September 02, 2002

The Road Less Travelled

Wet, drizzly late-August days, like today, can be surprisingly chilly. I got thoroughly misted messing around the woodpile this morning and had to come in to warm up my hands. They were as cold as if it were winter. Even though it was warm, in the low 60s, I found myself losing heat quickly after I got wet. It's wasn't so bad while I was busy, but when I stopped to listen to the drops dripping out of the trees for a few minutes, I could feel the chill creeping up my bones. And I remembered Carlos.

Thirteen years this month, I began my first job as a physical therapist. We had moved to Sylva, North Carolina...a location chosen because I knew I had to get back to the mountains. And I particularly wanted to live near the Smokies, since the botanist in me had never died, even as the therapist struggled to be born. Carlos was my first truly memorable patient in my first job as a therapist.

Carlos was a patient in the hospital because he had almost died on Labor Day weekend from exposure: being so wet and cold that the body's temperature cools, vital functions slow down, and it can and frequently does result in death...from exposure. He was a strikingly handsome, olive-skinned young man with a beaming smile. His english was understandable, but a bit ragged. We talked a good bit the day we first met in his hospital room.

He had done well in college, in Barcelona, Spain, his home town. He had rarely gone out with the party crowd. He wanted to be a marine biologist, and had studied hard so he could get into a good graduate school. His choice was University of Miami.

Sometime early in his senior year, he gave in to the temptation to go out partying with some good friends. They were drinking; there was an accident. Several of his companions in the car were killed. Carlos was thrown from the car and badly injured. He would never walk again. But he never lost his dream of coming to America, and was accepted to University of Miami, in their marine biology graduate program.

But before his coursework was to start in mid-September, in his modified van, and equipted with a very specialized wheelchair, he struck out for a place he saw on the map: Robbinsville, North Carolina, on the southern edge of the Smoky Mountains. Late that Friday afternoon, as he approached the place he intended to camp for the night, he found that the road was partially blocked by a sign that said 'under construction'. The barricades across the road were intended to keep vehicles out; Carlos thought it only meant 'go slow and be careful'. He steered around them and drove on.

The road seemed just fine for a mile or so; then it turned to gravel, but went on for another mile or so. Then it turned to packed soil, and finally to rutted mud. By the time he knew he should turn around, he was at the bottom of a long hill and his van was stuck in the muddy ruts. He spent the first night in his van, expecting to have workmen come help him in the morning. He ate what little food he had brought with him, but left a candybar, just in case.

It was Friday of Labor Day weekend. There would be no one down this way until at least Tuesday of the following week. During the first night, it began to rain; a drizzly mist at first, then hard, blinding rains from the outer bands of a hurricane that was creeping up the coast. It rained all day Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, the rains were still coming down hard and the temperature had not climbed out of the fifties. Carlos had eaten his last food: the candybar.

He decided that he must try to get back in the direction of the barricades and civilization. So he set out up the muddy road, in the rain and cold, in his wheelchair. He quickly expended all the remaining energy his meager provisions allowed, became exhausted, remembers falling out of his wheelchair, stuck in a muddy puddle. That is the last thing he remembered until he woke up in the hospital a few days later, surprised to still be alive.

The workmen that found him on Monday (I can't remember why they were out there on a holiday) said they found his wheelchair a quarter mile from his van, and Carlos had apparently crawled another several hundred yards from his badly damaged wheelchair before he lapsed into unconsciousness. Very likely, he would have died, if the workmen had not chanced upon him.

This is the story he told me that day in the hospital, the day we first met. I asked Carlos "What was it that made you want so badly to come to the Smokies that you would drive all the way up here from Miami?"

He brightened up and answered immediately in his fractured English: "Oh, it is because I wanted I should see the beers and the deers!"

I worked with him a few times to be sure he had the strength to transfer from bed to chair, and into and out of his van...things he did every day that require way more upper body strength than we able-bodied folks can know. I helped him find the specialized parts to repair his damaged wheelchair. Other than that and recovering from the emotional trauma of his ordeal, he had no need for physical therapy or to stay more than a few days in the hospital. I remember walking out to his van the day he left, to say goodbye. I told him "Next time you come to a roadblock, Carlos, remember THIS MEANS YOU!"

I know that this determined young man didn't let his disability stop him from finding following his dreams. I am sure that he went on to become a marine biologist. I'm just sorry that he never got to see the beers and the deers.

Posted by fred1st at September 2, 2002 04:56 AM

Every year I invite my wheelchair bound friend Mike (the electronics guru at Wal-Mart SuperCenter 100) to visit my class and discuss the concept of "disability". Our school tries very hard to "include" all the ones who are in special education by mainstreaming those kids into our regular classes. Mike always teaches a tremendous lesson for life when he visits our room. I will read this story to my class then ask Mike to comment, that will get the ball rolling won't it!! Thanks Floyd...

Posted by: steve at September 3, 2002 07:00 AM

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