It was the morning of April 26, 2014. I was doing my normal exercises, ones that I’d done countless times before. All of a sudden, my leg just gave way and I fell flat on my back onto a rug. Had it happened to a normal person, it would have simply knocked the air out of them, but it turns out that my spine was not a normal spine. In fact, the neurosurgeon told me that it was the crappiest spine he’d ever seen.
When I hit the ground, my head bounced and compressed the spine. In an instant, my life changed completely. I might have died, but my wife was home and she said, “Don’t panic” and called 911. What I realized much later was that I was rushing toward 24/7 care (for the next seven months) but Nancy was rushing to no help at all.
I have virtually no memory of the next 33 days. I was operated on for nine and a half hours, and there is a nine inch scar from the base of my skull down through my shoulder blades. It got infected, and I had to have another three and a half hour operation.
One week later, a doctor comes into my room. He stood at the foot of my bed. He had a clipboard, a stethoscope, he had a name tag, a white coat and all the accoutrements of authority, and he said, “Mr. Keyser, your operation was a success, but I’m sorry to tell you that you’ll never walk again.”
Now, when he said that to me, what I said inside my head was, “Fuck you.” What I said to him was, “I’m sorry to hear that.” My wife tells me that when he left the room, the nurse gave him hell for making such a statement, but I can tell you that when he made that statement to me I never believed him for an instant. How, in the world, could he possibly know? The only way he could know is because of statistics, but probabilities are simply a complicated way of saying we don’t understand. He had no idea who I was or what I could do or couldn’t do—and neither, for that matter, did I.
My recollection of the 33 days in the hospital can be represented by five or ten photographs pinned on a cupboard, just flashes of memory. I must have been depressed, but I was never aware of it. Friends would come to visit me at the VA hospital in West Roxbury, and when they would leave, I would start to cry. They had come from the real world and I was stuck there in a hospital ward surrounded by other wounded people.
I was in the hospital for six and a half months. Looking back on it, it was absolute hell. But when I was living it, it wasn’t terrible at all. I was focused on what I was going to do next, how many steps I could take, and meeting all of these goals.
Now I no longer use the wheelchair at home. I sit in a normal chair and I go from chair to chair with a walker. This morning I was sitting at my desk and when the time came to come here, I wondered if I could walk without the walker. So I let go of it and I took three steps. Those were the first three steps I’ve taken since April 26, 2014.
Look, I’m 80 years old. I’ve been married to Nancy for fifteen years, and we were together as a couple for ten years before that. I’d been in an unhappy marriage, and now the end of my life was absolute glory. I was constantly telling my friends: who would have ever guessed that the end game would have been the best game? This was a perfect woman for me. We were soul mates; we would travel together, do everything. It was just wonderful, and then this accident. The worst thing about an accident like this is that your partner becomes a participant in your disease. If you love your partner, you don’t want that to happen.
I can tell you that I wish this had never happened to me, but it is not an unqualified bad that it has. I can go, in my head, to a ward in a hospital in West Roxbury where there are people without legs, without arms, and I can understand what they’re going through. It’s made me a different human being.
I see a man limping down the street. He’s got long hair, he’s disheveled, he’s carrying plastic grocery bags in each hand and he’s limping. I don’t say to myself, “Look at that poor schlub.” I say, “There’s someone who’s found out how to cope.” I’ve learned something I would never have learned before.
The main reason for my success—if you call this success, and I think you should, my wife is unfettered, she’s out shopping now, not worrying about me—is luck. Luck, pure and simple. I was lucky to have had an accident in a town where there was one of the best trauma hospitals in the world. I was lucky to have served in the United States Air Force in 1965 which made me eligible to be admitted to one of the best spinal cord injury wards in the country; I was the grand recipient of socialized medicine.
Across the street from me a building is going up. I watched this from the very beginning. I watch them excavate the basement, digging out dirt that hasn’t been touched since the ice age. They put up the slurry walls, dig out the mud. Then, they start laying the first floor, then the second, the third and then they start pouring the concrete. I watch these guys on cranes that are 12 stories high moving huge beams into place. It’s just a ballet of excellence.
After watching it for a year, I realized two things. One is that I identified with this building. As the building is getting stronger so am I. Then, I stopped thinking about myself and I just started thinking about the building. One day I go online and I look for Turner Construction. I want to tell them how good their workers are. I sent an email to the VP of Communication in New York City, saying I happen to live across the street, and I’ve watched these workers putting up this building. I want you to know that it’s been a pleasure. I feel as if I’m sitting every day in the front row seat of a world class performance.
Apparently, he sent it to somebody here in Boston who sent it to the superintendent of the building. He emails me and says, “I’d like to give you a tour of the building.” I say to him, “Unfortunately, I’m in a wheelchair, but how about coming over to the apartment and seeing the building from my perspective? Maybe you’d enjoy that.” He said, “I’d love to.” He comes over. He brings me a construction helmet with Turner on the front, an American flag in the back and label that says Professor Keyser. I wear it around the house.
We’re sitting and we’re talking. At some point in the conversation I said, “Mike, how did you get this job?” He says, “Well, the truth is they asked me to be on this job because of the job I did before it.” I said, “Well, what was that?” He said, “I supervised the building of an extension to a hospital. It was probably the best building I’ve ever worked on. There’re 28 operating rooms in this hospital,” he said. I said, “Where is it?” He said, “It’s the Lunder Building at MGH, do you know it?” I said, “My life was saved in one of those operating rooms.”
Now, what do you conclude from this? We live in a village, but we don’t know it. There are literally 1,000 people who are responsible for my being able to sit and talk to you now in this animated fashion. I don’t know who they are to thank.
I’m going to be playing my trombone at Kresge tomorrow night. It’ll be my fifth concert. I’ve already played a gig up at Plymouth State, and on the 2nd of May I’m doing a nursing home in Amesbury with a Dixieland band because I want people in the nursing home to see somebody in a wheelchair having fun.
Samuel Jay Keyser is Peter de Florez Emeritus Professor of Linguistics and former associate provost of MIT. He has recently completed the manuscript of a book entitled “Memoir of a man who would ‘never walk again’,” to be published in the near future.