Johnny Bash on What It’s Like to Live With a Spinal Cord Injury

Johnny Bash, 31, of Irvine pushes hard on the long road back from paralysis

johnny-bashIn Aug. 14, 2015, at Lake Havasu, our boat stopped to let everyone cool off. I dove in and hit a 3½-foot-deep sandbar. It broke my neck, and I was instantly paralyzed, unable to move my arms or wiggle a toe. After I exhaled what I thought was my final breath, the boat’s driver pulled me out.

I had surgery the next day in Las Vegas—a spinal fusion that screwed in two metal rods beside my spinal column to keep my broken vertebrae in place.

At first, I had no movement at all. I lay there for a week—frustrated, angry, and sad while waiting for acute rehab to begin.
I was determined to walk out of the hospital. So I didn’t miss a therapy session. I began remobilizing my upper body: strengthening and stretching the biceps, forearms, shoulders, chest, and upper back, to the point where I could balance and stay upright. When I flex my chest, you can feel where it’s firm and, below the armpit line, where it isn’t. My triceps only have a trace of feeling—not enough yet to completely push a manual wheelchair. But it’s something.

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My fingers don’t work yet, but my wrists do. We work on grasping, picking up small objects, and moving them around like children’s toys, hoping the nerves will click one of these days.

I can drink on my own, which is a big deal. I can now turn on a light switch. I can push the hand cycle and cable machine and get my heart rate up. I’m so fresh off my injury that real gains are still possible.

I applied—and got!—a scholarship from the Be Perfect Foundation. It helps spinal-cord injury victims with extra therapy that insurance won’t cover. On my first day in August, they put me on a leg press machine. They tied my legs to the rolling cushion with straps. “I won’t be doing this—my legs don’t work,” I thought. But my trainer told me to think about engaging all the muscles in my stomach and my quads. I did, and the bar moved! It was the most encouraging thing in a long time.

Fighting the negative thoughts isn’t easy. You feel embarrassed being the center of attention and having to talk to people about your condition. You want to kind of disappear. But there’s no strength in running away and wallowing in despair. I try to do the opposite—tell people what I’m going through.

My goals now are to gain more strength and independence, master a wheelchair, improve my hands, and drive a wheelchair-adapted car with hand controls. And I want to help others.

I’ve made a ton of friends with similar injuries. Some say they’ve seen my videos or read my story and have been encouraged. That has been the best part of it. My dad was a pastor for many years; maybe this sort of puts us in the same category. Maybe part of my purpose is to show that there is life after injury—that things do get better in time.

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