“It’s Good to Be Alive,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 41–42
When members of the Orange California Stake arrive at the home of Jack and Jo Anne Rushton to receive a patriarchal blessing from Brother Rushton, they must bring with them a Melchizedek Priesthood holder. Brother Rushton has no movement from the neck down and can breathe only with the aid of a respirator. His mode of transportation is a motorized wheelchair that he controls through puffs and sips of air. And when it is time for the blessing to begin, the accompanying priesthood holder places Brother Rushton’s right hand on the head of the person receiving the blessing, and the helper then continues to support Brother Rushton’s arm throughout the blessing. This extended arm is symbolic of the support and sustenance members of the Rushton family have found from the gospel and loved ones since an accident robbed Jack of the ability to control his body.
On 1 August 1989, Jack Rushton, who was then president of the Irvine California Stake, was vacationing on the coast, along with his wife, Jo Anne, and three of their six children. While he was body surfing with his sixteen-year-old son, John, and John’s friend, Matt Macuro, a wave swept Jack into a rock or a sand bar, breaking his neck and injuring his spinal cord.
The two teenagers dragged his motionless body to the beach, where lifeguards and paramedics worked to revive him.
After Jack was transported to a hospital, doctors confirmed the Rushtons’ worst fears. Jack was paralyzed, and his spinal cord was injured at such a high level that he could neither talk nor breathe on his own. When he regained consciousness, the only way his family and medical personnel could communicate with him was by asking him yes and no questions that he would answer by blinking—one blink for yes, two blinks for no.
“It was like having the rug pulled out from under our lives,” remembers Jo Anne. “I will never forget the moment in which I learned of the total seriousness of my husband’s injury. … I can clearly remember us all weeping in one another’s arms as we tried to comprehend what the future would possibly be like. We had never known any despair so great as at that moment.”
In the years since the accident, however, there has been healing. That healing is most evident in the attitude the Rushtons have adopted. Jack now celebrates the anniversary of the accident as a new birthday and the beginning of his new life. “I did okay in my past life, so I plan to do okay in my new life,” he explains.
This new life required family members to learn how to take care of Jack. Jo Anne, his major caregiver, has had to become mechanic, nurse, physical therapist, and dietitian to her husband. A major task each day is getting Jack dressed and transferred from his bed to his wheelchair. Jo Anne has also learned to monitor the equipment upon which Jack’s life depends.
“What I once imagined would be a very difficult and almost impossible ordeal is now a very sweet experience,” Jo Anne says.
John Rushton also learned to care for his father. He slept in his father’s bedroom at night, monitoring the respirator and other equipment, until he left in 1992 to serve a mission in Guatemala, the same country where his father had served more than thirty years earlier.
For Jack, this new life presents different challenges. “I have the challenge every day of controlling my thoughts, reading good books, filling my time with worthwhile things. Every day I’m subject to just my thoughts, and I have to keep myself active.” Being a patriarch and being able to speak to others helps him in that endeavor.
A turning point in Jack’s recovery occurred when an alteration of the respiration system gave him back his voice. His ability to speak was one of the first steps in recovering the hope that seemed to have vanished when the full extent of Jack’s injuries were realized.
When Jack regained his ability to speak, he broke the weeks of silence with these thoughts expressed to his oldest daughter, JoLene: “I am at peace. It’s good to be alive. Don’t be discouraged. God knows everything; we don’t need to understand—just trust the Lord. Besides, I can see, I can hear, I can think, and now I can talk. I have everything.”
Jack’s gratitude is evident in his appreciation of “simple things”—such as the relationship with his family and friends.
“My relationship with them helps me to keep a good attitude through this,” Brother Rushton continues. “One of the great things I’ve learned is that you can have a positive attitude no matter what. Everything can be taken away from you. But no one else can control your thoughts or attitudes. I often think of a quote I once heard: ‘Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.’ Nothing can force us to be unhappy.”
As the Rushtons learned to put their trust in the Lord, they felt the happiness and comfort that only the Lord can give.
“As soon as I regained consciousness in the hospital, I felt a special sense of peace,” Brother Rushton explains. “I continue to feel that.” From the very beginning, he found great strength and peace from reading the Book of Mormon. He continues to read regularly. “That seemed to be then and even now the best way to bring peace,” he observes.
The Rushtons have found particular strength in the story of the people of Alma when they were in bondage to the Lamanites and persecuted by Amulon and his followers. “The Lord visited his people in their afflictions. He made their burdens light,” says Jo Anne. “I am often amazed at the lightness of heart I feel in caring for my husband” (see Mosiah 24:14).
Jack says he has come to understand how important it is for a person in his situation to withstand the temptation of asking “Why me?” Instead, he has learned to rely on his faith. “The Lord knows why,” he says, “even though we don’t.”
Jo Anne has also learned to rely on faith. “Some days you’re just as strong and as valiant as you could be, and the next day you’re going crazy wondering ‘Why me?’ When you can’t go on, something is provided for you to keep you going.”
During a particularly hard time, Jo Anne remembers finding comfort in a general conference talk. She awoke one morning with the strong impression that she should read the address Elder Boyd K. Packer had given at a recent general conference. “It took only a few moments of reading to realize that his comments were truly inspired and that they were applicable to what had happened to us. Questions I had were answered in his talk.
“The Spirit spoke to me that very morning, and it was as if my plight was understood,” Jo Anne recalls. “In his talk, Elder Packer told the caregivers that they are manifesting the works of God in the care they are giving to those in need. That almost seemed reward enough for me” (see Ensign, May 1991, pp. 7–9).
Immediately following the accident, members of the Irvine Stake high council and Jack’s high priests group worked out a rotating schedule so someone could stay with Jack in the hospital through the night.
“It was very difficult to be there all night alone,” Jack recalls. “The first night in the hospital was really a bad experience. I couldn’t communicate with anyone at all.” He also had trouble sleeping because his body temperature would rise sharply, and he suffered anxiety attacks. His condition was aggravated by the sterile solitude of the hospital.
To help ease the isolation, a ward member, Ron Wilson, devised a system that helped facilitate communication—a chart listing his needs and problems that, when pointed at, he could blink in response. Members sat with him through the nights, reading to him from the Book of Mormon and the New Testament. One high council member broke the silence by singing hymns at Jack’s bedside.
“It was one of the most spiritual times of my life,” says Richard Brown, the Rushtons’ bishop at the time of the accident, of the three- to four-hour shifts he spent in Jack’s room.
This around-the-clock companionship proved especially important as Jack silently battled depression and anxiety. “I cannot express the peace and comfort that these people brought to me,” Jack says. “They continued to come until I didn’t feel so alone.”
Jack made progress and moved to a rehabilitation center. There, contradicting their first prognosis, doctors told Jack he would be able to live at home again.
“When we realized that he would be able to come home,” recalls Jo Anne, “we knew that we’d have to either move or remodel the house.”
Again, ward and stake members offered the solution. Two months before Jack returned home, ward members, under the direction of Gary Anderson and Paul Colby, made plans for building a 750-square-foot addition to the house, making it wheelchair accessible. “Brother Colby, a close friend and construction superintendent, came to me and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,’” Jo Anne says. “We call it our six-week miracle.” The entire project was finished in forty-one days.
To finance the project, priesthood leaders from several area stakes relied on donations. Volunteers did all the construction, many arriving after finishing their regular workday and staying well past midnight. “At times, the Spirit was so strong and so sweet that it was hard to leave,” recalls one of the volunteers.
All who come in contact with Jack are amazed at his positive attitude. “I’m always uplifted when I go to their home,” says Mary Ann Davidson, a former ward member who helped Jo Anne in the mornings for more than two years. “I knew from the beginning I would be a help to this family; I just didn’t know in what capacity,” she explains.
For the past several years, Mary Ann has helped Jo Anne in the mornings. “To get Jack dressed and in his wheelchair is a two-person process,” Jo Anne says.
Other sisters in the ward have now been trained to assist Jo Anne with this morning task. On weekends and holidays, however, their thirteen-year-old daughter, Rachel, has proven to be all the help her parents need. Even their eight-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, does much to assist her father.
Many individuals serve the Rushtons on a regular basis. One ward member, Tom Judson, who has traveled extensively, helps Jack vicariously visit countries around the world. He visits Jack weekly and often shows him slides of his travels. Since Brother Judson began his visits, Jack has “traveled” to India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. By viewing slides, Jack was even able to “visit” the communities where he spent his childhood—Ely and Ruth, Nevada.
Jo Anne says she has a “corps of people” that she can call on when she needs help, from the manicurist who cares for Jack’s hands and feet to the friend who repairs the family’s specially modified van. “I know they love him and are eager to help,” she says.
During his twenty-five years as an educator in the Church Educational System, Jack had gotten used to rendering service. Being on the receiving end has given him new insight into the importance and necessity of helping others.
“In James 1:27 it talks about service being pure religion, and I don’t think I understood why,” Jack says. “I’m just now understanding service. In my position, I have to constantly ask myself, ‘Would I do for someone else what others have done for me?’”
His total dependence upon others has reinforced to him the importance of acting on feelings of sympathy. “Even though we may not know what to do for someone, just to do something is important,” he says.
In November 1989, during the first stake conference after he was paralyzed, Jack was released as stake president of the California Irvine Stake so he could concentrate his energies on healing. “It was very hard to be released from my calling as stake president. It was almost as hard as the accident,” Jack remarks. “We missed the associations that came from his calling,” Jo Anne adds.
She also worried that her husband would never be able to hold a Church calling again.
But at the time of his release, Jack received a blessing at the hand of Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve. In the blessing he was told that many would come to his home to feel the Spirit of the Lord. The Rushtons have seen the fulfillment of that promise as Jack has carried out his duties as patriarch.
He has also been able to return to teaching the gospel—right now as the Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Irvine Second Ward. This past year he also began teaching an institute class one evening a week. “The fact that I’m dependent upon others for all my physical needs has emphasized the fact that I’m totally dependent upon Heavenly Father, especially as I try to fulfill my callings,” Jack says.
The Rushtons feel that their optimism has been nurtured by their testimonies of the gospel. “It is the gospel, as we have done our best to live it throughout our marriage, that has sustained us,” Jo Anne says.
“It’s the idea of the resurrection that keeps me going—that day when we will be able to do the things together that we now can’t,” Jack adds.
Until that time, the Rushtons have learned to be patient and to tackle each day’s adversity with an eternal perspective. “We look at what we have left,” says Jo Anne, “and not at what we have lost. We are so happy to have Jack here, still blessing our home. Life is still worthwhile, family occasions are still very happy events, and many come to our home and receive patriarchal blessings at his hand,” she continues. “We have come a long way since that day in the hospital weeping in one another’s arms. We have found purpose and meaning in life, joy in being together as a family, fulfillment and peace in serving the Lord and in keeping the commandments, and most of all, the strength to face each new day and the determination not to be overcome by difficulties.
“We have learned that if we limit our views to mortal life, our situation will seem unbearable. We know that this is only temporary and that the resurrection will be a glorious day.”