, and their car went off the road backwards. They slid down into a ravine and hit a tree.
My dad was thrown out of the car (and amazingly only suffered a broken collar bone and bad bruises). My mom, however, broke her back at her T8 vertebra, which is right above the rib cage, and severed her spinal cord.
She spent three months in hospital; two and a half months in rehab; and six weeks as an outpatient. It was through this process, of course, that she realized the finality of her paralysis.
The car accident occurred when my parents were engaged for only a week, and it was several years before I was born, so all my life my mom has been in a wheelchair.
Me and Mom
Given this, it may be surprising to hear that some of my earliest memories are of me swimming with my mom.
Mom is an avid swimmer, and she loves it. She is seventy years old; she has been paralyzed for fifty years; and she has been swimming for about forty-three of those years.
She usually swims three times a week, and she sticks to her swimming schedule faithfully. When I was growing up, whenever she would come home from swimming, I would ask her how it was, and she would exclaim, “Wonderful! Swimming is always wonderful.”
Me and Mom and Dad
It was her example growing up that helped me realize that exercise helps us feel strong and powerful and free in our bodies.
And my mom was the primary person who taught me how to swim. I remember when I was little holding on to the wall of the swimming pool and her being out several feet from the wall, treading water with her arms so I could practice swimming to her. I would grab hold of her, and she would tread water with her arms back to the ledge.
This is my Mom and Grandpa and Me visiting the rehab center after I was born.
I still love swimming, although I tend to walk and hula hoop a lot more than I swim these days.
My mom’s swimming is so inspiring to me that I thought it might be inspiring to you, too, so I decided to interview her for this post.
Me: Mom, how did you start swimming?
Mom: Early on after my car accident, I used to wear long leg braces because the doctors told me that I should stand on my leg braces for an hour a day in order to prevent osteoporosis as I aged. So, I did this faithfully. Even though I am paralyzed from the rib cage down, I would walk and do stretching exercises in parallel bars an hour each day and even washes dishes standing up with my leg braces.
Mom at her swimming pool about to transfer into the water.
But I have no trunk support since my level of injury is so high, so this really hurt my lower back. Eventually the doctors realized this was bad advice. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law invited me one time to go swimming in the pool at their apartment complex, and I loved it! I felt so free in the water. Even though I can’t move my legs and lower body, the water moves them, and it feels really good.
So about six and a half years after my accident, I started swimming regularly.
Me: Were you afraid to swim after you were paralyzed at all?
Mom: No. I swam a lot as a child, and so swimming wasn’t scary for me. At first I didn’t really know if I could do the swim stroke. I knew I could float on my back, and I knew I could tread water with my arms, but I didn’t know if I could do anything else.
But one day I was treading water at the pool. One of the men in charge of the pool thought I could learn how to do the swim stroke. So he got a lifeguard to work with me, and sure enough, I could!
So now I do both back stroke and swim stroke.
(My Note: Mom swims just using her arms because she cannot move her legs at all.)
Me: Has anything particularly strange or interesting happened to you while you were swimming?
Mom: When I first started swimming, my legs had a lot of spasticity, and they would start kicking in the water. Also, if I was in water that was 4-5 feet deep and my feet touched bottom, it would trigger extension spasms in my legs, and I could actually stand on the floor of the pool. Eventually I had to take some medication to help relax spasms in my legs because the spasms got so intense.
Me: Has anything funny happened to you when you were swimming?
Mom: One time I was swimming, and a man came up to me and said, “You have a wonderful breast stroke, but you should kick your legs more.” I think he was a little embarrassed when I told him I was paralyzed.
Me: What do you like about swimming? What are some of the benefits it brings you?
Mom: It elevates my mood and keeps me limber. It helps manage pain without taking pain medicine other than Tylenol. It helps me keep my independence.
I didn’t really think I would live this long or be healthy this long. I think my good health mainly has to do with swimming.
Also, I have made a lot of friends at the swimming pool. We joke a lot that we go to the pool to get both our social needs as well as our physical needs met.
This is my mom’s friend, Pete. He’s 85 and swims regularly. He gave me permission to include his picture in this post.
Mom: Being a Christian, I felt God impressing on me early on after my accident that I needed to do everything I could to stay healthy. So, I try to eat healthy, drink lots of water, get enough sleep, swim, spend time with people, and I trust God to do the rest.
(My Note: My mom is also active outside of swimming and pastors a church with my Dad. She also teaches Good News clubs and drove for Meals on Wheels for 11 years.)
Me: Do you have any advice about exercise for people with disabilities?
Mom: I would say that if people have mobility in their arms, get in the water if you can. Even if you can’t move in your wheelchair, you can move in the water. A lot of people fear the water, but if you can at all, try to work past that fear.
And it can be hard to motivate yourself when the weather is cold to get yourself out of bed in the morning to go swimming, but once I get in the water, I never regret it. It’s always worth it.
When you have a disability, it is very easy to get depressed if you just stay home. It’s easy to just dwell on your circumstances. Getting out and going swimming really helps me meet my social needs and not dwell on my circumstances as much. I also meditate on Scripture and pray while I’m swimming laps.
Me: Do you have any advice about exercise for people in general?
Mom: You hear from medical professionals, natural health specialists, and so many other people about how important exercise is. If we don’t exercise, we lead sedentary lives, and this makes us more prone to diseases that come from a sedentary lifestyle. It also makes it harder to maintain a positive outlook on life.
Just get out and do something. You won’t regret it.
Me and Mom
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My name is Shelly Johnson, and I am a writer and philosopher with a Ph.D. in philosophy. One of my primary personal and philosophical interests is how we can learn to love ourselves and each other better in order to cultivate personal and political resilience. I teach ethics and a variety of other courses at a local college. I am the author of the blog Love is Stronger. I am also the author of three logic and critical thinking books for high school and middle school: _Argument Builder_, _Discovery of Deduction_ (co-author), and _Everyday Debate_, published by Classical Academic Press. You can reach me at email@example.com.
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