Written May 2001

Be careful for what you wish, you just might get it


Leonard A. McHugh

For many years prior to November 1995, I was developing more and more dysfunction with my arms and legs. The cause was bone spurs cutting my spinal cord. After years of physical therapy it finally came to reality that with out surgery I would be paralyzed from the neck down. This would happen over the next five or so years.

Now I had to find a good surgeon. Through a lot of talking to co-workers and friends I located the best orthopedic surgeon in the Harrisburg area. After meeting this man, I learned a totally new meaning for the word impressive. As he was studying my MRI and x-ray films, he kept saying, "Hmm, impressive, very impressive." Listening to this I knew that it was good, after all look around at all of the impressive things and people. I couldn't believe what came next. He took down the films and carefully put them back into their respective folders. He then came over and said "I'm very sorry, this is much more than I can handle". He then shook my hand, recommended that I find a good neurosurgeon, and wished me good luck. Not only did he not charge me the $250 for the office visit; he even gave me a home cervical traction unit. This unit hung over a door and used a pulley system. A bunch of straps went under my chin and behind my neck and at the other end of the rope was a plastic container that held ten pounds of water. I think it was designed from someone reincarnated from mediaeval France.

Later, I located the best neurosurgeon at Hershey Medical . This Doctor was very reserved. He wanted to try a few other things before he cut. He finally came to the conclusion that I had no other choice.

My decision now was do nothing and wait for the paralysis to slowly happen, or as I kind of joked, go for it over night.

I made living wills and stated that if something went wrong I didn't want to live. One of my co-workers overheard this and got on my case. He stated in the passed twenty-five years or so that he knew me, he never saw a selfish trait until that moment. He felt that even if something went wrong I would be depriving my family of both my love but also theirs. I told him that it may be true but I am getting tired of fighting. I have been fighting all of my life to overcome blindness and prove myself, not to others but just to myself.

Finally November 20, 1995 was here. Instead of cutting a bone graft from my hip, I requested that the doctor use the bone bank. I have talked to other people who went through the same procedure. They all said that they had more discomfort with their hip than with their neck. Anyway, when he agreed I was very happy. In fact, I was so upbeat about the procedure that I said to the Doctor "let's rock and roll".

This was to be an overnight visit and I was to come home the following morning. The procedure, which lasted about six hours, consisted of cutting through my throat, moving everything aside, cutting out the bone in the c3, and 4,5 and 6 vertebrae. Then installing a bone graft, plates and screws.

When back in my room and awake, I realized that I was almost totally paralyzed from the neck down. I only had a little movement with my left arm. I was that upset and angry with God that I could not even tell Karen. I left her go home without telling her that I was paralyzed. I also could not believe that God left me live this way.

Karen then got a phone call telling her that I was being rushed back into the operating room for another emergency surgery. Here some blood ran down and clotted along my spinal cord causing swelling and resulting in a spinal cord injury. This six-hour procedure entailed removing everything and removing the blood clot, then putting the grafts and screws back in place.

When I awoke from this operation, my anger worsened. I had even more paralysis than before. I could not believe that God let this happen to me. I just wanted to die. And later, I almost got my wish.

Shortly, I was rushed back for a third and final operation to remove a second blood clot that caused even more paralysis.

I did make a few friends at Hershey. Pastor Dan, a resident chaplain, and I had many long talks. I first met him as I was being rushed into one of the two emergency surgeries. He talked to me said a prayer and read Psalm 22, from the NIV, New International Version, Bible. .

It starts with "My God, my God why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me,".

As I said "be careful for what you wish, you just might get it".

Through the night after the final surgery there was a time of true terror. I felt myself starting to get nauseated. No nurse had come in to see me, but the call nurse button was placed in my right hand. I don't know how I got the strength to depress the button. She tried to talk to me over the intercom but I could only whisper after the eighteen hours or so of surgery. When she came in I told her that I was sick. Before she entered I could only imagine myself choking to death.

I had the most incredible feeling of terror and helplessness. She quickly pushed me to one side and left never to return. I knew that that was not far enough. I lay this way for four or five hours in terror trying to hold back the sickness. Since she did not put the call button in my hand, I could not again call for help. I also knew that I would not live if I became ill.

That is when I, again, started talking to God. I made peace with him for letting this awful thing happen to me and told him that I really did want to live. I asked him to help me. I again regained the motivation and determination with which I had always been blessed.

About two days after these surgeries a group of people came into my room. They had forms to be filled out placing me on total disability. I guess I got a little rude when I told them to get out of my room. I told them that I planned to go back to work. I then asked Karen to start bringing small weights, soft rubber balls and things like that to my room. I started my own physical therapy program long before it was ordered. I made Karen stretch and hold my fingers straight. Over the years I saw many that had paralysis that their hands and fingers were twisted and curled. I was not going to allow this to happen to me.

As I previously mentioned I made a new friend Pastor Dan. We had many long talks about my life and the church and God. This may sound a little strange however; he told me that he was glad when I told him that I was very upset and angry with God. He said you could only get angry with him if you truly believe and that God has broad shoulders. He said that it is easy to get angry with someone that you can see and touch. I also told him that I knew that God did not want me to be blind but allowed it. I told him that I knew that he wanted me to use my blindness to help and, if possible, to inspire others.

At the time our church had no regular pastor, only supply pastors. Dan was so wonderful I told him that I wish he could come to our church but I really knew that he was needed at Hershey.

I didn't know that the nurses had put a sign on my door warning others that I am highly motivated.

I believe that they actually closed the door so that they could not see what I was doing. One-day nurse Pat came into my room where they had me sitting in a chair with the bed tray wedged in front to keep me from falling. When she saw it tipping forward she panicked. I was lifting it with my toes. She exclaimed, "you can't do that" I said, "yes I can just watch".

Pat also spent some time talking to me. She could not believe what happened. She had been an acute care nurse for about four years. She told me that the procedure that was done to me was repeated two or three times a week. In her four years she never saw anyone get a blood clot along the spinal cord let alone two times. I told her that that is one way that I could get some recognition.

My dad has always had a great sense of humor and he knew that I was also blessed with this gift. I guess that it was about the fourth day after the surgeries that I struggled and was able to peel a banana, by myself. It must have taken me almost an hour to complete. I was that happy I started to cry. I asked the nurse to dial my parent's phone number so I could tell them of this fantastic accomplishment. I could hear my dad becoming a little choked up. He then got his composure and said "you mean, I now have a son with the same ability as a monkey". We both laughed for several minutes.

A few days later the doctor ordered physical and occupational therapy. Before the program started a small group of physical therapists came into my room for evaluation. It took four of them just to help me stand. They also took hand and arm movement measurements. They were very professional but a little too serious. I could not control my sense of humor. I looked toward one of the young girls and held out my hand and asked, "will I be able to play the piano when you are finished?" They all got very quiet, finally she said absolutely. I said, "wonderful, I always wanted to be able to play". It took several minutes for them to stop laughing. They said they could not believe that they fell for that one.

The next day when I got to the occupational therapist she wheeled me to the arm bike. She lifted my hands onto the handles and said we will try to do this for two minutes. I said "no problem" she replied with a we will see, comment. Eight minutes later she made me stop.

I found myself getting depressed whenever they took me back to my room. I knew that I had a better chance of getting better in the gym as opposed to lying in the hospital bed.

I use to get upset when I heard the other patients crying "I can't do that" or "it hurts". I guess that I had a very unfair advantage since I started viewing this as just another obstacle to overcome, like my blindness, and furthermore I knew that God was on my side.

About another week passed and another group of people came into my room. At this time I really embarrassed Karen. They talked about moving me to the rehabilitation center for seven to ten days. This was just time enough to let me learn to walk and then continue outpatient therapy. I told them no more than five days. They got a little louder and so did I. They said that they know what they are talking about because they saw cases like this before. They said it would be at least ten days and they don't want me to be disappointed with my time frame. I still insisted on three to five days. I walked out in exactly five days of physical therapy. Before going home, I made Karen and my good friend Ed take me shopping to purchase some jewelry for my sister's Christmas present.

Ed, a true friend, came to see me every possible day. Ed and I use to work together and now he works for the State Police. At the time his wife and home was in western Pennsylvania and he went home every weekend. He eventually built a home near Harrisburg and his family relocated. Anyway, as I was saying, a true friend. One day he came into my room with a map and a key to his apartment. He told me that it is for any of my family members to use if they want to stay over. He never met any of my family. This is the action of a true friend.

After being released from Hershey, I felt like a permanent fixture at Schuylkill Rehabilitation. There, I also made some new friends. I later found out that my motivation spread to the therapists as well as some of the other patients. One instance that comes to mind is when on a Monday, Kathy had me between the parallel bars. She had some other people assisting just in case I would fall. My task was to try and walk with one foot in front of the other. I could only take two or three steps so she stopped that exercise. The following Thursday she wanted to re-try that exercise. She called for some help. I told her that that was not necessary and walked up and down several times. She said that is impossible. I told her that I practiced it at home. I explained that I walked about ten to fifteen miles on my treadmill with one foot in front of the other.

Another incident that helped a patient was when I was working with Janet my occupational therapist. Before the session was complete I performed a magic illusion. For many years I was a blind magician, MOTIVATIONAL MAGIC, and used magic to demonstrate that a handicap is only what you make it. Anyway, as I was performing this trick, Kathy was working with a patient that was uncooperative. She started explaining to him that I not only was blind but also recently paralyzed from a surgical procedure. She could see the expression on this man's face change as he started trying to help himself.

When I was discharged, Kathy told me that I had my own grading scale. She told me that once a week all therapists and the doctor met to discuss patient's progress and performance plans. She said they would look at my progress and try and figure where I should be in the next two weeks. She would then say "remember this is Lenny" and the two-week progress was changed to a few days.

I know that I did not do all of this on my own. I had wonderful support from family, friends, professional therapists and most of all God.

Because of these new problems I lost my ability of independent travel. I no longer have the coordination to correctly use my white cane. That is when I decided to get a guide dog. Indy is truly a part of God's plan. Because of my physical condition, every well-known guide dog school turned me down. They thought that I did not have the physical ability to handle a dog. I talked to a friend that has a guide dog. I told him the story of the first guide dog I ever met. I went to computer school with a man that had this dog. I haven't talked to Joe since we left in May 1967. When I mentioned his name to this friend I was told that he recently met Joe. He just happened to have his phone number. I then called Joe, during our conversation I told him that I finally decided to get a guide dog but was unsuccessful. He told me to contact Eric at Freedom Guide Dogs . Interestingly, Freedom Guide Dogs just decided to expand into Pennsylvania. Eric came down to interview me and told me that he could train a dog for me. This had to have been planned. What are the chances of having friend that just met someone that knew a trainer who would provide me with a dog?

By the way, remember when I said that I chased some people out of my room because I planned to go back to work? Well, the First week of February 1996, I started again working. My employer installed a remote computer site in my home. I worked from home for the next few years. There were many times when I would start at six in the morning, and except for lunch, dinner, and the two hour physical therapy session, I would work to eleven or twelve PM. There were a few times when my daughter would walk into the room and say "give it up dad!"

Although I have not fully recovered, without the surgeries by now I would probably be paralyzed. And now, with God's help, I can only improve.

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