From Paralysis to Marathoner: How Disability Insurance Saved My Life

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.

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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.

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  • Michelle