Donnell was injured in 1996, during a game of pick-up football. In one instant, a hard hit and a broken neck left him paralyzed and unable to stand or walk. He has limited use of his arms and hands, but he can sit up on his own, and we have been working hard in intensive therapy sessions to help him regain more function.
What inspires me about Donnell is his spirit—always smiling, always upbeat, and always looking for the good in every situation. As a teenager, Donnell made some bad life choices that got him into trouble. And so his injury changed his life in more ways than one. Donnell uses the bad decisions that he made long ago, and the devastating injury that he sustained, as a tool to mentor young people, helping them to make smart and healthy choices in their own lives. He doesn’t let his past hang over his head like a black cloud; He doesn’t allow it to define who he is today.
Donnell and I, along with a physical therapist from our program, recently spent a Saturday morning with a group of young men from inner-city Baltimore. We were guest speakers at an event run by a volunteer, community organization, Mentoring Male Teens in the “Hood”. We’d been asked to talk about the physical therapy profession, including educational requirements and employment opportunities that these young men might want to consider in the future. Donnell was there to explain how physical therapy benefits him as a patient, but to this group of 33 teenagers, he offered so much more than that.
Donnell explained the circumstances which changed his body –and life–forever. He openly shared with them the bad choices that he had made when just 15 years old. He related to them, describing how he would hang out with boys from the neighborhood, doing things they shouldn’t have, just to make some money to buy a pair of tennis shoes.
But Donnell told them that he is not a product of his environment–he is a product of the choices he made. Back then those were bad choices, but today good choices are shaping his life. He explained that there were different decisions–legal, honest ones–that he could have made to earn money for the shoes and clothes that he wanted. Donnell expressed to these teenagers how he wished he could change the choices that he made at their ages, opting for a wiser route than the one that got him into so much trouble.
I had heard Donnell’s story before, but not in this depth and not with such a meaningful purpose. The teenage boys sat motionless, enthralled by every word. They asked Donnell questions, which he answered with grace and poise.
Donnell is one of my hardest-working patients. If we give him a task to perform at home, perhaps to build strength or skills, he practices it and returns to show us what he accomplished. If we are doing an exercise in therapy and ask him to do two more, he asks if he can do five more. It’s an inspiration to watch him with other patients in the clinic, as he talks and makes friends with everyone he meets. He encourages them to keep working hard and takes the time to notice and comment on the progress each patient makes from week to week. On the rare occasion that Donnell misses a therapy session, other patients often ask where he is.
Donnell has taken a bad situation and chosen to make the most of each day by inspiring others, striving to improve himself, and doing it all with a smile and a kind word. And so I don’t think of him as the person he says that he used to be, because I know him as the upstanding man who I see working hard to improve himself and brighten the lives of others each and every day.