I don’t know how, but in my rush to post something to commemorate a decade since my accident I managed to forget to mention an important group of individuals that have been vital to both my survival and sanity over the years – the motley crew of quadriplegics with various levels of function who meet up regularly and affectionately call themselves The Quad Squad. We got together at my place the Sunday before my anniversary to celebrate 10 years of surviving paralysis, but it was a bittersweet event after hearing the news that a member of the group and one of my dear friends had passed away just the day before. Actually, to call Dan McConnell just a friend would be a serious injustice. If our paths hadn’t crossed right around this time four years ago, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t even be alive.
It was shortly after Kristen and I had officially become a couple and I was midway through my 2 1/2 year battle with an infected pressure sore caused by an improperly maintained wheelchair cushion that had made its way to the bone and kept me bedridden the majority of my days. Still a relative shut-in, I was reluctant to go to the Kiwanis fundraiser her folks had invited us to but, seeing as I still hadn’t met them, I ultimately gave in. It couldn’t have been more than 15 minutes after I parked at our table when the quiet, unassuming IRS worker rolled up with a glass of wine balanced precariously in his partially functioning hand and introduced himself.
Paralyzed at 19 from a car accident back in 1970, Dan had a wealth of wisdom and experience and we talked about everything under the sun. From the evolution of assistive technology to the pitfalls of air travel for those dependent on power wheelchairs, I soaked it all in. Hearing his stories blew my mind open to so many possibilities for my life that I had never considered. As the evening wore on, our conversation naturally shifted toward the present, and I told him about the sore I had been battling. He then told me about the seat cushion he was sitting on and how it completely prevented pressure in the areas where people like us are most vulnerable.
Not only did that conversation save my life – within the year I was healed thanks to the cushion and haven’t had a pressure sore since – but it also lit a fire inside me that burns to this day, because the cushion he was talking about had existed since before I got hurt. And yet, there I sat, six years post-injury and had never heard of it. None of my doctors or therapists had so much as mentioned it while I had spent half my paralyzed life in bed trying to recover from issues that that singular piece of equipment could’ve prevented altogether. Right then it became frustratingly clear that my survival hinged not on the clinical knowledge of medical professionals, but the practical life experience of other people living with spinal cord injuries. From that point forward it became my mission to connect with as many of those people as possible, an idea that became the genesis for The Here and Now Project.
Another gift Dan so graciously breathed into my life came in the form of his incredible wife Gail. She was just 17 when her then-fiancé became a C4-5 quadriplegic, but she took the tragedy in stride. She chose to stay and be his primary caregiver and married him a year later. Just a couple of kids and a wheelchair, they proceeded to do life all over the globe, whether it meant forgoing his power chair for the much lighter manual one on their trips to Hawaii, or her tossing him onto a mattress in the back of a pickup truck late at night while camping with friends. Their relationship was a pivotal inspiration for Kristen and me, because it showed us that paralysis couldn’t get in the way of two people willing to be flexible yet persistent for the sake of love.
On the morning of Saturday, February 8th, Dan succumbed peacefully to complications from an infected pressure sore similar to the one I was battling the day we met, leaving behind the chair that was his primary mode of transportation for 43 years but couldn’t prevent him from living a rich and full life. As I sat there amongst all my wheeled friends and their loved ones in my living room the next day sharing stories and experiences, everyone could feel the gaping hole left by the soft-spoken trailblazer’s absence. But in that moment, I couldn’t help but notice how it all might not have been possible if it weren’t for that chance meeting years ago as well as his generosity and willingness to share.
Isaac Newton once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Dan was one of those giants for me, and I am proud to be part of his legacy.