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Q&A: How did you handle going back to work?
Returning to a Job After a Spinal Cord Injury
Before my accident, I was a water well driller, and we drilled a lot of wells for a backhoe company. The owner of the backhoe company, after my accident, came to me with a job, since I couldn't drill water wells anymore. He has money and no time, and I have time and no money. So, I went in and started running a pet cemetery for him. It’s like a cemetery for people, only it’s for animals. We bury them, we also do the cremations, we have caskets and headstones, and I meet with customers, and take care of all that.
I actually ended up staying home. I was working, but I had to quit doing that. I tried to do that for a while, I tried to keep my job, I tried to work nights and then be super mom and eventually, I just, I couldn't do it anymore. So, I had to quit my job and stay home.
I did, I went back three weeks after his accident. I didn’t know what bills were going to look like and I didn’t know what I needed to do. So, I figured I had to go back and kind of just make sure that we still had a steady income until he had some long-term disability that was going to kick in. But I needed to make sure that we were taken care of, so I went back to work three weeks after his accident. I think I helped him feel okay about it, I don’t think—I didn’t give him a lot of opportunity to focus on that might be hard for me because I wanted him to focus on rehab and just getting better. So, it was hard for me, but I try not to give him opportunity to feel sorry for me about it because he has more important things to worry about at the time.
I transitioned back to work very slowly. I started off two days-a-week working six hours-a-day, and then I slowly added an hour on. I can’t remember if I had an hour in the morning or the afternoon. I worked from 10:00 to 4:00 in the beginning because again it was hard to get up in the morning. I’m not a morning person at all. And then I would go in at 9:00, and then I started working 9:00 to 5:00, and then I would add a day. Took me a year and half to work up to fulltime, so to work 40 hours-a-week. And I still take a half day on Friday, but I work such long work hours during the week, Monday through Thursday that it makes up for it.
Oh it was horrible, it was horrible, I wanted to quit. I'm a police officer, a detective, and my friends and co-workers really gave me a lot of support, and gave me a lot of time to get it together. I was fortunate, I had a, more of an inside job, so that it took, I had the time to ease back into the street work. I'm a big gun enthusiast and I like to shoot, target shoot mostly, but it took me a long, it took me almost year to even want to discharge my weapon. But once I went through a simulation exercise, I was fine after that. It was just; I just had to go through it. Just like sometimes people have to go back to the scene of where their accident was, same thing. I just had to, just do it.
I started back part-time in May of ’97, and then I kind of went back full-time, in, it was like August of ’97. So it was almost a full year I was out between, you know, hospital and rehab. And, part of me really looked forward to going back to work because I really enjoyed the job; I’ve worked at McDonalds since I was 16 years old. So I was one of those guys that’s got the ketchup in the veins and everything. And I really enjoy the job that I do. And so, going back to work was a pleasure that way. It was a little scary the other way, because I didn’t know all what to expect, and I think people didn’t know how to work with me and such. My insurance carrier, it was actually my insurance carrier that suggested someone come out and do a little class for my whole department, which was about 40 people, of how to kind of work with people in wheelchairs, and that was great.
When he was first injured, like I said, I probably didn’t work for the first three to four weeks. And then, I would go in for a few hours, and then go to the hospital. And then, when he came home, I started probably, went up to about four hours, three or four days a week. But, like I said, I was just lucky that I had a company that let me do that. I don’t know what I would have done if I had to go back full time at some point, or how we would have handled all that. But slowly—I can’t’ even tell you that I’m full time because technically I’m not right now, but I do put in about 40 hours a week.
She started off part time as an intern, and then she really felt that she could work a little bit longer. Now, she is not full time yet, but they are thinking about hiring her full time. So, she's working a lot more hours, and she feels like physically she can handle it, mentally of course she can handle it, but physically now she can handle a little bit more hours, so she's thinking about going into full time.
I was in rehab for a month, I came home for two weeks to adjust to the new house and getting things together, and then I went back to my private practice. A lot of people came up to me during that time and said, “so are you going to retire from work?” And I’m like, “why? I’ve been sitting in a chair for 25 years talking to people about their problems, what’s the difference? I now have wheels, I actually go faster than I used to.” So, and they’re like “oh, we never thought of that.” So, I went right back to my practice, and there were some, because I see children they were some parents that were concerned about how their children would react with me being in a wheelchair. And we found out very quickly that it was the parents that had more of a problem with that, the kids were fine. So, it went very well, it’s a very easy adaptation for me to be able to do that, and for a lot of people my clients are appreciative of the fact that they see me overcoming obstacles every day. And they’re like, you know, “if you can do that from a wheelchair, I can certainly figure out how to talk to my spouse better.” And so, it almost encourages them to kind of jump in there and get started on things.
I wanted to go back to work, so I was ready to go. So, there was no trepidation like a lot of folks might have. Like, “Oh, are they going to like me?”—“Are they going to be okay with me being disabled?”—“Is the chair going to be an issue?” I was just ready to go back to work.
I have literally just deposited Nico at school, so no, not yet. Right now, it’s actually been a very bizarre, monumental Earth shift for me. From going from 24/7, 365 dedication to running his care, to suddenly just being a mother, who has two kids in school and one in college. So, I’m beginning to think about going back to work, but it’s been a radical shift to a degree I was not expecting.
Going back to work was, fortunately they remodeled the office several years before, and they did it wheelchair accessible. So, I had access to bathrooms, and stairs, and everything so the transition was easy. Plus, a hundred-times-a-day the first few weeks somebody would stop by and say, “can I help you, can I bring you something?” And I would always say, “I appreciate that, but I need to learn to do it myself.” So, just learning whatever situation that you’re in, whether it’s work, or home, or going to the bathroom in a service station, just those things you just have to keep doing them.
It was interesting to see how, in my work place, how inaccessible a lot of things were, which was fascinating especially being that we were a construction company. But at the same time, I think just the rigor of schedule, and recognizing that there’s not a lot of flexibility in my ability to get what I need to get done done, took some getting used to. And, the fatigue that set in initially, and just trying to get through the day sitting in the chair all day really took some effort. And as most things, over time it got better, and, you know, things got easier, and, as you’re busy, the day passes. But I didn’t get treated any differently.
I used to be a union cement mason, and I had my own business on the side, too. At that time, I was strictly one trade; I did concrete work, that’s it, although I knew all phases of the trades. So, the difference was I couldn’t push somebody out of the way and do the work myself. Whereas before, if somebody wasn’t doing the something the way I wanted them to, or they were doing it too slow, I’d say, “Get out of my way,” and I would do it myself. I couldn’t do that any more. Well, it took me a couple years to figure out what I wanted to try to do with myself, and I’d actually had somebody approach me and ask me what I was doing. It was a gentleman that I had a barrier-free track ceiling system put in my house. And I said, “I don’t know, I was thinking about maybe trying to do some consulting for people that needed to do remodeling, or rehabs or build a home. Instead of then hiring a general contractor, I could some consulting for them.” And he thought that I would be perfect for stuff like that, and he deals with people on a day-to-day basis with wheelchairs and elevators. So he actually got me started, he was giving me referrals for work. Last year, I finished building a house, the year before that, I did six bathroom remodels, and started building a house, which kept me fairly busy.
I did go back to work, which was a good thing, because I was thinking about not going back to work, and staying home with him. And he was encouraging me to stay home, and then my friend said, “That’s not good for either one of you. You both need to have your own lives.”
The first step to going back to work was to determine what I could do now that I couldn’t be a carpenter any more. And, back 35 years ago, computers were kind of an up-and-coming thing, if people can relate to that today. And, I hadn’t gone to college; I went right into construction work from high school. I decided to go back to school. So, here I was in my early 30s, going to college for the first time with a bunch of 18-and 19-year-olds, which was an eye opening experience to say the least. And, I took some computer courses, and so I got an Associate Degree. I had a relative who owned a construction supply company, so I went to work in the office for him for many years, and I actually became the controller of the company, because I knew, numbers was my life, if you will. And so, I did accounts payables, receivables, you know, and that type of thing. It was a pretty fulfilling career for many years.
For me, it was an interesting question to go back to work. I kept being asked, certainly by an insurance company, when are you going to go back to work? In my case, I had no work to go back to, which made it even more complicated, because we closed my jewelry store three months after this happened. So, it really became a case of not just when to go back to work, but what did I want to do with my life? That was not a quick, easy question to answer. So, I spent a lot the time after my injury doing lots of things, volunteering, trying things out. I did a lot of public speaking at the hospital that I was treated at, did some work in fundraising, and some other volunteer work until I could really think of what I might want to do next. My work as a volunteer fundraiser at here at Magee was pretty successful. I guess they figured, as we joke around 12 years later and say, “I guess I did a pretty good job as a volunteer, what I could do if they paid me?” And, almost 12 years later, it’s been a great second career for me. I get the opportunity to raise money to help people changes lives, and I get to see the impact of the work I do every single day.
I had this great mentor at the time, and he’s like, “Darren, what you really need is corporate experience.” He’s like, “Go out and get a job, I don’t care where it’s at, get a job.” I literally went down the Fortune 500, and applied to every single company on the list, and I made that my job for, like, six months. And in the end, like after company 275, because I was very focused by that time too, because I was like so disgusted with the way I had kind of squandered my education as a youth. And also, really overall this waste of time in my 6-8 years in between ’93-2000 when I went back to school finally. By the time I finished school, I was on a mission, right. And I had an offer from Aetna in Alpharetta, Georgia, or Boeing in Anaheim, California, and I’m like, “Well, you know, Anaheim is a little closer that Alpharetta,” so went and got a job at Boeing. I was on the ICBM Missile Guidance Replacement Program—which sounds really fancy—working on the program management team. So I was in the finance group and, with herds of engineers, doing 80 guidance systems a year for the government, and it was our job to make sure that basically they were billing the right program, report back, and do all the reporting stuff in the finance group. I was a business and planning analyst, and I was doing a lot of Excel-based work, and working with my little group. But it showed me that I could do a corporate job, and I could actually do pretty well because I was focused—thank God for technology, right? So, I was able to really just kind of do circles around these, like you know, sorry, older folks, that were used to doing the research slide rules and everything, instead of the Excel stuff. So I was a pretty good member of the team, and I was able to go pretty fast.
I was so excited to go back to work. Everyone was like, “you came back so soon.” I think I was in rehab for like a month or so, but as soon as I left Shepherd, I was ready to go back. My boss was like, “are you sure?” I was like, “yeah.” I mean, I was ready to get back to normal, I was just ready to go back. I was ready to dive right in because it’d been hospital, rehab, and that kind of thing. I was just ready to go back.
Before my injury, I was a stay-at-home mom, thought about working was something that was never in my mind. And, I was very happy with that and I never thought I had to work for a living as crazy as that sounds. But, after my injury, when my husband died, I had to change my way of thinking because it was "have to" not "want to." And I started working because I needed healthcare because I did not qualify for any assistance. So, for me, I needed to have health insurance for my family when my COBRA ran out. And so, for me, it wasn't like, "Oh, what am I good at?" It was more like, "Where can I get a job that will give me 17.5 hours?" And I kind of started off with that. Bcause it didn't matter how much I got paid, my objective was to get health insurance for me and my kids because of pre-existing conditions. It was just too expensive to get healthcare privately.
After Molly's accident, it was probably closer to a year and a half before I went back. And I went back very slowly, only one-day-a-week, it was really only actually a half-day a week. And everyone was very kind; it took a little while for me to get into the swing of things. I spent a long time with every patient, because every patient wanted to know what had happened. And it went okay. I think at that point I was ready; it was a relief actually to get out of the house and to be able to focus on something else. And I hadn't realized that I had always looked at work as being another burden that I'd have to negotiate, and I realize in retrospect that at some points it was a relief, and it gave something else to do. So if I had it to do over again, I think I would have gone back a little sooner, and maybe worked a little more at the beginning. I think it was helpful.
So, after my injury, and my rehab stay, and my first tastes of confidence, and my building momentum to try to get my life together, I felt like I needed to go back to work as quickly as possible. I needed to be engaged in normal activities, things that felt like my life. So, after my discharge I went home, I struggled for a little while. I started to build confidence and to keep that confidence building, I felt like I needed to get back in some kind of normal activities that felt like my life. So, I needed to go back to work. I went back to my regular job, selling motorcycles and pitching motorcycles to people. And it gave me an opportunity to address the challenges of daily life with spinal cord injury. My employers were very generous with me and understood that maybe I would show up at my regular time, but maybe something would happen and I would need to leave early. And they said that would be just fine, and they didn’t even ask me for the details of what I might be talking about, which gave me a sense of self respect because they were willing to respect me regardless, which bolstered my sense of self respect, which was challenged by this injury. I stayed doing this type of work for about a year, and it became quite evident that it wasn’t a good fit anymore. While I enjoyed the opportunity to be in that normal environment for myself, I was the reason you didn’t want to ride a motor cycle. It’s hard to market and sell something when you represent the purchaser’s worst fear. So, given these circumstances, I started to consider my other options. I had been involved in the mentoring program at Shepherd’s Center all throughout that year, and a position became available and I applied for it. It just fell into place. So, the heaven’s opened up and the opportunity dropped out for me. It was perfect.
I’m an attorney, so I still work as an attorney. Now, when I did the return to work I did use, I reached back out to Shepherd because that was who I knew. And they were able to connect me with someone who helped me with the return to work process. And I’m sure in most states, they give you resources to help with return to work, I was connected with Georgia’s resources and that helped the process. They came into my office, helped me figure out what kind of equipment I would need to be able to work effectively. So, I’m pretty close to doing the full level of duties that I had before. I’m not all the way back in the courtroom, but I’m slowly inching my way back into the courtroom.
I mean I learned to type with my left hand, and computers freed up my awful handwriting from, you know, trying to make notes. But as far as driving, I drove with my left foot, and I walked with a crutch and a brace. So, the adaptations were next to none.
I find commercials and personal appearances for star athletes. I was very lucky that I have a company that loved me, loves the history that I brought to them, knows the value that I brought to them. And they welcomed me with open arms, and they understand that I can't be in the office every day, but I've got my email groove down pat. In our business, the phone and writing is the most critical part of communication, and I'm able to do that. By the time—I mean really did not work in the literal sense for about a year and a half, but my colleagues were coming to the hospital, and I would go through a contract and sign it. And I was negotiating deals via my colleagues in the hospital. So nobody left me off the hook from the start, which was their way of contributing to my, you know, my staying sane around them