As Close to Normal
Nelson Stewart’s Journey with Paralysis
Newly budding trees and an eruption of green grass promised a return to the warmth of spring. Nelson Stewart, his parents Jeff and Kathryn, and his son, Jacob Newdecker, were driving the long, winding roads that weave through the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina.
It was March 31, 2013.
They had just picked up then 6-year-old Jacob from his mother’s house outside of Greensboro, N.C., and were heading back to Columbus, Ohio. Nelson and Jacob’s mother, Lisa, had been separated for a few years, so he was used to making the 7 ½ hour drive to pick up his son for visits.
Nelson and his parents took turns behind the wheel, two of them sleeping while the third drove. Nelson — who had taken the last shift— was sleeping in the backseat of the 2010 Chevy Malibu with Jacob. His father drove, and his mother rode in the passenger seat.
Just after they crossed the border into Virginia, everything became a blur. A moment separated by a state line — the difference between the way it was and the way it now must be.
The police assume that his dad fell asleep at the wheel. Nelson is skeptical. Falling asleep behind the wheel is unlike his father.
“He’s never had that problem before or after,” Nelson later recalled.
As they traveled up Interstate 77 into the Virginia mountains, the car supposedly veered off the right side of the road and struck a rock embankment, ripping off most of the right side of the car. It overturned several times before coming to a stop in the berm, just inches away from the edge of the mountain. Nelson was ejected from the backseat during the impact. He was later found on the side of the road.
“We got pretty lucky. Where we landed, it was a nice spot,” Nelson said. “There was a little bit of space on the side of the road before going down the mountain.”
The investigation is still ongoing. The truth is a purgatory caught between reality and speculation. The only thing Nelson knows to be true — before he shut his eyes that March afternoon — is that he had control of his legs.
Now, they lay motionless. The spinal cord injury has left him paralyzed from below the navel, confining his once free body to the seat of a black wheelchair.
Nelson also suffered a brain injury that stole any recollection of the months leading up to the accident. Jeff survived and has since made a full recovery, but Kathryn’s injuries were too severe. She died later that day at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where Nelson and Jeffrey were also life-flighted following the accident. Jacob, however, was barely touched, sustaining only minor injuries.
Nelson believes his survival can be partially credited to a monthly shot he received just days before the accident to treat a rare blood clotting disorder. He was born with Factor XIII deficiency, which hinders a person’s ability to form effective blood clots.
Living with Paralysis
“I’m sorry if you don’t want to be identified as handicapped, but you’ve got to have a term for it.”
It’s been 1 ½ years since Nelson’s life was altered. He tugs a fistful of his faded jeans at the base of his right shin. He lifts and adjusts his leg on the smooth, pristine black cushion of his sectional sofa. The leather of this new couch re-conforms to his leg as he reaches forward and pulls the base of denim over his ankle, taking care to fully blanket the clean, white compression socks beneath the hem of blue. These socks are necessary to prevent his feet from swelling — a mechanism used to keep the blood from pooling in his feet by forcing it to circulate up through his legs after a day spent confined to the footrest of his wheelchair.
He takes his quadricep in the palm of his right hand and rotates it in an attempt to align his big toe straight beneath his right knee. Yet, the force of gravity proves too strong for his weak legs and with a subtle drop — like a heavy head which nods begrudgingly in and out of sleep — the outside of his foot falls closer to the couch.
Each leg is separated neatly into parts. His kneecaps divide each leg evenly between feeling and no feeling. Below the knee, his sense of touch is almost nonexistent.
“I can tell which leg you’re touching, I just don’t know where,” Nelson says.
Since the accident, Nelson has endured months of rehabilitation. His doctor performed a test once to determine the level of sensation left in his motionless legs. Nelson, with his eyes closed, had to identify an area on his leg the doctor was touching. During the first round, the doctor touched his shin, but Nelson guessed the back of his knee.
Touch is still dull. But Nelson came to realize the slightest sensation of the crisp, chill air on his exposed skin one early October day while waiting outside his apartment for the Ohio State Handivan to take him to class. He had nearly forgotten the sensation of temperature to his legs, the unpredictable Ohio weather unforgivingly reminding them of what it means to be cold.
A Body in Motion
“I don’t understand why it’s offensive to people or they think it’s like a bad thing that people think it’s inspirational … I don’t seem to necessarily identify with the disabled community, I guess.”
Nelson rolls across his kitchen to where his leg braces and walker lean against the wall. They are next to the front door where most people would put a coat rack. He wears silver tennis shoes, knee-length red and white gym shorts with an OSU logo and a grey V-neck T-shirt that shows off his thick, veiny arms. In fact, his arms do more work for him than any other part of his body.
Nelson swivels his chair, picks up the first brace and straps in his right leg. He carefully tightens each thick, leather strap and works his way down to the latches on the sides of his knees that lock his lower limbs into place like the legs of a folding table. The braces keep his knees and ankles from bending.
Once he is strapped in appropriately, Nelson unfolds the walker, places it directly in front of his wheelchair, and uses it to pull himself up to standing position. He uses the walker to keep his balance, making sure he has total control, before pushing off of the metal frame and thrusting his hips forward — first the right and then the left.
He is slow at first. Quiet. There is a hardened look of concentration on his face, showing his determination not to fall. But the lines on his forehead begin to soften after he travels about 10 feet from the front door where he started, through the kitchen, and finally to his bedroom doorway. The look is replaced with that of a focused confidence.
The further he goes through the apartment, the more he begins to open up. Unperturbed words flowing from his taut mouth as he moves another 10 feet to the far wall of his bedroom.
“I was in incredible shape before the accident,” he says.
Nelson used to obsess over daily workouts and a strict diet of fruits, vegetables and protein shakes with only one cheat day per week.
Traces of his 4.5 percent body fat physique are evident in the way his gray T-shirt clings to the shape of his back muscles. He uses the opposition of a downward push on the handles of his walker to lift his right foot from the floor, placing it an inch before the left.
While walking, Nelson talks about the importance of keeping his balance and how hard it was when he first began this daily regimen about six to eight months ago. He fell face-forward when he started because he couldn’t keep himself in the correct posture — hands forward, shoulders back and chest out.
He is nearly back to the front door when his phone rings on the counter. He has the look of urgency on his face as he tries but fails to move faster. He pushes his hips forward more aggressively, trying to make it to the counter before the person calling hangs up.
The phone stops ringing when he is about a foot from the counter. He passes by it wordlessly, moving toward the front door as if he never even heard it ring. When he reaches the door, he turns himself around again and repeats the lap through his apartment twice more. When he arrives at the door at the end of his final lap, he turns and plops himself back down into his chair, slowly undressing his legs.
Even though learning to walk again is hard work, Nelson said it’s the only choice he has.
“There’s only one path toward getting back to as close to normal as I possibly can be,” he says. “I can sit here and whine and complain about my situation, or I can try to make it better.”
“I still have a lot of both physical and mental challenges that, hopefully, I’ll overcome here shortly. But I felt like I was kind of slacking and not getting my things together quick enough, and I’ve been pushing really hard to get out on my own and get back in school and start getting things back on track, because I know it’s going to be a process. I know it’s going to be a couple of years before I’m really, like totally, independent again.”
The front tires of the black Acura RSX squeal as Nelson’s brother Matt Stewart jerks the steering wheel right, pulling into the last parking space directly in front of the Dublin LA Fitness center.
The driver’s door slams shut. Matt’s square heels of his shiny, black dress shoes tick against the concrete as he walks to the rear of the car.
Matt is dressed in a tight, charcoal gray sweater, and grey, white, and black plaid pants. It’s Matt’s professional attire he must wear for what Nelson calls his “big boy” job at a real estate company. He came straight from work to pick up Nelson, who wears a blood-red cut-off T-shirt with a bold, white outline of a basketball on the chest.
Nelson used to wear professional attire for his very own “big boy” job as an Aldi manager before the accident. But since then he’s replaced the tailored dress pants with white Ohio State gym shorts, white knee-high compression socks and dirtied white tennis shoes.
From the truck, Matt removes one long, black arm rest and then another, a thick, firm black mesh seat and finally a wheelchair frame folded like a hotdog bun. He pulls the two black wheelchair handles and instantly the frame expands, taking its rightful shape.
Nelson opens his passenger-side door and leaves it open. He slides his fingers beneath his right leg, cupping his upper thigh just above the knee, which fits perfectly in the palm of his right hand. His left hand follows suit. He lifts his leg with ease, nudging it a couple inches closer to the outside edge of the seat.
As Nelson works on preparing his legs, Matt continues to pull wheelchair parts from the trunk.
Matt pushes the chair over to the passenger side of the car, taking only two steps before allowing the wheels to take over. The chair rolls over to Nelson who stretches his hand to abruptly interrupt the wheels’ forward momentum. Matt watches from the corner of his eye to make sure the chair comes to a stop while his hands keep busy inside the trunk filling a duffle bag. In the bag, he places a water bottle, tennis shoes and a T-shirt. His left hand trails the trunk, handing Nelson the two oblong armrests that are the last pieces needed to complete the wheelchair construction.
Nelson grabs both, setting one down on his lap. He stretches his fingers to the corner of the wheelchair seat and with a slight curl of his fingertips, pulls the chair closer. He reaches across and fits the tail of the armrest neatly into an empty hole on the far end of the wheelchair, snapping it into place before repeating the process with the second.
He eyes it for a moment or two and then again cups the top of his thigh in the basin of his palms, this time lifting his right leg over the seat of the chair. He lets it rest for a moment, again eying his work.
“You got it?,” Matt calls.
“Yeah,” Nelson answers.
Nelson swiftly rolls his chair towards the front door, his urgency revealing an eagerness to return to the place he once visited religiously.
Whenever possible, Nelson tries to break his home workout routine and accompany his brother to the gym. Matt nearly doubles Nelson in size as he pulls Nelson’s left leg closer to his right, Nelson’s leg dangling over the edge of the black weightlifting bench. Matt aligns Nelson’s left knee so that his left foot lay parallel to his right.
Nelson unravels the tightly rolled charcoal gray velcro straps he uses to keep his body from sliding off the bench. He wraps one around his stomach while Matt wraps the other below his waist, pulling the strap tight to keep Nelson’s body to the bench.
Before the accident, Nelson benched over 300 pounds, but now he can only handle about 165 pounds. When he stops to rest from his repetitions, Nelson seizes the opportunity to subtly inspect the adrenaline junkies and health nuts that surround him. It’s rare that he finds anyone in the gym that surpasses the shape he was in prior to his accident.
“If I do see someone who I think looks better than I did, I watch them and see what exercises they’re doing to see if it’s something I can do,” he says.
Nelson says his former obsession to be fit helped him survive the accident.
“If I sit upright for more than a couple of hours, I still have a lot of pain. I have to sit down and put my feet up a lot and get out of the chair or just lay down. But I figure, you know, I’m at the point where I’m upright for at least a couple hours a day and that’s enough to at least get started with schooling and stuff. That’s enough to get started with at least one class and try to get things moving along.”
Getting ready for bed is now a chore for Nelson, each task seemingly more laborious than the last. Showering, using the restroom, getting undressed and getting into bed are now met with extensive premeditation and caution.
A battered cardboard UPS box sits lopsided on top of three clear plastic bins filled with T-shirts that are a sort of makeshift nightstand to the right of Nelson’s bed.
“I was supposed to get a lamp. I need to get on that,” Nelson says.
He reaches his left hand into the box, sifting through over 20 pill bottles, digging through the sea of orange and white cases for the necessary medication needed to numb the pain from another long day in his chair.
Nelson places one hand on his right shin, the other gripping below his right hamstring to steady his leg. Pressing firmly on his shin, Nelson forces his knee to bend, sending his leg on an upward trajectory toward his chest.
Once satisfied, he steadies his leg and tucks it neatly into his body, with the base of his right foot resting atop the seat of his wheelchair. He begins to tug at the compression sock that suffocates his calf. As he removes the white knee-high sock, Nelson’s pale skin slowly becomes free from the grip of its cocooned prison. Exposed to the open air, an imprinted pattern remains just below his knee as evidence of the place where the sock once squeezed.
“If I’m up for an extended period of time, I have to put them on. So if I’m up for more than maybe five, 10 minutes without ‘em on, my feet will turn purple,” Nelson says. “They could get really bad.”
After removing his socks, Nelson wheels himself closer to the edge of the bed. He scoops back the brown quilted comforter to reveal the pristine white of unwrinkled sheets.
His palms press onto the white bedding, the once taut surface caving beneath the contact. Nelson’s arm muscles contract, tensing as he presses down firmly, sending his pelvis hovering above the seat of his chair through the air as he transitions onto the bed.
He squirms to find a position of comfort as his legs dangle over the edge. One by one, he lifts them onto the bed, lengthening each one before him. He fidgets for a moment — his fingers working quickly as he tugs and prods his knee, shin, and white gym shorts in a desperate series of adjustments to find ease.
Black and blue pillow-like shoes sit at the foot of his bed. Nelson lifts his right foot, placing it carefully into the padded encasing that looks like a boot used for trekking through outer space.
“I stopped using them when I was at the nursing home … I stopped using them for maybe three, four days. My heel was always right up against the bed and there’s breakdown on both of my heels. They both started getting really bad,” Nelson says.
He pulls the velcro straps tight across each boot, as the boots swallow his feet. His toes protrude through a slight opening at the top.
“I don’t move my legs at all or roll over on my side or anything, so really it’s just a pain in the ass to not be able to move my legs to sit on my side,” he says.
He pulls the plum-colored comforter toward his chest as the faded Captain America logo printed on the middle of his T-shirt barely peeks out from beneath the covers. His right arm slivers from beneath the blankets, reaching over the layers of sheets to tuck the comforter tighter to his chest.
“It’s strange … I can understand how some people in a similar situation are a little more depressed or less motivated to move things forward but … I feel like I look at things a little differently than everyone else I’ve met in a similar situation.”
After months on relying on others for transportation, Nelson is getting a vehicle of his own — a custom-designed 2013 silver Honda Pilot. It has 1,500 miles on it and it costs $51,000.
It may look like a typical SUV on the outside but both the front and rear passenger doors open automatically, in opposite directions. Once they open, a black metal ramp extends from the floor down to the ground at about a 30 degree angle.
Like an excited child running to the playground, Nelson wheels himself forward, up the ramp and parks his wheelchair in the empty spot where the passenger seat would normally be.
He unfolds himself from his chair and lifts his body into the driver’s seat. Once he’s stationed, he lifts one leg after the other and positions them in place as if he were getting set to drive away. He makes sure he can work the hand controls and checks the position of the mirrors to see if there are any obvious blind spots.
After Nelson, his brother and his dad scrutinize the SUV carefully, Nelson tells the salesman, who has driven the vehicle down from Cleveland, that he wants to buy it. Nelson’s only stipulation: the pedal block used to accelerate and brake needs a little more customization.
Even so, Nelson’s face lights up with a subtle, yet wide smile as he works out the final details with the seller.
After a down payment of $1,000 is decided, the seller departs back north with the vehicle to make the final tweaks.
On his way back inside his apartment, one of Nelson’s neighbors — a lady in a wheelchair — hollers over to him from across the courtyard, “Good lookin’ vehicle ya got there Nelson.”
“Yea, it’s awesome,” Nelson replies with a modest grin.
“It really hasn’t taken any thought or any real struggle or considering other options. There’s not really any other options.”
The grounds of Creative Living lay almost motionless on a chilly, 47-degree Friday afternoon. The last signs of life reside in the few orange leaves barely clinging to the trees of the courtyard.
The fountain in the middle of the green space that was once bubbling with living water now sits wrapped in plastic, nearly extinct.
Step into Nelson’s apartment and it no longer looks like the final days of fall, but more like the first days of spring.
Nelson’s 8-year-old son Jacob is here from North Carolina for the Thanksgiving holiday. He’s brought plenty of Star Wars legos and Pokemon cards — 105 to be exact — to keep him and his dad busy for his five day stay.
Jacob sits on Nelson’s leather sectional sofa with his eyes fixed on the TV. Lego Ninjago is on and nothing is going to break his focus, except maybe the opportunity to show off his newest Pokemon card.
It’s Charzard, and it’s also one of his favorites — except he can’t use it in battles against his classmates yet because his second grade teacher recently banned the cards. She said they were taking away from the children’s studies.
But today Jacob gets to show his cards to Nelson’s neighbor friend Reina, who has stopped by to meet Jacob. She’s heard a lot about him.
Jacob shows her all of his favorite things at his dad’s house including the four-inch stack of Pokemon cards and his memory foam mattress that lay on the floor next to Nelson’s bed where Jacob’s been sleeping. He’s sure to hold up his fleece Chicago Bears blanket so Reina is fully aware of his favorite NFL team. He’s also sure to tell her of his dissatisfaction for the Cleveland Browns, despite his dad’s fondness of them.
“You see this hat, it used to be my dad’s and then he gave it to me,” Jacob says.
He puts the over-sized red Ohio State baseball cap on his head, looking both proud and honored to sport his dad’s treasure.
But the old hat doesn’t keep Jacob’s interest for long. After he’s done answering what seems like thousands of questions from Reina (What’s your favorite football team? When do you go home? What grade are you in?)
Following a forced goodbye to the neighbor lady, Jacob continues to parade around Nelson’s apartment, bouncing from one toy to the next.
Nelson tells Jacob he’s about to leave for a few minutes while he goes to put a load of laundry into one of the complex’s two dryers.
Nelson is proud to do Jacob’s laundry. In fact, he seems more alive than ever before when his son is around. Nelson glows as he gives his son advice. He advises his son on just about everything — from which bait to use when playing a fishing game on the Playstation to how to efficiently count his Pokemon cards in his head.
Once Nelson wheels himself out of the apartment to finish the laundry, Jacob looks up from the TV with a humble smile.
“He doesn’t even need any help, he does everything by himself,” he says.
By: Leisa DeCarlo, Logan Hickman, and Kaydee Laney
Special thanks to Nelson Stewart.