Life Above Wheels: From Out of the Hospital and Back Into School

 

The author in his not-so-beloved wheelchair. Photo provided by Ben Kindlon

The author in his not-so-beloved wheelchair. Photo provided by Ben Kindlon

With nearly all of my required courses completed, I stood among hundreds of second-semester seniors set on graduating SUNY New Paltz.  I crafted the ideal schedule with all of my classes blocked on two days, leaving myself plenty of time to party and snowboard throughout the semester.  Unfortunately, things didn’t pan out the way I was expecting them to.

 On February 6, I broke my pelvis and fractured the L5 vertebra of my spine in a snowboarding accident at Hunter Mountain. I was airlifted from the mountain and flown to the Albany Medical Center where I spent a week, which was followed by a month in a hospital bed at my parents’ house in Glenmont, New York.

During my time bedridden, New York received more snow than I could remember in all my time as an addicted snowboarder. Averaging roughly 60 trips a season (when the snow is usually shit), I felt like Mother Nature was adding some serious insult to my already devastating injury.

Pain does not even begin to describe what I felt following the slam. Shifting my body even half of an inch on the bed resulted in uncontrollable wails. The basketball-sized welt that covered my backside at least provided some cushion on the bed, to keep me from having to rest fully on my cracked iliac crest. Nothing was easy, and the mood-altering, mind-numbing painkillers I needed to keep from the overwhelming, sickening physical torment didn’t help in my overall efficiency.

I went from being surrounded by dozens of friends, a beautiful girlfriend (one on foreign exchange, leaving in just months!), to having my diploma nearly in grasp to being stuck in my mom and dad’s house barely able to shower myself. I’d fallen from confident to utterly powerless in seconds, and would remain in despair for what seemed like an eternity. I needed to get back to New Paltz, but my doctor said returning to school for the semester seemed highly improbable, meaning that I would not be able to graduate with my friends, as I had hoped.

Fortunately, I am not the first SUNY New Paltz student to have injured himself during a school semester, and there were accessible resources to aid me in my return to campus.

Director of the SUNY New Paltz Disabilities Resource Center Portia Altman said that in her 15 years as director roughly 10 students per academic school year come to the resource center seeking aid for injury related disabilities.

  • The author in his not-so-beloved wheelchair. Photo provided by Ben Kindlon
  • The author in his not-so-beloved wheelchair. Photo provided by Ben Kindlon
    The author in his not-so-beloved wheelchair. Photo provided by Ben Kindlon
  • A handicap accessible automatic door located on the East end of the Coykendall Science Building. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • A handicap accessible automatic door located on the East end of the Coykendall Science Building. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • A handicap accessible ramp for the Faculty Office Building located near Bouton hall. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • The cement around the SUNY New Paltz campus damaged by harsh wintry conditions. These bumps and cracks can prove to be a challenge to those traveling by wheelchair. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • The cement around the SUNY New Paltz campus damaged by harsh wintry conditions. These bumps and cracks can prove to be a challenge to those traveling by wheelchair. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • The cement around the SUNY New Paltz campus damaged by harsh wintry conditions. These bumps and cracks can prove to be a challenge to those traveling by wheelchair. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • A small cement ramp leading up the step in front of Bouton hall that was implemented to accommodate the wheelchair of a temporary dormitory resident. Photo by Ben Kindlon
  • A small cement ramp leading up the step in front of Bouton hall that was implemented to accommodate the wheelchair of a temporary dormitory resident. Photo by Ben Kindlon

There are various accommodations that can be made for students who have endured injuries, because there is “not one solution for everybody,” Altman said.   For instance, if a student had recently suffered from a head injury, Altman or another faculty member could contact the students’ professors to earn the student extra time on his or her exams if necessary.  If a student has a hand or wrist injury, faculty of the disabilities resource center could help find someone to transcribe notes for the injured student, or provide them with a laptop computer to type their notes.

“I want them [temporarily disabled/injured students] to be as independent as they can be,” Altman said.

Leg injuries, or any injury that impedes on independent mobility (i.e. a shattered pelvis), are oftentimes the most difficult to accommodate, Altman said.

“One misconception people have is that we provide wheelchairs and escorts,” she said. “We don’t.”

For students with mobility impairing injuries, the resource center faculty is there to show them handicap accessible routes around campus. In some cases the student’s classroom can be relocated or the student can make individual accommodations with their professors. Altman said the best thing for a student to be is willing to communicate with the faculty about their situation. She said that the success of a student returning to school from an injury relies heavily on “self-advocacy” and “being open and honest.”

My statistics class, fulfilling my mathematics general education requirement, is located in Van Den Berg Hall. The steep streets surrounding Van Den Berg Hall make it inaccessible for someone coming from campus in a manual wheelchair.  After explaining my situation to my professor, she was gracious enough to let me complete the course through independent study.

Temporary living accommodations were also available in the dormitories on campus.  Although all of the handicap specific dorm rooms were already full, there was a room on the first floor of Bouton that could fit my wheelchair. I was able to rent the room for $28.91 a day. Having a room on campus was essential to my returning to class and staying on course with graduation.

People take for granted the use of their legs.  After spending only a month in a wheelchair, I have a new found respect for those who carry out their daily lives in one.  Every crack or bump in the ground is a new obstacle. To get onto a sidewalk, I needed a ramp. To change floors, an elevator. Traveling steep hills was unfeasible. Doors without a handicap button to open them can be quite a challenge. And every time I wanted to leave or enter my apartment in town, I had to scoot up and down a flight of stairs on my butt.

I have never experienced such a harsh injury or nightmarish experience, and hope to never again.  But with all things considered, I am fortunate.  Through open and efficient communication with the SUNY New Paltz faculty and staff (and disregarding my doctor’s thoughts on me returning to school), my family and I were able to put together the necessary pieces of this nasty puzzle so I can still graduate on time. I am very much looking forward to walking across the stage this May.

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