Jim Harris can walk again—which is a big deal because a little over six months ago he was paralyzed from the waist down preparing to photograph a ski traverse in Patagonia. He now walks with a pair of trekking poles, with a small hitch in his step, and the toes of his right foot a little stubborn and sometimes dragging on the ground a little. But that’s improving, too.
For the past five months, he’s been a 20-minute drive away from my Denver apartment, working daily with a group of Craig Hospital physical and occupational therapists on the tiny steps in the miraculous process of getting his legs to move again after a spinal injury. I have been lucky enough to watch, from a distance, seeing him every week or two when I’m in town and facilitating “real-world rehab”—one week helping him move his right foot as he battled up the stairs at my apartment while another friend carried his wheelchair, the next time only carrying his walker because he wasn’t using the wheelchair anymore (FYI it’s now for sale on Craigslist). I have a filmstrip of memories of dropping him off at his apartment after dinner, watching him wheel into the front doors, then walking in the same doors leaning on a walker, then later walking with just the trekking poles. My role went from running around to the back of the car to get his wheelchair out and pop the wheel back on and roll it over to the passenger door, to not even bothering to turn off the engine while saying “I’m not getting the door for you” because he could do it himself.
It is an incredible thing, watching a person battle back from a paralyzing injury. People have done it before, and people have written about it before, and the determination, positive attitude, and sheer grit necessary to do it. We always say it’s inspiring, and we say that because it’s true. It’s a tremendous physical setback to have your legs taken out from underneath you and have an uncertain prognosis as to whether you’ll ever be able to use them again, and it provides a narrative we can all relate to, as well as a barometer for our own challenges.
Even though it was something everyone would rather never happened, Jim’s injury brought together a bunch of people to give time they didn’t think they had and gave them something they didn’t know they needed: inspiration to help in whatever way they can. Immediately following the accident, Jim’s brother, Kyle, set up a fundraiser to help bring Jim home from Chile and pay some of his hospital bills, and hundreds of people donated $107,000 in a matter of days. Hundreds more people sent cards, letters, and e-mails, and friends have visited from all over the country. The PTs and OTs at Craig have enabled him, pushed him physically, and helped him believe in every next step. Jim’s parents, Mary Pat and Jeff, have been with him almost every day since he returned to the U.S., helping him with nearly everything the first few weeks, and gradually less and less the more Jim regained control. We all love Jim’s adventure photos, but I think many of us love Mary Pat’s Facebook photos and videos of him slowly regaining mobility and balance just as much, if not a little more.
On Tuesday, I drove Jim to take his driving test at the Colorado DMV in my girlfriend’s car, which he had to operate left-footed until his right foot catches up. We talked about the freedom of finally getting to drive out of town with the windows down and the music loud, and Jim lamented that he probably couldn’t hang his left arm out the window because he’d be driving left-footed. I said, I think you will figure out how to make it work. Jim said, I don’t know, my body is turned the other way, so it’s kind of hard.
I said, You figured out how to walk again after being paralyzed. I’m pretty fucking sure you can find a way to drive with your arm out the window.
Jim will drive himself out of town sometime in the next few days, heading west, with the windows down and the music loud, closing a six-month chapter of his life but still facing challenges ahead. I can’t speak on how he feels and how difficult, strange, and emotional the whole experience has been for him and his family, but I can say that he has given a lot of people a reason to cheer, and help, in their own way, whether it was a Facebook comment, a donation, helping him take his first steps inside Craig Hospital, or holding a restaurant door for him as he walked through it with a pair of trekking poles in his hands. And I think we’re all still cheering.
[photo courtesy Mary Pat Harris]