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Never Tell Me Never

Being told I wouldn’t walk again could have meant the beginning of the end.
February 23, 2016

On the morning of April 26, 2014, I began my daily stretching routine. I lifted my left leg up onto a stair. My right leg collapsed. I landed flat on my back. In the blink of an eye, a blow to my third cervical turned me into a Christopher Reeve knockoff. I spent the next 33 days at Massachusetts General Hospital.

On April 30 I underwent a 9.5-hour operation to relieve the pressure on my spine. Ten days after that, a surgical infection required another 3.5-hour operation. My heart stopped. Then it restarted. The word on the ward was that I wouldn’t make it. At 78 I was too old.

A week after the operation a resident doctor came into my room. I’d never seen him before. I still don’t know who he was. He stood at the foot of my bed and told me that while the operation was a success, I would never walk again.

Now, almost two years after my accident, I’m walking.

“Fuck you,” I said to myself. To him, I said, “I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I know it isn’t what you want to hear,” he said. “It’s best to be realistic in situations like yours.”

Now, almost two years after my accident, I am walking with the aid of a walker, thanks to the therapists who worked with me. I can even climb stairs in the gymnasium.

When the doctor told me I would never walk again, he was armed with all the badges of authority: a name tag, a white coat, a stethoscope hanging from the breast pocket, a clipboard. None of that mattered. He had no idea who I was. How could he possibly know what I was capable of? Predicting my future according to probabilities displayed in some long-term study was silly. I didn’t believe it for a minute. Probability is just a complicated way of saying, “I don’t know for sure.” Being from MIT, I learned one thing a long time ago: “Don’t say it. Prove it.”

An MIT friend once asked me how I managed to maintain my optimism, determination, hope, and humor in the face of these trials. It’s a good question.

As soon as I was able to think straight, I started writing a book. It was a coping mechanism. It kept depression at bay. In the face of a kind of death, I managed to conjure up a kind of birth. I focused my attention on something other than myself.

I love life. I find people and things—everything from music and museums to the latest electronic gadgets and, of course, food—extraordinarily interesting and occasionally very beautiful. Wines can be superb, and making love—yes, even at my age—can be sublime. I want to enjoy them as long as I can. I wasn’t angry with that doctor. I was angry with my body. I determined to do everything I possibly could to keep the root cause of my predicament, a dangerously narrow spinal column, from getting away with it.

My wife, Nancy, visited me every day, even those days when I was dead to the world. I was determined to walk again for her sake as much as my own.

What do writing a book, being angry with a body that snatched me away from a wonderful life, and having a wife like Nancy have in common? They all gave me something to work for. If you don’t have something to look forward to—a book, a stronger body, a wife who doesn’t have to be a caregiver, too—then what is the point?

I would be lying to myself and to the reader if I didn’t add that luck played a major role in my recovery. I was lucky to be living in a city with one of the world’s best trauma hospitals, MGH. I was lucky to have served in the United States Air Force 50 years ago and was therefore eligible to be admitted to one of the country’s best rehabilitation centers for spinal cord injury, the VA hospital in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. I was lucky that my care at the hospital was untrammeled by the dictates of an insurance company. Money never ran out because money was never in the picture to begin with. I was just plain lucky.

Once in a conversation with a VA doctor, I referred to myself as a tetraplegic.

“You are not a tetraplegic,” he said. “You are Samuel Jay Keyser with tetraplegia. Don’t ever allow yourself to be defined by your disease.”

I live by that dictum.

Samuel Jay Keyser, a professor emeritus of linguistics and special assistant to the chancellor, recently finished a book titled Memoir of a Man Who Would “Never Walk Again.”