Spinal cord injuries are now occurring later in life. The average age at injury in the US has been steadily increasing since 2010, and now stands at 42.6 years.
Nova and Don’s experience in coping tells a story that will resonate with many couples, and especially to seniors who are dealing with a new injury.
Making their way through sickness and health, Nova and Don have weathered the storm. Nova was injured in 2008, at the age of 62. Today, she is living with paraplegia and the love of her life.
There was a lot Nova’s Vietnam veteran husband was not prepared to face. Don says, “Her blood pressure was all over the place; I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of my wife. I needed to learn more. The doctors worked really hard with us. Things like…how do you turn their body, how do you hold them so they can sit in an upright position, how do you lift them? There were a thousand things that I wasn’t prepared for. I was scared.”
Nova saw it differently – especially at first. Nova shared her love story with us. The couple has known each other since their mid-twenties.
“Don and his first wife were actually my best friends from the time I was 20 years, old until we were in our mid-thirties,” Nova recalls. “Don worked with my first husband. Our families had a special friendship that became just as close as a family. We spent holidays together and shared many milestones.” Somewhere along the way, their friendship dissolved, and both couples divorced. But Don never forgot Nova.
“One day, Don and I got together for a cup of coffee to catch up on all that had transpired during the years we were not in touch with each other.
I can still feel the emotion that hit me as we sat with each other talking about so many painful things that had gone on with both of us. I listened with intensity and was looking into Don’s eyes as he was filling me in on what had gone on. He had custody of two of his three children and was working hard to handle multiple responsibilities. I also was going through a very painful divorce. We were both dealing with the termination of marriages that had lasted over 16 years. Don was also dealing with the effects of his life as a retired Special Forces Green Beret, who fought in the Vietnam War.”
“I was overwhelmed by the feelings of falling in love with Don during that time we were catching up with each other. My first husband was my high school sweetheart and the only man I had ever been in love with. So the experience I was having as I was talking with Don was exciting and very real.”
“I told him what I was feeling, and he told me that he had also been in love with me for a long time. This was shocking and made me feel like we sounded like a soap opera!”
“We got married six months after that cup of coffee. Don and I bit off a lot because both of our lives had major complications and we had many obstacles to deal with. We had five children between the two of us, and there were many problems to handle.”
“Some people may have assumed that we had an affair during our first marriages, but we did not. I do not think our commitment would have been able to survive had we been people who didn’t honor our commitments to those we made promises to.”
“With all of the stress and problems we were dealing with, there was no denying how madly in love we were with each other and how much passion and adoration was being felt. It was the first time in my whole life that I felt someone really loved me.
“It became clear to me that being respected, loved and valued, and that gave me the strength I needed to thrive – not just survive. I started my own company and became respected in the industry I worked for. I was a woman in a man’s world and grew in ways I never knew I could.”
Then, on April 15th, 2008, a sudden heart problem followed by lifesaving surgery left her with paraplegia.
“I have very fragmented memories about what was going on for about six weeks. I had two strokes during the surgery and was paralyzed from the breast down. It was a complete injury, and I knew I would never walk again.”
Nova proceeded with spinal cord injury rehabilitation. She needed to regain strength in her upper body in preparation for going home. During that time, she sustained a broken leg that needed surgery. She also developed a near-fatal pressure ulcer. “Don told me it was so bad — he could see my tailbone.”
“As days, weeks, months and years went by there were many layers of pain and problems. It all seemed never-ending and surreal. BUT throughout all of it, I had a pitbull for a husband who watched over every move anyone made with me.”
But nothing could really prepare Nova for how to deal with having her husband as a full-time caregiver at home. “He learned how to take care of the wound, which is a process the finest nurses find difficult; he learned how to change my catheter once a month; he monitored my blood pressure which was regularly out of control.”
“Don even learned how to administer the God-forsaken bowel program — which was the hardest test for me to deal with. I would cry after every treatment, and this did not stop for almost six months. The last time I cried, Don pulled me up and shook me and said in his powerful voice, ‘I love you, and you will die unless I take care of this; PLEASE let me do what I need to do!’”
“Don has continued to be my caregiver, and I know I am getting the best care ever. He still makes me feel like I am his Brazilian Queen — the love of his life.”
“And it was Don who facilitated the healing process. I got very strong in rehab, then returned to work, cleaned my house, cooked Thanksgiving dinner for 37 people and Don and I even became peer counseling volunteers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Life Center. I was paralyzed, but I was a whole, dignified and productive human being. As hard as I worked to make this growth happen, I attribute the love and care I got from Don as the primary variable.”
“Every day of our new life with each other the second time around has been filled with care and devotion and daily living that is filled with passion and dedication to the vows we took as man and wife. I am so proud of that — and blessed to have the love of my life loving me in the way that only he can.”