As a salesman, I was always taught that to sell something, you had to believe in it.
So when I started selling disability insurance to a network of medical schools in 1993, you can bet I owned a policy—not to mention health insurance and life insurance. I had been working in insurance since the mid-1980s, but this new deal brought my business to a whole different level. I was 32, single, and now I was earning a six-figure income that I spent on fast cars, a cool apartment and all the trappings of a privileged lifestyle.
That summer I took a single day off work to hang out at a friend's cabin on the lake ... and a near-death experience changed my life forever.
The Accident That Nearly Killed Me
After a Friday morning round of golf, my friends and I went down to my buddy's cabin on the lake to do some waterskiing. I was no stranger to the sport, so I simply zipped up my life jacket, grabbed the rope and yelled, "Hit it!" to the boat driver, who slammed on the accelerator.
But the rope didn't take up the slack. Instead, it knotted and jerked me forward, propelling me underwater. I banged my head hard on the bottom of the lake and I panicked. My body floated to the surface, and while I knew I should get my face out of the water to yell for help, I couldn’t seem to move my arms or legs to make that happen. Images from my life flashed through my head—childhood baseball games, my family, my friends. I assumed the worst—that I was going to die.
By some miracle, my friend, Dan, happened to be leaving the cabin at that moment and saw my body bobbing in the lake. He stripped down to his shorts and dove in after me, and when he turned me over in the water, blood was running down the side of my face and he could see only the whites of my eyeballs. Dan dragged me the 50 yards to shore and performed CPR until the water came out of my lungs, waking me up in a state of shock. Dan tells me that he was gripping my leg, asking me, "What can you feel?!" ... but I couldn't feel anything.
Later at the hospital (one of the three I visited in 72 hours via helicopter), I learned that I had damaged my spinal cord around the C5 and C6 vertebrae, which meant I was pretty much paralyzed below my neck. “The good news is that you’re alive," my doctor said gently. "The bad news is that you’re now an incomplete C5-C6 quadriplegic.” I was so doped up on morphine that it was hard to process such devastating news—it felt like a dream, like something that was happening to someone else.
I was so resistant to accepting my new reality that two weeks into my 60-day hospital stint, my doctor had me try and demonstrate improvement by attempting to walk while using parallel bars for support. I couldn’t take a single step.
I slumped into my wheelchair, the tears started flowing, and I truly realized that my life had done a 180 in an instant. I couldn’t bathe or feed myself—much less visit the bathroom—and upon leaving the hospital, my mom was planning to move into my place to help. It was heartbreaking to lose my autonomy and dignity all at once.
The pain was more emotional than physical—I couldn't really feel anything in my body, unless they were poking and pricking me, and I couldn't move. But after I had had surgery a few weeks later to remove the broken pieces of my vertebrae, something extraordinary happened: I felt a tingling in my left toes.
Eventually, that tingling worked its way up the left side of my body, and then up much of my right, and I began to regain just a little movement in my arms and legs. It was a shock to me, to my parents and to my doctors—in fact, it was a miracle.
With that tingling, my mindset started to shift from "Why me?" to "How much can I get back?" Instead of leaving the hospital in a wheelchair, I left "walking" with two canes.
Where the Insurance Comes In
Before my accident, I had three insurance policies: health insurance through my employer ($300 a month), catastrophic group disability coverage through my employer (free), and supplementary individual disability insurance ($200 a month). After my accident, health insurance covered the vast majority of my $300,000 in hospital bills—I paid only about $1,000 in copays.
Since I could no longer rely on a salary, my group insurance paid me $5,000 per month, which mostly went toward my mortgage, bills, food and basic expenses. In order to reach an optimal level of recovery, I needed two hours of physical and occupational therapy a day, five days a week—which is where the individual disability insurance came in, paying me the $5,000 per month I needed to afford that level of care.
Recovery was slow going. My muscles had atrophied, so I had to retrain my body to do everything from walking to buttoning my shirt to tying my shoes. Rehab was tough both physically and mentally, and I needed 16 to 20 hours of sleep a day to heal. I was also severely depressed—when I wasn't reliving my accident, I was wondering about my future. Who was I going to be? Would I ever be able to go back to work, or have a family?
I was attending ten hours of therapy a week, and I never expected that due to my improvement a year and a half after my accident, my group disability insurance would end. The policy was a catastrophic policy, and once they believed my situation was no longer catastrophic—which they did now—they ended my coverage.
What they couldn't see was that I was sleeping 12 hours a day, that I was using a wheelchair. They didn't know it took me an hour to get dressed in the morning. When they pulled their funds, I trimmed my expenses, relied on my savings and was eventually able to return to work part-time at age 39.
Walking by me on the street then, you probably wouldn't even be able to tell I was disabled anymore—following five years of rehab, I could walk and function like a normal person, but I exhausted quickly and still had some awkwardness on the right side of my body.
In 1999, I was well enough to branch out of my job at the insurance company and formed the Disability Resource Group—a multicarrier, wholesale insurance brokerage agency—which I still lead today.
How I Made It Through My First Marathon
I spent the next ten years running my company and maintaining my recovery. I still have some paralysis and nerve problems on my right side, but I minimize these problems by doing strength training, biking and using an elliptical machine. If I don't keep up my workouts, my muscles will continue to atrophy ... but medical professionals tell me that less than 1% of people with spinal cord injuries get to the point I’ve reached.
After my experience, I'm all in when it comes to anything to do with spinal injury. In 2009, my friend’s daughter broke her neck while doing gymnastics and after speaking with her, I decided to challenge myself to finish the Chicago marathon in order to raise money for her family. I couldn’t quite run (it was more of a shuffle, and advised against by my doctor), and at mile 14, I blew out my right knee due to lack of muscle strength. Luckily, a cortisone shot and lots of rest healed it just fine.
I finished in six hours and nine minutes, and raised $26,000 for my friend's family. I’ve completed the race every year since—faster each time—and have raised over $100,000 total. I was recently named last year's top fund-raiser out of 45,000 participants when I raised $43,000 for the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois. And, in fact, I don’t see myself as a marathon runner—I see myself as a charity fund-raiser who happens to run marathons. When you do something for a cause that is bigger than you, the reward is so much greater.
I’m now 52 and celebrating the 20th anniversary of my “second life.” Ultimately, my body now pretty much functions as normal. Before the accident, I was an active, confident, athletic salesman. But now I'm still working on the process of lifelong recovery and still accepting that the post-accident version of me will never truly be 100%. That said, my recovery has surpassed anything I could have imagined. It's not how I expected to get here, but I'm now exactly where I want to be.
John F. Nichols, CLU, MSM, is the President of Disability Resource Group, Inc. and spokesperson for the LIFE Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping consumers make smart insurance decisions.