Celebrating Independence

Gabe the Husky lying on a porch

First off, I hope you enjoyed your 4th of July holiday! With everything going on, I'm sure it looked a little different, but hopefully you at least got to relax a bit. All of us here at RAWZ want to wish a happy 244th birthday to America! It was July 2nd, 1776, that the Continental Congress voted in favor of independence, and just two days later that the Declaration of Independence was formally adopted. The American colonists decided that a better life awaited them separated from Great Britain as an independent country. In their Declaration of Independence, Americans named some unalienable rights, of which perhaps the most famous is “the pursuit of happiness”. I strongly believe it is the right to a self-directed pursuit of happiness on which Independence is built.

Despite what my academic transcripts and being Class Clown of my Senior class may lead people to believe, I have a deeply reflective and spiritual aspect to my makeup. I have to believe it is from this place that the genesis for this post comes. “Celebrating Independence” will be going live on RAWZ’s site the morning of Monday July, 6th. And at the risk of losing any reputation I may have as an early morning keyboard warrior, I must disclose that I’m actually starting to write the morning of Friday July, 3rd , albeit early (Clooney!). The synchronicity of this date is not lost on me, particularly when writing about independence.

It was 14 years ago tonight that I made an awful decision which not only surrendered my independence, but nearly cost me my life. In the early morning hours of July 4th, 2006, after drinking excessively, I got behind the wheel to drive home from a party. A 23 year old recent college graduate, I was living with my parents who had recently moved to Southern Maine, but partying near my hometown about an hour away in Southern NH and was headed home. As a RAWZ fan (hopefully), or at least a RAWZ blog reader, you probably know the story surrounding my brother’s (Andy’s) injury, but I’ll briefly touch on here. Just 15 months prior to this night, Andy fell off a 3rd story balcony while on vacation in Cancun, Mexico. Andy was 18 at the time, and while it’s not my place to tell his story, I will say the accident was completely unexpected.

The fall left Andy with a Spinal Cord Injury resulting in his being paralyzed from the belly button down. After being flown to Houston where he underwent surgery, my family slowly absorbed the severity of Andy’s injury. I’ll never forget the helpless feeling I had looking at him lying in that hospital bed, and yet, despite being his older brother, I was unable to help Andy. Now more than 15 years later, I’m still choked up as I type this. Whether from not always setting the best example, or a form of survivor’s guilt, the feeling of some responsibility, while not as acute, is still with me today. One would think that living through such a traumatic event within my immediate family would have left me living with the utmost caution and safety, but a little over a year later it was me in the hospital bed.

Jim's first solo walk after his accident with Boomer the Scott's family dog 

While our injuries were different, Andy’s a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI), while I sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI); both resulted in substantial losses in independence for each of us. Andy was left a paraplegic, while the TBI resulted in hemiplegia affecting the left side of my body. After a lot of hard work, the unbelievable support of friends and family, and undoubtedly the immense grace of God, we’ve both had amazing recoveries: Andy, who with his wife Katie welcomed a beautiful daughter to the world just over a year ago, and I learning to navigate the ups and downs of living life on life’s terms. As I reflect on our journeys, I can’t help but discuss the profound loss of independence that anyone with a neurological injury can experience. We all strive for self-determination and sufficiency. Although, the early stages of recovery from a life altering disability involve total reliance on others, it is one of the main goals of rehabilitation to develop the most autonomy possible.   

Sitting here and writing after 14 years of living with the emotional, physical, and cognitive challenges that result from a brain injury, I have to acknowledge the supports I still receive today. It’s been a non-linear journey of progress with varying levels of acceptance that has brought me to a place of navigating life the best I can while still striving for improvement. While my role with RAWZ has given me purpose and productive work, it is the work of our RAWZ Fund partners who provide independence and activities for “the pursuit of happiness” to individuals living with disability that I’m proudest to be a part of. Whether it’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital’s therapeutic care, the amazing work of service dogs, the life enriching recreational activity facilitated by Northeast Passage, or the supportive community that is, and growth that takes place at Krempels’ Center, all deserve acknowledgement.

While I know my family to be kind and generous, I can’t help but think that had Andy and I not had our injuries, chances are that the motivation behind a company dedicated to improving the lives of people and pets through minimally processed nutrition would not exist. So on this Independence Day, our family and all of us at RAWZ want to express our heartfelt gratitude for all who have joined us in this journey!