Navigating the life that follows a spinal cord injury

Ali Lozoff
Ali Lozoff: Surviving accidents, and caring for those who have, can be a lonely, scary, infuriating experience.
Photo by Ann Marsden

Ali Lozoff is a marketing manager at Minnesota Public Radio.

The injuries suffered by high school hockey players Jack Jablonski and Jenna Privette have touched thousands of people, but they have a special poignancy for me. I knew an athlete who suffered a spinal cord injury in a sports competition at age 17. He was a funny, fresh-faced and well-liked kid. It was 1960, his name was Bill Whiting and he was my uncle.

Bill died this past September, having lived for 51 years as a quadriplegic. The doctors who treated him at the end of his life believe he was the longest-surviving quadriplegic in the country. For 45 of those years he lived semi-independently, though not without tremendous difficulty and challenges. He might have lived even longer, if a second accident had not injured him again.

With a determination and strength of will almost foreign to most people, Bill taught himself how to draw using a mouth stick and pencil. His drawings are beautiful landscapes and seascapes, exquisite in their representation of boats, mangroves, buildings — and only made more so by the knowledge that each line was created by a small, controlled shake of the head.

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For 30 years he sold pieces at art fairs, in galleries and on street corners; my cousins and I grew up working as his assistants, packaging note cards and making change. We saw the varying degrees of pity, fear and discomfort he encountered in other people every day of his extraordinary life. Sometimes we laughed, sometimes we chased people away, and sometimes we watched people try to heal his injury through prayer.

Bill became a virtual encyclopedia of Bob Dylan songs, Woody Allen movies, boxing scores and the pain of being a Detroit Lions fan. He married and divorced, dated beautiful women, told a mean joke and navigated his wheelchair through the streets with a fearlessness and sense of adventure I could only hope to emulate.

One of my favorite memories is going to the annual King Mango Strut — a parody of the Orange Bowl Parade — and watching Bill roll by dressed like Toulouse-Lautrec, with six can-can dancers kicking along beside him.

Since Bill's passing, I've been trying to figure out the best way to carry on the inspiration and example of his life. One way, given the news of these recent sports injuries, is to tell Bill's story to more people. Jack Jablonski's prognosis is the same as Bill's was; his doctors say he will never walk again. Even so, the circumstances are different; the medical advances since Bill's injury are innumerable. But the life-long challenges are similar. (Jenna Privette's spinal cord, thankfully, was not severed.)

At Bill's memorial service in October, we met people who had last seen him in high school, including one guy who had been on his trampoline team and watched the accident happen. Most hadn't kept in touch with Bill, though they had followed his art career and even owned some of his work.

They all spoke of the inspiration Bill had been to them, and how much they had thought about him over the years. We were grateful for their words, but I couldn't help wondering why they hadn't stayed in touch. It's remarkable that he touched their lives deeply; I only wish they had thought to touch his as time went by. Surviving accidents like this, and caring for those who have, can be a lonely, scary, infuriating experience.

No one can know who Bill would have become had he not been injured. The person he did become was funny, complicated, interesting and talented. I am still grieving his loss, and the multiple tragedies he endured, and the overall unfairness of his situation. But I am forever grateful that I knew and loved him, that I saw the world through his eyes on occasion, and that he may have served as a source of courage for others facing obstacles.

I hope the outpouring of support and interest in Jablonski and Privette continues, and that those who know them now continue to know them as time goes on.