Burning and Learning


February 1996
Doug Spybrook

On Father’s Day 1992, I laid down on the couch to take a nap. When I awoke, I was trapped in a blazing inferno. In a few short minutes, I was rendered unconscious. I died three times while in a coma, and the doctors asked my family if they wanted to “pull the plug.” I came out of the coma four weeks later. It was a miracle I had survived. However, the devastating flames took their toll. All my fingers were severely burned and amputated. Also, I was dependent on various life support systems. As I knew it, life would change drastically, considering the adjustments I would have to make.

My primary need was to develop the ability to survive without the aid of technology, just as a premature infant needs to mature before being removed from the incubator. I gradually learned to breathe on my own with the help of respiratory therapy. In addition, I had difficulty swallowing. At first, all I could swallow were liquids to sustain my life and improve my health, specifically a high protein formula known as Ensure. When I finally began eating, it consisted of small bites of pureed meats and vegetables that resembled baby food. Also, I had lost control of my bladder as well as my bowels and needed to have my hospital gown and bedding changed frequently. After regaining control of my bodily functions and rebuilding my physical strength, I needed to learn to stand and eventually walk again. I endured physical therapy for two years before I was able to bar hop. About a year of institutional life, I was informed that I was well enough to be discharged.

After finally leaving behind the various healthcare institutions, I moved in with my ex-wife and two young children for about six months. The simplest chores of everyday life were a challenge. My need for assistance in eating, personal hygiene, and dressing made me feel helpless as a newborn infant. Early on, my ex-wife, children, and a paid caregiver prepared my meals and fed me while I wore a bib. In addition, I also needed assistance with showering as well as cleaning, treating, and dressing my open wounds. Finally, there was not one article of clothing I could put on by myself. Again, I felt trapped in the involuntary role of a newborn. All and all, being dependent on others was a humbling experience. It inspired me to make the evolutionary journey from infancy forward.

In order to become an independent individual, I had to learn to take care of myself. I became frustrated with my dependence on others to assist me with my daily needs. Every aspect of my life had to be scheduled around other people. One day I decided that I wanted to eat now, not two hours later, when the caregiver was expected to prepare my meal. I made the most hideous looking peanut butter and jelly sandwich I had ever seen with a lot of determination, but it served its purpose. The only chore left for the caregiver was cleaning up the mess. I felt a great sense of accomplishment. This small taste of self-sufficiency gave me a craving for more. The next step was learning to bathe myself. Even though I enjoyed being bathed by my ex-wife (if you know what I mean), I realized that, since we were no longer married, she wasn’t always going to be around.

The biggest obstacle in bathing was picking up the bar of soap with no fingers. The simple solution was liquid soap, what a concept. The most overwhelming barrier on my road to self-reliance was dressing. After struggling with buttons, zippers, shoelaces, and snaps, I came to the conclusion that velcro and elastic were the way to go. The most challenging articles of clothing were socks. Learning to put on socks again was like trying to figure out the meaning of life. With a lot of trial and error and a little ingenuity, I can now wear socks, but I still haven’t figured out the meaning of life.

The adjustments I have made have enabled me to transition from infancy to college student in a matter of four years. With a little determination and a busload of faith in myself, I am no longer afraid to attempt the unknown. Learning to exist as a digitally challenged individual in a finger-oriented society has been quite a learning experience.

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