The List That Saved Me

By Yuval Abramovtiz

AT THE TENDER AGE OF SIXTEEN, MY LIFE AS I KNEW IT
AND THE LIFE I HAD IMAGINED FOR MYSELF WAS OVER.
AN ACCIDENT HAD FLIPPED MY WORLD UPSIDE DOWN.

It all happened when I was working at a steakhouse as a busboy, clearing tables. The lowest in the food chain of hospitality jobs. I was saving money for all the things a boy my age would want — a driver’s license, new clothes and CDs.

During one shift I was asked to bring a heavy barrel of pickles from
the storage located next to the restaurant. In the parking lot, between the restaurant and the storage room, there was a small and extremely slippery puddle. It was a viscous trap of motor oil, cooking oil and detergent residue that was washed out of the restaurant on a daily basis.

Two weeks prior to my accident, the owner of the restaurant had himself slipped on that puddle and broken his arm. Being a responsible boy, I had mentioned to him on several occasions that he should cover the slippery puddle with a wooden deck to prevent further accidents, but he chose to ignore my advice. Then, before two weeks could pass it was my turn.

Flying through the air, I landed right on the sewage lid, pickles scattering all around me. To this day, I can still hear the cracking sound of my skull when it hit the cold concrete. I remember the feeling of my head being practically yanked off my neck and my brain shaking in my head from one side to the other like a ping-pong ball. The back of my now bleeding neck hurt so badly, that I was completely oblivious to the devastating injury in my lower back.

Diners and restaurant workers gathered around me checking to see if I was conscious. I was lifted up by three men, while the owner, still wounded and in a cast, orchestrated the whole operation. People yelled out “Get up! Let’s see if you can walk!”. But I could barely stand. I felt dizzy and
vomited twice.

An ambulance arrived and I was rushed to hospital where I was immediately sent for X-rays and other medical tests. I notified the doctor at the E.R that I had no sensation in my legs whatsoever, but when the results came back showing no evidence of any spinal injury, I was sent home. The doctor’s instructions were simple — lie in bed for three days on a warm electric blanket and you’ll be as good as new in no time. The pain will be gone.

And he was right. The pain WAS gone but so was any sensation in my legs. I woke up on the third day and couldn’t even get myself out of bed. I was completely paralyzed, unable to stand or walk. It was the strangest sensation, as if I was hallucinating. I kept saying to myself “Get up! Stand on your feet now!” But I just couldn’t do it. I pinched my legs, nothing. I scratched them with my fingernails, nothing. No sensation. I found a pen on the floor nearby and pricked my flesh with it. The leg bled but I couldn’t feel any pain.

“Mom! I’m paralyzed… I can’t move!” I screamed out. She rushed to my room and started yelling orders at me: “Try walking! Try standing!”

“It’s probably just pins and needles” she said trying to remain calm but I could see the panic in her eyes. She ran to the bathroom, grabbed a pair of tweezers and started pinching my toes, my feet, my ankles, quickly working her way up my thighs.

I felt nothing.

My mother went and called a neighbor who was kind enough to carry me down to his car and we drove to the nearest hospital. I was sent to the E.R for an initial diagnosis. A solemn-faced doctor examined me with a reflex hammer and diagnosed a complete loss of sensation in the right leg and 60% function loss in the left one. The suspected diagnosis: a spinal injury. Two hours later, I was sent to the neurological ward where I was again hit with a reflex hammer and had electric current run through my legs in the hope I would feel a tingle. The doctors were trying to determine just how far the paralysis had spread.

Three doctors, accompanied by an intrigued group of interns, came by my room to see with their own eyes what had become the ward’s talk-of-the-day. They wanted to know if the paralysis had spread as far as my genitals. Luckily that area was unaffected, thanks for asking! After an exhausting night of test after test, the doctors were frustrated. The X-rays showed no fracture of the spine. There was no explanation of the reason for my paralysis, or an estimate of when, or if, my legs would ever function again. What they did notice was a slight movement of the lower vertebrae.

After being hospitalized for almost two months, there was no change in my condition. When it seemed pointless to keep me there, I was rolled home in my wheelchair — my new set of limbs. It turned out the doctors had planned it so that my hospitalization period would become a sort of practice and preparation for my new life. The life of a crippled sixteen year-old.

During my stay I could feel the doctors getting desperate, then losing hope in finding any cure for my condition. In a final effort to stimulate my nervous system they transmitted electrical currents through my legs right up until the day of my discharge. Then, declaring defeat put me in a wheelchair and sent me home to my new life. I did not return to the hospital, nor did I go back to school. I was an eleventh-grader whose only consolation was that, due to my new circumstances, I was exempt from doing homework or studying for exams.

My bedroom became the new social hub. From 8am till midnight my room was filled with school friends who came by to cheer me up. Sometimes I would have as many as twenty people at my bedside. I remember these days being so joyful and full of shared experiences; watching TV and movies together, gossiping about anyone and everyone, and my favorite activity of them all, making prank calls. But after a while I’d had enough. The glamour of doing nothing and missing school expired and I had to look reality in the eye. Despite my efforts to ignore the fact that I was paralyzed — life was providing me plenty of daily reminders. My close friends were going for their driver’s license’s and planning their vacations. They were taking their final exams, falling in love, and their visits became more and more sporadic. I on the other hand, was drawn more and more into a world of sickness of physiotherapy sessions with geriatric patients who had broken their pelvises or suffered from heart diseases, patients who had lost their physical capacities and needed to re-learn how to carry out simple tasks again. If that wasn’t enough, the cortisone shots I was given had completely deformed my body. This wasn’t how I imagined my teenage years.

SOMETIMES PEOPLE ASK ME
IF I WAS FEELING DEPRESSED
DURING THAT TIME.
MY ANSWER IS SIMPLE — I HAD
NO TIME FOR IT. I WAS TOO
BUSY PLANNING MY FUTURE.

Out of boredom — but mainly because I wanted to get back on my feet so badly, and wholeheartedly believed that it would happen — I took an old school notebook and titled it The List. I began writing plans for the following year, at the end of which I would turn seventeen.

The page was filled with an endless list of goals, ambitions and dreams. To start with I began writing down ones that were directly related to my paralysis, but without noticing it I got carried further and
further away in my imagination.

- Complete my final theatre exam
- Kiss for the first time
- Get a new computer
- Utilize my home stay to write a book
- Travel to London with my grandparents
- Perform in a musical by the time I’m 25
- Climb the Great Wall of China by the age of 30 [preferably with my grandmother, who had dreamt about doing it her whole life]
- Work as a journalist and get my own personal column
- Act in a TV show, similar to the American sitcoms I watch on TV
- Establish an arts-related business

Having filled out two full pages of things I wanted to achieve by the age of seventeen, I turned a new leaf and started writing down a new list for my eighteenth year. Then for my nineteenth year and so on, until I had reached the third and fourth decades of my life. In less than a week I had a notebook full of plans, dreams and goals to be accomplished and realized. Each time I had another idea for another goal, task or dream, I added it in the bottom of the relevant list. For example, on the ‘40-years-old’ page, I wrote ‘buy an apartment upfront’. Even at my tender age I understood that mortgage is a risky business so I had better start saving up! In three years I will turn forty, and I’m still working hard to achieve that goal I set for myself twenty years ago.

One day a teacher came by for a visit. She saw the notebook with my scribbles all over and wandered what it was all about. I proudly shared my ‘list’ idea and handed her the notebook. She wanted to understand the motives behind each goal I wrote down. So I explained each and every one, but the more I let my imagination go the sadder she became. I couldn’t help but notice the moisture building up in her eyes and the expression on her face, as if saying; “poor kid, not only is he physically paralyzed, he’s now going insane too. He’s completely lost any touch with reality”.

I must admit, she wasn’t the only one who felt that way towards me at the time. I got the same response from anyone who asked to read my notebook and found nothing in it but the unrealistic fantasies and pipe dreams of a young, disadvantaged boy.

Clearly, anyone in their right mind understands that you can’t perform in a musical in a wheelchair (although ‘Glee’ has since proven us otherwise) or climb the Great Wall of China. Journalism is also a job that requires mobility and independence, and was therefore deemed unrealistic. With the kind of medical restrictions I suffered, I clearly couldn’t work, earn money, establish a business or pay upfront for an apartment (that one is hard enough standing firm on both feet but that’s another story). Deep down though, I wanted to believe that one way or another I was going to realize all of these dreams.

Eventually, after 18 frustrating months of rehabilitation (including intensive and painful treatments) and long days of sitting in my wheelchair thinking and visualizing myself standing up again, and even giving interviews about my recovery story — I got on my feet and started walking. It wasn’t like in a Hollywood movie, where the war hero miraculously jumps out of his wheelchair and walks towards his one-true-love. It was a very long, exhausting and difficult process. I had to endure many pitying stares from total strangers who saw my friends pushing me around in a wheelchair. Gradually, and agonizingly slowly, I moved from the wheelchair to a walker cushioned with tennis balls, then onto crutches, until I was finally able to stand on my own legs and walk those first shaky steps.

I will never forget that first day I was able to leave the house and visit a friend. It was the strangest feeling. I remember walking down my childhood streets, aiming my body forward but somehow I was only moving diagonally. My brain needed to relearn how to direct my legs again.

I knocked on my friend’s door and when he opened it, we hugged, then went into his room as if it was a natural thing to do. It took him a minute before he realized I was actually standing on my own feet and he started screaming with excitement. When my doctors heard I was walking again they had no explanation for it. Some of them tried to attribute it to a medical phenomenon called ‘drop foot’, a kind of temporary paralysis caused by pressure inflicted by the vertebrae on the nervous system. Some doctors thought it a ‘medical miracle’, others believed it was the positive influence of oils and ointments that were massaged into my skin, or the religious charms and artifacts that were hung on my wheelchair.

One way or another, during those first days of spring, almost a year-and a-half after the accident, I was back to a fully functioning life. Lacking a thoroughly convincing medical explanation for the cause of my recovery,I happily gave the same answer to anyone who asked me what happened -

THE LIST I WROTE, WITH ALL THE DREAMS
I HAVE YET TO MATERIALIZE
IS WHAT MOTIVATED ME TO GET BACK ON MY FEET AND WALK
AGAIN. IT PRESENTED ME WITH GOALS AND FILLED
ME WITH HOPE THAT NOTHING WOULD
PREVENT ME FROM STANDING ON MY TWO FEET
AND ACCOMPLISH THEM.
MY LIST IS WHAT HELPED ME RISE UP FROM DESPAIR.

WHEN WE HAVE A DISTINCT GOAL WE ARE
EAGER TO ACHIEVE, NO ROAD IS TOO LONG
OR IMPOSSIBLE.


Yuval abramovtiz is the writer of book “The list — shout your dreams out loud to make them come true” (Skyhorse publishing). Yuval is an actor, radio host, writer and entrepreneur who also lectures on self fulfillment, entrepreneurship, creativity and courage. He has published eight bestselling books in israel including The list. He resides in Tel Aviv, Israel. The list is available in the book shops in the USA and Canada and on Amazon. For more info: Uv-tlv.com/en