This is a story about Mark Christiansen, a Salt Lake City man, father of three and devout Mormon, who has lived as an incomplete C-3-4-5 quadriplegic for an astonishing 52 years. I have to write this fast because Mark has a Kickstarter campaign going on to raise the funds to write and publish the story of his life and he has only 48 more hours to reach his goal.
Mark, whom I met through the world’s greatest social mixer, the Internet, broke his neck in a diving accident at the tender age of 16, way back in 1961, when quads surely lived even shorter lives on average than they do today. He has zero finger dexterity but just enough arm strength to handle hand controls on a van. He is imbued with some kind of spiritual strength and physical derring-do that surpasses understanding. He’s gone skiing – he lives in Utah, after all – and snow-sledding and banana-tubing and airplane gliding and…you get the idea. He tried to use a push chair to descend into the Grand Canyon once and it took a handful of relatives to get him up and back without killing him. It was, in the words of his son, Nate, “an ill-advised” venture. He got married along the way, worked in real estate and related fields to support his wife and three offspring, and served as chairman of the board of the Utah Independent Living Center.
Not that it’s been easy for Mark to live the life of a quad for all those decades – he cannot be dismissed in the sappy upbeat manner of a cheesy local news feature. He has struggled financially most of his adult life and continues to work at 69 to underwrite the never-ending expense of being cared for. When asked what gives him the most grief at his current age, he says it’s “having people do everything” for him. After fifty years, I guess, the frustration is numbing. He describes one incident many years back where he was right at the brink of driving his chair into the lake and drowning. The will to live won that battle and many more to come.
Why, you wonder, hasn’t he succumbed to either infection or some other medical consequence of his condition or the slow death of psychological despair? This will certainly take Mark’s book to explain in detail, but here are the headlines. One, Mark takes care of himself. He eats right, has never smoked or drank, and as noted above, is very physically active. Two, he has a strong Mormon faith that no doubt helps mitigate the sense of uselessness or worthlessness that all of us in chairs feel periodically. And three, the man is just lucky. Lucky to have good genes, lucky to have a supporting family and church, and lucky as hell not to have encountered some enigmatic pathogen that entered his body and did him in.
How many people live with quadriplegia for fifty or more years? I can’t find the exact answer on the Internet but it’s safe to say, not a whole lot. According to the Guinness World Records, the longest living incomplete quad was a woman named Janet Barnes who was born with a broken neck and lived as a quad for all of her 83 years, five months, and 12 days. There is another well-known quad named Lani Deauville who is going on 56 years. Mark and Lani have made touch with each other and their mutual guess is that there are maybe ten quads like them in the US. If you know the real statistical number, please pass it on.
Given the advances in medical care and knowledge about health and exercise, many of us will live much longer than our predecessors in paralysis. What does that mean in terms of the costs of keeping us around, our ability to enjoy the life we’ve been given, and the burden – or blessing – we are to our closest loved ones? That is a question for another blog – or ten – but if I were trying to figure out what’s ahead, the first person I would go visit is Mark Christiansen.
(To check out Mark’s Kickstarter campaign and perhaps help him out, go to Mark Christiansen: One in Ten Billion. You now have 47 hours to click on.)
© 2013 Allen Rucker |
Purchase Allen's book:
The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life