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Words Of Wednesday: 'Til the Wheels Fall Off'

April 29, 2015

When I was approached by Craig Hospital and asked to write about my experiences as a patient and how I got to where I am today, I was a bit hesitant at first. I consider myself to be an introvert of sorts, and I am often reluctant to put my story out there. After a little bit of nudging from some very good people, I decided to do something bigger than myself… something that has the possibility to help those who find themselves in a similar circumstance learn to live this second chance life.

Prior to my injury, I was a professional Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter with a record of 19 wins and 6 losses and a two-time 185 lb middleweight champion. I had no idea at the time that everything I had trained for and worked so very hard to achieve was preparing me to become the man I am today. I grew up with very little. Nothing was ever handed to me. Anything I ever gained was usually gained unlawfully by making very bad life choices. My mother, virtually on her own, had her hands full raising three tough and very hard headed boys

I was going down the wrong path: dropping out of high school, getting caught up in drugs, battling with my weight, and having an "I don't care" attitude. Something had to change and fast! That's when, by a stroke of luck, I discovered MMA fighting. It changed everything about me: my outward look on life and my inward view of my character. It changed the way I carried myself; it gave me a sense of purpose and self-respect. I no longer felt I had anything to prove to anyone because I had proved it to myself! After my first fight, I knew if I dug down deep enough, then I could change my life for the better. I never looked back! I continued to grow mentally and physically, I lost over 100 lbs. I really began to excel at the sport. Through my pursuit, dedication and style of fighting, I picked up the nickname "The Pit Bull", and that's who I became known as. I could see all of my dreams and aspirations coming true. I realized that the improbable was possible! I became a local legend in my hometown and found that through my perseverance and my own actions, I was also showing others that they too could overcome their own adversities. I was truly at the top of my game. The sky seemed to be the limit. That was until 2 days before Thanksgiving 2009 when everything changed in the blink of an eye.

While teaching a jiu jitsu class on November 23rd, one of the guys I was working with fell on top of me wrong. I remember almost knowing it was going to happen. I remember thinking "no, no, no" and hearing "pop-pop-pop". Before my legs could even flop onto the floor, I knew what had happened. I lay there looking at my toes, begging them to move. It felt like my entire body was pulsating with electricity. Ironically, all I could think of at the time was Christopher Reeve, and I was certain I was facing the same fate. I remember saying over and over "you ruined me". Everyone at the gym was in denial, but I knew.

When the first responders arrived, they recognized who I was immediately, and the expressions on their faces confirmed all of my fears. It was as if they were a group of young kids that just witnessed the death of their favorite superhero. Meanwhile, I lay there struggling with the thought of losing everything I had. As we arrived at the hospital, I was going in and out of consciousness because my diaphragm was beginning to shut down. I remember thinking "this is it". I was actually at peace and ready to embrace my fate. They began to work on me immediately by screwing my neck into traction with the use of a halo brace. The feeling of pressure and the sound of the screws crunching into the sides of my head, one turn at a time, was distinctively unique. At the hospital, the doctor told me I had broken my neck. I asked him to tell me that I would walk again, but he turned his back to me and replied, "I'm sorry, Nick. I cannot do that."

Later he informed me that I broke my C6-7 vertebrae, instantly becoming a quadriplegic with no hand or arm function. I started to say that I did not want to have surgery if this was how my life was going to be. He told me that I was in no condition to make that sort of decision. Unable to move my arms, I refused to give verbal consent for surgery, so they turned to my mother for approval. I told my mom to just let me go, that I would much rather be remembered for the champion I was. She began to cry and said to me, "Nick, you are my son. I have to do this." I woke up connected to machines and tubes down my throat and eventually a tracheotomy. They told me that during the surgery, I flatlined three times on the table, but they were able to revive me each time.

I knew what lay ahead; the toughest days were yet to come. To be honest, I did not want to face them. During the next 3 weeks, after fighting a collapsed lung and a bout of pneumonia, I slowly weaned myself off of the ventilator and learned to breathe on my own again. I watched my family and friends come and mourn their loss. It was like watching yourself die. In a sense, I did die, and I experienced pain and sorrow with them. I was no longer that unbreakable man they once knew. Still I believed that someday I would walk again. I had heard of Craig Hospital through various people, but I was told that my health insurance would not pay for me to go there. So, I began advocating heavily for myself and telling them I would not take no for an answer. I desperately wanted to go to Craig because of the great things I had heard. While lying in bed, I developed a stage three (going on stage four) bedsore, and the hospital staff were unsure how to treat it. That was my one bargaining chip to get into Craig: their expertise in treating people with bedsores.

My social worker at the hospital came to my room the day before I left and said to me, "I don't know how, but Craig is willing to take you. You leave tomorrow.” Unknowingly, this was the first and last good news I would be hearing for a while.

On January 13, 2010, I arrived on a stretcher at Craig Hospital via Flight for Life from South Dakota. I was so anxious to get started on my rehab. Shortly after being admitted, I was informed that I would have to spend the next 4 to 5 months in bed because of my bedsore! To say I was devastated would be an understatement. The next few months tested my strength, courage, and willingness to thrive. My girlfriend from South Dakota came to visit me a few times. I could tell things had changed; there was distance between us, and I could see that she no longer looked at me the same way. On her last visit, she left with a bye and followed it up with a text message that read, “I’m sorry, but I’m not coming back.” I couldn't blame her. How could I expect anyone to accept what I had become? I spent the next few months pretty much by myself. The blinds were always closed, and my room was always dark. I didn't talk to anyone and refused to eat. I was never rude to the staff, because I understood they had my best interests in mind. I was withdrawn, and depression was consuming me. Honestly, I just wanted to die. Visits from friends and family became seldom, and calls and texts were fewer and further between. I know my mother wanted to be there with me, but she was financially burdened and could not. I began to resent her decision to save my life.

To this day, I'm still not quite sure how I made it. I remember the first time I was allowed in a chair for 15 minutes: I only lasted 10. Later, when I gained back a bit more arm function and strength, I attempted to push across the third floor bridge. I made it halfway and yelled, "Put me back in bed!" From that point on, after being in bed for just over 4 months, my time at Craig began to move quickly.

Soon, I was able to be up in a chair for several hours at a time. I still felt weak and depressed, so everything still seemed impossible. I attended their classes and soaked in as much as I could, but I kept mostly to myself. I wanted absolutely NOTHING to do with the other people in chairs because I viewed myself as "different" from them, as if my loss was somehow greater than theirs. Even though we were all going through the same thing, some guys seemed to be handling it so well. The only explanation I could come up with was that they were in denial about the finality of their injury. They also seemed to have their family and friends there to cheer on their every accomplishment, simple things that were really big milestones. This made me even more angry, more bitter, and more resentful toward my injury. On several occasions, I was invited to go on Craig outings. I declined all but one. On the only Craig outing I went on, I realized that being in a chair was the only thing I felt I had in common with the others. I found that despite being surrounded by people, I still felt alone and that my injury was my own burden to carry.

Many of the staff members at Craig knew I was "that guy” who was going through all of this with no support system. Many of them took it upon themselves to go out of their way to make an attempt to lift my spirits. I will be forever grateful for their efforts. Over time, I connected with a few people and accepted a couple of friendships, even from people in chairs. My release date was soon scheduled for June 3rd, and I had about a month to learn how to live as a quadriplegic. I felt that I was nowhere near ready! I wasn't even sure where I was going to live because nothing back home was wheelchair accessible, and it didn’t seem like anyone in my family was making an effort to figure it out.

During my last month of rehab, after being moved to the East side in preparation to go home, I was making the best of the time I had left and enjoying a few friendships with staff members and fellow patients. One CNA in particular, Monica, who was scheduled to work with me on only a few occasions, seemed to understand my struggles better than most. She would go above and beyond to acknowledge me, to check in on me, and to just say hello. She was under no obligation to do so, but her heart was just that big. I became comfortable enough with her to share my feelings, my hopes, and my fears. She never judged me and never once told me what I "should do". Mostly, she just listened. This meant more to me than she will ever know. Our friendship grew, and I could see she genuinely cared about my well-being and truly wanted me to make it.

The last week of rehab was what I referred to as "family week". During that week, the people who are going to care for you come to Craig see how far you've come and learn about your needs and how to meet them. Essentially, they learn how to be your care providers, and some need more help than others. Everyone is so different. My mother could not attend as she was still scrambling to figure out where they were going to put me, and I had nobody else. I felt like a huge burden to my family. Nobody understood just how serious my situation was. I remember my physical therapist, Chuck, asking me how my bathroom was setup at home so he would knew what equipment to provide me. The truth was I didn't know! I had no home to go to and no idea where I was going.

Finally, a couple of days prior to discharge, my mother informed me that I would be staying at my aunt’s ex-husband’s house. He was gone a lot as a truck driver and didn't mind having somebody there to look after his place. My brother quickly built a ramp and widened the bathroom door, and those were my only modifications. As much as I appreciated his kindness for allowing me to stay in his home, I was disappointed that this was the best solution my family could come up with for me.

I explained my situation to Monica during one of our many talks. She knew that my family didn't understand the level of care I needed and that they would be incapable of actually caring for me without any kind of training. Monica, out of true concern and friendship, offered to drive to South Dakota and educate and train my family. Stubbornly, I said no at first, but I didn't want our amazing friendship to fade. To be honest, I was beginning to really like her, possibly too much. I saw how she interacted with other patients, and she was kind to everyone. She was beautiful in every sense of the word. In the end, I agreed that she come to South Dakota.

When I returned home to South Dakota, I dreaded running into anyone I knew and letting them see me in my weakened state. Nowhere near independent, I needed help with everything from bathing to dressing. I couldn't even sit up in bed. Monica would work the night shift in Denver and then drive 7 hours to South Dakota to help me on her days off. I quickly realized how much I missed her when she was gone. When she looked at me, I could see it in her eyes that our friendship was becoming something more. I hated to see her leave and would become very anxious as the time approached her return . She took my mind off of the pain and sorrow. Soon, she was all I was thinking about.

Soon after, Monica left Craig for another job opportunity, which helped facilitate her commute from Denver to South Dakota. I knew this couldn’t last forever. Eventually, it would become physically and financially draining. Something needed to change. I needed to start moving forward.

It was August. The Sturgis motorcycle rally was taking place, and I remember listening to the sounds of the bikes through the open window in my room and reminiscing about when I used to ride. Everything I did and everywhere I went was a constant reminder of the man I once was. I needed to create a “new” me. I stayed in contact with a few of the wheelchair rugby players I had met when I was at Craig, and I watched them practice. One of them mentioned to me that I should move to Denver and play rugby. I couldn't even fathom where to start. I spoke to Monica on the phone and told her, "I want to move to Denver." Emphatically, she replied, "Well, let's make it happen!" I don't think I was ever so scared, yet so certain of anything in all my life. I emphasized that I would be counting on her because I had nobody there. She reassured me and told me she was willing to do what it took. In September, the decision was made… no looking back!

We found a small apartment for me to stay in and she helped me prepare everything. My mother and brother helped me move the few belongings I had. I was on my way! It was a new beginning. I was living in a new place with the opportunity to rediscover and reinvent myself. I started playing rugby and slowly began gaining strength. My left hand and triceps were coming around. I attempted to do things on my own to gain independence: showering, getting dressed, cooking, and cleaning. I learned how to drive again, which was a huge milestone! None of it came easy. I used to say, "if it comes easy, then it's not worth it”. Something I still believe to this day. Monica started staying at my place so much that we decided to take things to the next level, and she moved in. Although the next few years were hard with some close calls, I was doing what I never thought was possible: I was living again!

I have regained a significant amount of hand and arm function, so much so that I'm often mistaken as a paraplegic. I continue to stay active. I spend most of my time lifting weights in the gym or playing rugby. I now play for the Denver based rugby team the Denver Harlequins. Some of my best friends come from that group. I surround myself with people who know and understand the struggles that I call life. I have come to appreciate the small things that we often take for granted.

On September 17, 2014, on the pier in San Francisco Bay, I asked Monica to be my wife. She said, "Yes!" We recently purchased our first home, and Monica is finishing nursing school. We (and our three dogs) continue to build our life together.

Walter Anderson wrote, “Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have - life itself.” All of my hopes, my dreams, and my aspirations are not dead. They have merely been readjusted by the hand I have been dealt. In life, I have come to realize that loss is inevitable, but that's not what defines us. What truly defines us is how we choose to react to that loss and how we choose to get back up. That's how we will be remembered!

Five years ago, I left my house for the gym, not knowing that on that day my life would forever be changed. Five years ago, I joined a unique club that I never expected to be a part of. Throughout this journey in this chair, I have had the honor to meet some of the toughest fighters with the biggest of hearts. They do not fight for belts, trophies or even money. They fight for life, dignity and independence. They fight to live a life that most people will never understand.

Five years ago, I embarked on a path of humility, a path to learn how to love myself and show love to others. Through that, I found myself on the path to meet the woman of my dreams. I never imagined that I would have gained more than I ever lost in so many ways. I appreciate all of you who have stood by my side, through the good and the bad, and those who have accepted me how I am, with all of my faults. I will always miss who I once was, but I am learning to love the man I am becoming.

Not long ago, I was asked by a very good friend of mine, who is also in a chair, if there was anything I would change about what has happened in my life. I paused a moment, but the answer came out much easier than I expected: Not a damn thing!

One life, one shot, keep pushin’… 'til the wheels fall off'.

Nick "The Pit Bull" Pearce

A special thanks to Factory X Muay Thai/MMA/BJJ Gym. Thank you for opening your doors to us.