When my husband Jeff suffered a spinal cord injury from a bicycle accident shortly after moving to Belgium, our world turned upside down. Suddenly, we were coping with a traumatic injury in a country where we did not speak the language nor understand the socialized medical system. Our daughters were adjusting to a new school and a paraplegic dad in hospitals for ten months. Suddenly I was not only a wife and mother, but also a patient advocate, counseling psychologist, nurse, physical and occupational therapist, wheelchair mechanic, home and car repair person, financial and insurance liaison, and more.
The sudden disability of paraplegia forced us to reevaluate many assumptions and ideals we had as a married couple. We had to grieve many losses such as our active lifestyle, plans for a busy retirement, financial future, corporate career identity expectations for Jeff, and the loss of half of Jeff’s functioning body.
As I look back on this “sudden” arrival of disability in our lives, I realize God had been preparing me for this “sudden” event for many years. As an adolescent, I volunteered in hospital emergency departments, which allowed me to make Jeff’s extensive hospital stays easier and enhanced my role as patient advocate. In college I was an athletic trainer, which prepared me to understand and assist Jeff and his physical therapists. Sadly, I knew how to grieve, because my mom died five years previously.
If I could decide, I would not have planned on disability entering our family’s lives. Disability has complicated and robbed our lives of many things. However, disability has also provided the opportunity to undertake roles and challenges that have enriched our own lives and the lives of others. For example, through our testimony during Jeff’s accident recovery, several people who witnessed our reliance on God became Christians. In my role as a professor at Calvin College, students who know my story often share with me their story of suffering. Although our suffering stories are different, suffering is common to each story. This common denominator allows me to provide a sympathetic ear and wise counsel to help them navigate their life journeys.
Our entire family has ministered to others in ways that would not have been possible if disability didn’t suddenly enter our lives. God redeemed our disability in order to allow our family to be agents of renewal in the lives of others.
Jeff wrote about these same events. To read his perspective, see the Spring 2016 Breaking Barriers.