By Adam Klein
After graduating from Gloucester County College with an associate’s degree in criminal justice in 2005, I was unsure where I wanted to go from there. I decided I would enlist in the U.S. Airforce. I went to a recruiter and was told that I weighed too much, 214 pounds, and I would need to get down to at least 186 pounds before I would be eligible for enlistment.
I told the recruiter I would return in two months. She gave me a look that said she doubted my time table. But as in other areas of my life, when I’m told I cannot or I will not, I double down. Losing the weight was grueling, but whether through determination or sheer stubbornness, I did it. By the end of the two-month period, I went back to the recruiter weighing 165 pounds. She was surprised, to say the least.
The MOS I chose was military police, mainly because I wanted to do something in law enforcement in the privatesector. Boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base (AFB) in Texas felt like a whirlwind. Looking back, I can say I enjoyed the chance to push myself and grow. After boot camp, my technical school was also located at Lackland. I have fond memories of my time there, learning life lessons and meeting fellow airmen who would become dear friends—some went on to be stationed at my first duty station at Peterson Airforce Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Colorado was a beautiful place, and I enjoyed experiencing all the seasons—sometimes all in one day! My unit was the 21st Security Forces Wing. I had what is referred to as a Panama schedule, which gave me two or three days off at a time. I was fortunate to be able to visit different sites around the base, such as Seven Falls and the Garden of the Gods. I loved hiking and mountain climbing—anything that allowed me to be out in nature.
I enjoyed both my time at work on the base and the time I was able to explore the wonders around me. However, that all changed on July 3, 2006. Scheduled to go on deployment within the next few weeks, I was enjoying some time off with my fellow unit members. We decided to go to a local bar for some fun and socializing. I was the designated driver for one of my friends, so I stuck with soda for the evening. Everything was normal until the end of the evening, when a fight broke out between some of the people at the bar. As everyone was exiting the bar, I felt a sudden tingle go up my spine. I was unaware of what was happening and suddenly my right arm went limp. I was in a state of shock, and the person I was driving suggested that maybe it was a pinched nerve. He offered to let me stay at his place and see if it would be better in the morning. Even in my state of shock, I knew I wanted to drop him off and get back to my base. Looking back, of course, I realize I should have gone directly to the hospital, but that is why people say “hindsight is 20/20.”
Back in my room on the base, I could tell my right leg was starting to go limp as well. I knew I needed to get help. I called my fellow security forces on duty and requested an ambulance. The officers arrived at my room and immediately assumed I was intoxicated. I tried to explain that I’d had nothing to drink—I was having a medical emergency. When the EMTs arrived, they too believed I must be drunk. As they transported me to the hospital, I felt as if I were sliding off the bottom edge of the stretcher—I kept trying to push myself back up. I was also making an unusual noise, which prompted hospital staff to request that the officers administer a breathalyzer test to determine my alcohol level. Not surprisingly, the test registered 0.0, and the staff finally realized that this was a medical, not an alcohol-related, emergency. The last thing I remember that night was heading over to get a CAT scan. It turns out, I was making that unusual noise because I was losing the ability to breathe on my own. Before I reached the CAT scan machine, I sank into a coma and woke up a full week later to my family from New Jersey standing around my bed.
The first thing I noticed was that I was hooked up to several machines; within an instant, I had a horrible realization. I couldn’t move any part of my body except my eyes. One of the machines was a breathing machine, as my lungs were not strong enough to allow me to breathe on my own. At that point, I broke down and started to cry—I was scared, confused, and angry. My doctor didn’t know what was wrong with me at first. A week passed before he diagnosed me with acute transverse myelitis, a crippling inflammation of the spinal cord that affects the entire central nervous system. The disease is so rare that only about 1,000 people in the world are affected by it. My doctor only diagnosed it as quickly as he did because he’d seen a case of it when he was a resident 20+ years ago. The prognosis was not good, as those who are affected with the disease are usually put into one of three categories: one-third tends to recover with minimal lasting issues, a second third only recovers partial mobility, and the last third tends to never recover their mobility. My odds were even worse, because I initially experienced an acute version of the disease.
After the initial shock wore off, I forced my mind to go back to my military training. I was not going to let this situation beat me. I was in the ICU for four weeks before I was removed from the ventilator. Doctors performed a tracheostomy so I could talk and attempt to start eating again. In another week and a half, I finally I regained the use of my arm. At that point, I felt some hope that I was going beat this, regain the use of my body, and fully recover. I knew the journey was not going to be easy, but I kept reminding myself that I was a soldier and I would overcome this. I also was blessed to have the support of my family—both by blood and my service brothers and sisters. After eight weeks in the ICU, I was flown to a rehab center in northern New Jersey.
The rehab place was known for its work with spinal injuries. They classified my injury as a C4 incomplete spinal cord injury. During most of the days in rehab, I was stuck in bed because of a stage-four pressure ulcer. To help the ulcer heal, I was given a Clinitron® therapy bed, which is made up of sand that is constantly heated and moving to promote healing. The bed was very hot, however, so I eagerly awaited my therapy sessions, my one chance a day to get up out of bed. I was always dressed and waiting in my wheelchair. One day, I waited and waited, but no one came to pick me up. Able to use only my left arm and left leg, I slowly wheeled myself to my therapy session one foot at a time. I was not going to miss that session! When I finally arrived, my therapist asked, “Who brought you down here?” I replied, “No one. I didn’t want to miss my session, so I wheeled myself.” He couldn’t stop laughing and said, “Well, I guess you don’t need to work out today, after getting yourself here.” I first gave him a hard stare, then laughed and told him, “Like hell, I’m still getting my session!” After that, the therapist never sent anyone to push me. I admit I was then and still am very stubborn, but I have always understood that many people in our lives can help us push ourselves, we must be willing to take the first steps and keep going when the road gets long and hard. I believe we need to keep pushing until we’re six feet under or, in my case, seven feet under, because I will crawl out if given the chance!
I was in the rehab center for a little more than four months before I could go home. It was the Friday before Christmas. I was very happy to go home, even if still in a wheelchair and using the special hospital bed for my pressure ulcer that was still healing. I was not naïve—I knew the transition was going to be difficult because of my neurological issues, but I also knew I’d progressed far enough to move to the next stage of my recovery. Living in my parents’ home again had its own set of challenges. While they were willing and able to offer space and support, it took time and effort to get used to asking for assistance with basic needs. Life has a way of keeping us humble and allowing us to realize how fragile we are.
I continued therapy to regain strength and mobility. I truly believed I would overcome this disease and return to the Air Force. Statistically, studies show that people who have faith in their recovery are more likely to have a better outcome than those who believe recovery is unlikely. I remember that my first neurologist, an older physician, told me I would probably never walk again or progress much further in my recovery. He told me and my parents that he would be trying to simply ensure that I did not degrade further. While I was angry and taken aback by this, it fueled my decision to find another doctor who would be an active part of my support system, regardless of the prognosis.
While still working with outpatient therapy, I decided that no matter what my future held, I wanted to help others and find meaning for my own life. I decided to go back to school to earn a bachelor of science in human services management. Because I was still in a wheelchair, I elected to attend my classes online, but I wanted to be able to walk to accept my diploma. For the next few years, my life consisted of two main tasks: working on my degree and pushing myself physically. Even when my insurance decided I had plateaued and they would no longer pay for my therapy, I joined a gym and hired a personal trainer. When the day came to graduate, my twin brother, who was also graduating with his bachelor of arts, walked with me down the aisle, and I accepted my degree on my own terms, on my own two legs.
It took a few more years of working on my mobility before I could walk without a cane. Around that time, I was feeling deeply grateful for my support system, and I decided I wanted to provide that same support to others. I enrolled in Rutgers University–Camden’s social work master’s program. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to pay for the program, because I’d used my G.I. Bill funds. At Rutgers, veteran liaison Fred Davis showed me how to access additional funds available to veterans with disabilities. Fred not only helped me get reimbursed for the year of tuition I paid but also introduced me to fellow student veterans who provided much-needed emotional support. These other soldiers understood the stressors and conditions I’d gone through and still struggled with. Rutgers has a strong understanding of the veteran experience, and its faculty works hard to make supportive resources available. Rutgers has a real stake in the success of their veteran students, and it shows.
During the second year of my master’s program, I interned at the Philadelphia Veteran Medical Center—this was exactly the population I wanted to serve. Working with some of the veterans, I sensed resistance until they learned I was a fellow veteran. Then their whole demeanor changed and their guard went down. My experiences at the medical center reinforced my belief that I was meant to work with fellow veterans and individuals with disabilities. Graduating from Rutgers University was one of the proudest days of my life. Without Fred Davis and my fellow veteran students, the road to that diploma would have been much more difficult.
One of my other passions is learning about different cultures and places. During my summer break, I backpacked through Europe to see how other people lived, experiencing the world I hoped to improve. Although my mobility was still a challenge, I refused to allow it to hinder the pursuit of my goals. My disability would not be an inability—I would focus instead on my abilities. My 30 days in Europe was only the first of many times that I would discover how strong I was when I challenged myself.
After graduating, I applied for a two-year fellowship position in a congressional office through the Wounded Warrior Program. Three weeks later, I received an employment offer, and I was thrilled. Not only would I have the chance to work on behalf of a great program, but I would also be working as a veteran case manager in the office of Congressman Donald Norcross, from the 1st District in New Jersey. I already knew that Congressman Norcross was passionate about the care and treatment of veterans, as well as the working class. I was excited to be working under his leadership.
Over the next two years, I learned about veteran needs and the resources they could receive through a congressional office. If our office was unable to assist, we made every effort to find out who could. I also met with other organizations and individuals who were working to improve the lives of veterans. The time I spent in that position gave me a better perspective on the needs of my fellow veterans and the laws and policies being suggested to find those resources and solutions. As the fellowship came to an end, I still had my passion to serve veterans, and this time I wanted more of a one-on-one experience. Fortunately, I was offered a veteran service officer position at the New Jersey Camden County Office of Veteran Affairs, where I could still help veterans access the resources for their individual situations. My future plans are to further my mobility, enhance my knowledge in the service of my fellow veterans and people with disabilities, and finally prove that having a disability should never overshadow your ability to help better the world.