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A Lifetime of Living with SCI

August 24, 2021

At age 72, Jim Popovich has a unique perspective—a look back on nearly a whole life living with a spinal cord injury.

He’ll be the first to tell you that living with a spinal cord injury is full of challenges, both physical and emotional. Yet he learned to see obstacles as things to overcome, rather than setbacks.

When Jim was 24, a car accident twisted, stretched and bruised his spinal cord, but did not sever it. His initial recovery and rehabilitation was long, plagued with skin breakdowns, bladder problems, and blood clots. After a few weeks at a hospital in Rapid City, SD—where Jim was told he would likely never walk again—he was transferred to Craig Hospital.

“At Craig, doctors said there was a good chance I would not walk, but with hard work there was hope for me,” says Jim.

And work hard he did. At Craig during rehabilitation for spinal cord injury, Jim learned to use a wheelchair and be independent in most daily chores. He learned to drive adaptively and was able to transfer from his wheelchair to the car. He made close friends, some who have lasted a lifetime.

“Craig staff are magnificent. They never look at you as being injured. With great attitudes, kindness, and laughter they push you to work hard and get better,” Jim says.

He tells a story of his physical therapist, Marilyn, who was a short, wiry, strong woman with an endless smile. When he was learning to do wheelchair-to-car transfers, he forgot to lock his breaks and his chair rolled away. He looked at her for help and she said, ‘Now, what?’

“I joked and said, ‘You get my wheelchair.’ But she didn’t. Instead she asked, ‘If you were out on your own what would you do?’ So I crawled 15 feet to get my wheelchair,” he says.

Jim considers himself lucky. Since his spinal cord was not completely severed, he started regaining feeling in his legs. By the time he left Craig after four months, he was beginning to walk with forearm braces and leg braces called KAFOs.

“My first steps were only that—two steps. They were the most excruciating and strenuous steps I have ever taken,” he adds.

Jim’s first job out of college was with the National Park Service at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado. Near the end of his rehabilitation at Craig, he had a surprise visitor—his past supervisor at the Sand Dunes. He said, ‘I don’t care what condition you are in after leaving Craig, I want you to come back to the Dunes.’

That incredible act of kindness and vote of confidence launched a 32-year career with the National Park Service that culminated in a position as Chief of Interpretation at Mount Rushmore. Jim’s proud to have worked a full career, despite his limitations. Highlights included a trip down the Grand Canyon on a raft and back out on a mule, and contributing to the creation of the Hall of Records behind the president’s heads at Mount Rushmore, which included a climb up the mountain with assistance for the opening ceremony.

Jim Popovich at Mount Rushmore with Margaret Thatcher
Jim Popovich at Mount Rushmore with Margaret Thatcher

Jim relearned to walk, but it wasn’t free and easy. He required forearm crutches that he calls his ‘sticks’ throughout life, and struggled with a drop foot, which limited his abilities. One of Jim’s mottos is, ‘Without struggle, there is no success.’

“I am very fortunate and blessed to still be walking today,” Jim says.

Jim married his high school sweetheart, Connie, after reuniting with her several years after the accident. He adores Connie and credits her for helping him succeed in life. The retired couple enjoys RVing, living a healthy lifestyle, and working their two acres of land in New Mexico.

Jim and Connie Popovich
Jim and Connie Popovich

“I would not be where I am today if it were not for Craig. I’ll never be able to thank them enough for their exceptional care,” Jim says.

Yet he’s doing his best to do just that. This spring, Jim finished his book called Life with a Spinal Cord Injury. It’s on Amazon in both an e-read and paperback version, and he’s generously donating all proceeds to the Craig Foundation. Jim and Connie are also Frank Craig Society members.