The Day My Life Was Changed

“The Day My Life Was Changed,” New Era, Feb. 1972, 38

The Day My Life Was Changed

In the little town of Mapleton, Utah, lives a 23-year-old priests quorum adviser who has been paralyzed since a 1964 swimming accident. “He has become an inspiration to our entire town,” says an acquaintance, and he has done it from his wheelchair or bedside where the quorum that he instructs now meets. His story may change your life too.

The time of intensive care passed at last, and I was transferred to a new room. I had a lot of time to reflect on the kind of life I had led, to get to know myself, and to dispel much of the false pride that had crept into my life. From a position of total helplessness, I came to realize the importance of a sound physical body. It’s strange, but without the interruptions of a physical body, it is easier to get to know your spiritual self; and my spiritual life had been lacking up to this point.

I don’t really know where a young man begins to go wrong. I couldn’t have had a happier childhood. My father was a nature lover, and he had schooled us in the beauties and appreciation of the out-of-doors. My mother enriched our lives with her wit and her songs. And I grew up in the Church. I loved the gospel stories, and I looked forward to becoming a deacon. I remember my baptism day and the feeling that accompanied this ordinance.

But about the time I became a teacher, I began to sit with a crowd of boys in the back who were without a streak of reverence, I’m afraid. From this time on, I never really appreciated the gospel or made the effort to study the scriptures and gain a testimony, and any person without the gospel and spiritual motivation in his life will naturally turn to worldly things. It took a terrible accident and three years to do it, but I finally was able to see through the fads and falsities that had become a part of my life in the early years of high school and to realize just how plastic and superficial many of those values really are.

My thoughts return again to a beautiful summer day in August 1964. The sun rose early on a day assured to be very hot but ideal for farm work. It was the time of year we harvested the straw and the hay, and I was working for a local farmer on the bench in Mapleton, Utah.

We had put in a very productive day, and since the afternoon was so hot, we decided to go to our favorite swimming hole up in the dry lands on the bench. An irrigation canal brought life to this part of the country, and in a clay embankment the water had washed away a small swimming hole, where, for generations, boys had found pleasure cooling off during the hot days of July and August.

On the east side of the hole was an embankment perhaps ten feet high. As I stood atop it that afternoon in 1964, a summer thunderhead was rolling slowly toward the bench, creating a rather ominous atmosphere.

I looked down into the water and a strange shiver came over me. Not pausing to wonder about it, I set my position and lunged forward in what was supposed to be a shallow dive, but for some uncanny reason, I turned in midair and arched straight down toward the small shelf of clay that lay underneath the water. At the time I could not see this shelf because the water was kind of muddy; but suddenly, with all the force of my body, I rammed into the bottom.

The impact, I later learned, was sufficient to fracture my neck and sever my spinal cord. The thoughts that flooded through my head were so many and so multiplied that I can’t recall now what they were, but I remember realizing that a person’s life really does pass before his eyes during the fleeting moments that seem to precede the end. I was filled with panic, shock, and confusion of a kind that cannot be described. Only those who have experienced such a moment of dreadful finality can really understand.

As the strong currents dragged me toward the bottom I suddenly realized that every sensation I had ever known now existed only in my memory. From the neck down, my body was totally paralyzed. It was as if a giant circuit breaker had been pulled, rendering my body helpless.

I had a growing awareness of the seriousness of my position. I was paralyzed, forced to the bottom, and unable to move a muscle to get to the surface. At this age we don’t live in fear of death or in fear of anything; we believe that youth is to be lived. But I encountered thoughts down there that awakened me from the impression that my life was indestructible at the early age of sixteen.

To try to struggle and have nothing happen, to try to swim—to move my arms and legs in a natural swimming movement—and to have no response, and to be cut off from any sensation from my body whatsoever were almost too much to bear. I knew I was within seconds of drowning.

As I tumbled helplessly with the current, my mind became clouded. A humming sound—a rushing in my ears—began to grow and grow and then fade slowly, and I helplessly resigned myself to the fact that death was very near. Suddenly I began to float to the surface! Vaguely I could see daylight and could feel a lifting sensation, as my friend who had been working with me that day pulled me from the water. The urge to take a breath while still underwater had been intense, and the feeling of relief as my bursting lungs drank in the air was overwhelming. Seven of my friends came down into the water, carried me up the bank carefully, and laid me down in the middle of the nearby dirt road.

I looked down at my body. Though it was still a part of me, I could not feel it. It was unreal. My body and soul had been stunned beyond belief, and through my excruciating emotions I hoped that this would all be over soon. Little did I know that in some respects, an endless nightmare had just begun.

The Mapleton ambulance, a blue Edsel, was not the best in the world. After I had been lifted into it, the engine wouldn’t start, and we had to be pushed down the road until it turned over. I had always hated the sound of sirens wailing the news of another’s misfortune. This siren announced my own tragedy and ushered me unwillingly into an experience that few ever encounter.

The corridors became darker as I was rolled to the older section of the hospital. I saw a sign over a doorway. It said “Intensive Care Unit,” and everywhere around me I could hear the sounds of the hospital: the gasping of an oxygen unit, the bleeps of pacemakers, people in crises, trying to survive.

The doctors took X rays and discovered that my spinal cord had been almost severed and my neck had been fractured between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. They didn’t tell me then that I would not walk again in this life. Their immediate concern was keeping me alive through the night. They transferred me to a specially designed frame for spinal injuries, applied some local anesthetic to two tiny areas on my skull, made two small indentations with a drill into the first layer of bone, and applied traction to the skull and neck area. This was to be my position for the next thirteen weeks. I was unable to make any movement other than to blink my eyes, and I could feel the pulling against my neck constantly. Never in my life have I felt more helpless or bewildered.

My father and grandfather laid their hands upon my head at this time and gave me a blessing, and for the first time in my life I really felt the power of the priesthood. A comforting, warm feeling came into my heart, and a value, the quality of hope, entered my life. I can truly say that hope is a real force that can lift the spirit. With hope and the Spirit of God, one may overcome any barrier that may get in the way.

As time passed, I went into surgery for fusions of the broken vertebrae. The incisions finally healed, and I began therapy each day to see how much of a return of the nerve function we could hope to accomplish. At first there was no response, and I was shocked to see how shrunken my arms had become. All the muscles I had built up through heavy farm work were gone, and we were starting all over again.

Many discouraging, fruitless sessions followed. Then one day, as I was watching the therapist work on the small bicep that remained, I saw a twitch! This was the first sign of life in my arm in fifteen weeks! We began to work on this twitch, and in a week it became a twitch to the second power. This little improvement became a source of hope. I honestly feel that this was a result of the administration by the priesthood, because by all rights I should have remained totally paralyzed for the remainder of my life.

Through the kindness of the governor of the state and the armed forces at Hill Air Force Base, I was flown in a cargo transport to the Stanford Medical Center at Palo Alto, California, for further therapy. The first night there I was frightened because I thought I was alone. But the next day the bishop of one of the wards walked in, introduced himself, welcomed me to California, and wished me well in my endeavors to recover.

We began with a vigorous therapy session, concentrating mostly on the arms, neck, and shoulders. I still did not have any movement from the elbows down to the wrists and hands, so I wore a special brace with an attachment device to hold a spoon. I started out by picking up pieces of clay and trying to feed myself peanut butter. I never thought it was possible to spill peanut butter, but I managed to do it quite a number of times. I found everything but my mouth, and I almost got a faceful of mashed potatoes or whatever every time I tried to eat. With just the bicep working, I had only one movement. I could bend my arm, and that was it.

In my early life I had been very interested in oil painting, drawing, graphics—anything that had to do with art. Now I had lost the ability to even hold a pen or brush, and the scripture came to mind that if talents aren’t used they regress and become dormant. That’s exactly what had happened to me.

Then one day, as I sat working with a sander to strengthen the shoulder motion that I had, I noticed a pencil on the table. For a moment I daydreamed about how wonderful it would be to be able to do a simple thing like pick up the pencil and write my name. This illustrates how meaningful even the smallest things became.

At my request the brace maker fashioned a small attachment to the brace that enabled me to hold the pencil in an almost natural position. I stared down at the paper, afraid to begin. I felt like a small child picking up his first crayon. And as I applied the pencil to the paper, I found that I could only make senseless scribblings. I couldn’t even form the basic letters of the alphabet!

I won’t elaborate on the devastating discouragements that presented barriers at this time; but after three months of treatment, I did succeed in making one small drawing of a tree, and I had learned to print my name. This was, to me, great progress.

At home again, though I tried to keep active with a private study course and extensive reading, I found myself slipping into a major personal crisis. I had tried to go to church that summer, but I found it an ordeal. I was terribly self-conscious. I felt I was being stared at, and I became defensive about the smallest things. It was humiliating to have to be helped to take the sacrament. My reactions to people became paranoiac, and I invited feelings of worthlessness and guilt to enter my heart. I began to lose contact with the Church, preferring to stay in my little room in the back of the house. Here I withdrew into a world of isolation and depression. For five months I gnawed away at myself and demolished whatever strength I had acquired. The word cripple now applied to me both mentally and physically.

I neglected to pray as I should have, and I doubted the Lord’s forgiveness. I was not totally bitter, but in vain I tried to retain a spirit of hope. I know now that it was because of my ignorance of the sacrifice of Christ that I fell into this attitude.

Autumn passed into winter, and as the room became darker, so did my soul. I descended further and further into frustration and the feeling that I was as worthless a soul as had ever come into the world.

Then one night my mother came in and said that I had a visitor. The man who entered the room was tall and very self-confident—totally the opposite of my character. He introduced himself as Brother Howes from the local seminary. He had moved to town only recently, but he spoke about things as if we had known each other for some time. Though I didn’t know it then, this man would be one of the principal reasons for my returning to the gospel.

I expected that he would visit once or twice and that would be the extent of it, but these suspicions turned out to be false. Each week he came with the scriptures and began to nourish the spiritual side of me, which needed so much to be fed. With his help I began slowly to ascend once again to a point where some form of courage and hope became dimly visible. As time went by, I got interested enough to read the Bible and the Book of Mormon on my own; and through prayer I came to realize, for the first time, that I had something solid to cling to: the truth.

Through all this, people still persevered in their friendship for me, and as the months went by I made them feel more welcome. One such friend was Tom Nelson. He came almost every day, and we became very close. This was ironic, because before the accident we had squared off against each other and were scarcely speaking. It pleases me to see that today he is very active in the Church and happy in his priesthood and temple work.

My faith continued to improve gradually, and one day the bishop came to ask me if I would be secretary of the priests quorum. I was hesitant but said that, if he thought I could do it, I would try. This too was a turning point, and the other quorum members were responsible for a great change in my outlook. I did not fulfill a mission of my own, and if there was one thing I wanted to do, it was that. But when I saw my friends mature and depart on their missions, in my heart I went along with them, and there was great satisfaction in participating with them as they prepared.

My situation has actually been a blessing to me, because I have learned many things I might otherwise have ignored. I have learned, for example, that the Lord will keep his promises if we will but do our part. I had lost my ability to do artwork, but because of him I have regained this ability and have found it a source of joy. This accident has given me time to enjoy the beauties that come free in life—the mountains, the sunsets, the many things we sometimes take for granted. And it has taught me to love the workmanship of the Lord’s hand. He has become my favorite artist because of his natural panoramas and ever-increasing wonders.

I have also learned patience, a valuable quality that no one can have a surplus of.

Perhaps the most important thing I have learned is that good can come from adversity in life, and, it seems to me, we cannot grow spiritually without it. I think often of the advice given to Joseph Smith at the time of his confinement in Liberty Jail: “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.” (D&C 121:7–8.)

Even if there were some miracle of science that would permit me to resume the life I was living at the age of sixteen, I would not do it! I would gladly face every barrier I have met so far in life. I would gladly live seven years as a cripple in a wheelchair if it would again lead me to the joy and truth that I have found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whenever we feel that we are beyond hope or repentance, or that our condition is too despicable to be tolerated, we can find courage in these words of the Savior: “The Son of man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8.)

My life was brought to a zenith recently when I took out my own endowments in the temple after having been ordained an elder on my twenty-first birthday. The gospel means more to me now than it ever has, and I know that, like a well of living water, it will keep growing and springing up, as was promised, unto eternal life, if I will but live the commandments God has set forth to guide us.

I only hope my story will help other youth to appreciate their physical bodies and keep them pure, because they are truly temples of God.

My narrative ends with these few lines, which I have entitled “Barriers”:

Though in mortality one is crippled, yet in the spirit he may walk.

Though one be blind, his soul may still see things of a spiritual nature.

Though one is deaf, he may hear more clearly the voice of Christ calling him to repentance.

Though one be aged and stricken in years, he may retain the youth that lies in the gospel.

Oh, friends, if you are unhindered by such barriers, what prohibits you from living a life of righteousness?

Sculpture by Dennis Smith