Fear of the Unknown

Michael J. Lebrecht II for The Players'

You know how you can just cough, without even really thinking about it?

It’s a reflex. It just happens. But you could also do it right now if you wanted to.

Under your lungs you have this dome-shaped muscle, the diaphragm. It tightens when your brain tells it to, allowing you to suck down a bunch of air. And then your abs and your chest muscles get involved. They help you force all that air out — and maybe mucus, too, if you’re sick.

Sitting in a chair all the time, I don’t have that.

I don’t have the ab muscles and all the other muscles to help you cough. And your lungs actually deteriorate after you’re paralyzed, so you lose the ability to suck in air. When I get sick, it’s usually something like pneumonia because I just don’t have the lung capacity to either breathe deeply, or to clear out the nasty bacteria that’s in there.

Instead, the bacteria builds and builds. And then I need to have an assisted cough — where someone pushes on my stomach — just so I can clear out all the phlegm that’s in my lungs. They push my stomach over and over until it’s all gone.

So imagine having a cold, some kind of respiratory infection. That would present a lot of complications, right?

Now, imagine that that respiratory infection is the coronavirus.

A lot of people probably don’t know that, for me and other people living with paralysis, COVID-19 is especially dangerous. It’s pretty much a death sentence.

It’s been 10 years since I made the tackle that injured my spine.

Sometimes I think people don’t fully get what it means to be paralyzed.

They think, Oh, he’s just sitting down, he can’t move.

They don’t think about all the secondary complications. There are so many other things going on. There’s the lung issues. The bladder problems. The bowel program. Having to have nurses and aides come to see me every day, multiple times a day.

That’s probably the most misunderstood thing about spinal cord injuries. It’s not you break your neck or you break your back, and now you’re just sitting there.

Nahhh, it’s way more than that. That’s what makes it so difficult right now, with everything going on.

Because of the virus, a lot of paralyzed people have had to sacrifice the bulk of the help they were getting in order to protect themselves. Some people might have had three or four nurses a day coming to help them. And now they gotta think, Do I really want three or four nurses in my house every day?

It’s something that didn’t seem like a huge risk before, but now you just don’t know. Did one of them go someplace where they could have gotten it?

When the virus hit, it kinda took me back to my first week in the chair.

Before I built my foundation, Team LeGrand, and started working with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. Before the big events and meeting celebrities. Before I ever had a vision of what my life could look like, there was this fear. Not a fear of what I had lost, or a fear that I wouldn’t have a fulfilling life. It was a fear of the unknown.

And that’s where we’re all at now, collectively.

I keep saying that what’s crazy about this whole thing is that: The world kind of has a feeling now of what it’s like to be paralyzed.

Everything that once seemed like a given, something you could always count on, has been taken away from you. You’re like locked inside of your house, just like people who live with paralysis experience being locked inside of our bodies on a daily basis. Plus, there’s the fear of the unknown, of what the future holds.

I can say from experience that it’s tough, but you’ll figure it out.

Lean on your family. Lean on your friends. Put yourself out there. And when you need help, try not to be afraid of looking vulnerable.

If I was having a hard time my first week of being in the chair, my aunt would pray with me, or I would read letters from people. I would think about old times and talk about old stories that made me laugh.

That’s what I’m telling people to do now. Think about the old times, and be glad that you get to be with your family and friends and laugh about it.

Joke around.

Find something pleasurable that you can still do, whether that’s watching a TV show or putting together a puzzle or cooking in the kitchen.

Take that time you have with your family to enjoy yourself with them, and sit back and realize all the blessings that you have in your life.

Of course corona gotta happen on my 10-year anniversary, when things were supposed to be great. I had all these fundraisers and events planned to honor that moment in my life. Not gon’ lie, for a second that made me start thinking, Yeah, 10 years ago things weren’t so great. What made you think they’d be great now?

But I got myself out of that funk the same way that I did back then. I told myself, You gotta get through this. There’s other ways to make this stuff happen.

Our 10th annual walk, A Walk to Believe, which is a huge event for Team LeGrand every single year, is on June 6. And this year we’re going to do it virtually.

We’re challenging people to walk 3.1 miles in their own neighborhoods, or through a park, on a hike, or wherever. Then, at the end of the night, we’re gonna have a party on Facebook Live. And DJ Yoshi, who usually plays our events, will be there, too.

It’s gonna be different, but we’re gonna make the best of it.

We still gotta find ways to just enjoy life. That’s my secret.