As Christina Aguilera began to stumble through the national anthem before Sunday’s Super Bowl, nobody in the SCI stood up.
No one stood up, because no one was able. The SCI is the Veterans Affairs hospital’s spinal cord injury unit.
If you’re in the SCI, there’s a lot you’ll likely never do again: run fly patterns, kick field goals, intercept passes. One thing you can do is laugh. A commercial during Sunday’s game featured a young man professing his love with the sentiment “your rack is unreal.” Howls shook the unit’s rec room.
Albuquerque’s VA is a regional medical center. Those with spinal cord injuries come from New Mexico as well as six surrounding states. No one settles in to make a life in the SCI. At any one time, between 18 and 25 patients are on the unit’s floor. Those who arrive in fragile condition can spend a couple of years there. Others can be in the SCI for five days undergoing an annual eval before returning home. The patients are mostly men, none of them injured in Iraq or Afghanistan. Seems the battle gear worn in those war zones does a good job of protecting the back’s bones.
“We played street football as kids back in the Bronx. You know, guys from the neighborhood. Two-hand tag. I feel sorry for kids today. Everything they do has to have a battery in it.”
Manny Martinez, former Navy boilerman
On Sunday afternoon, many patients wheeled themselves over or had themselves pushed up to a long table in the rec room. Laid out was a spread of barbecued chicken wings, cheese balls, chips, nachos, cold cuts, veggies and soft drinks. For dessert, chocolate cupcakes with little white footballs for frosting.
“Where’s the beer?” someone asked.
“You pissed it all away last week,” came the answer.
Those paralyzed from the waist down filled their paper plates. Others, chiefly the quadriplegics, had to be fed. Meanwhile, Packers and Steelers raced across the screen of a jumbo TV. A brick-sized remote lay nearby. When you have limited use of your fingers, XXXL buttons are a lot easier to push. Of course, no one was about to change channels that day.
“Third down, right?” wondered Manny Martinez, once a Navy boilerman. From New York City originally, Martinez moved to New Mexico seven years ago. He brought his accent with him.
“We played street football as kids back in the Bronx,” he said. “You know, guys from the neighborhood. Two-hand tag. I feel sorry for kids today. Everything they do has to have a battery in it.”
Close by, Clyde Langdale, a Navy veteran of the Vietnam War nodded. “All this electronic stuff is bullshit.”
“I get depressed when I come here. I’ve made every kind of craft there is. Model cars, baskets, leather wallets, pen cases. I got to get out of here.”
Few of those in the SCI were injured while in uniform. Martinez was riding in a taxi when it got T-boned. Langdale suffered a rare spinal stroke years after he served. Jack Russ was shot in the back by his estranged wife’s boyfriend. Larry Bennett did two tours as a Marine in Vietnam and left there without a scratch. A month later, he was driving along when the right front wheel on his pickup fell off. “Don’t remember a thing. I was in a coma for three months.”
Acronyms are everywhere on the SCI. An ADL is an activity of daily living, such as grooming or toileting. An ICP is an intermittent catheterization procedure. An AMA is against medical advice. If you are AMA, you’ve decided to leave the SCI even though doctors think you should stay longer.
“We’re not prisoners here,” Russ said. He wore a Harley-Davidson cap atop shoulder-length hair. He said he has six AMAs in his file as well as a history of drug abuse. Russ was laid on his stomach, and he pushed himself around on what is known as a prone cart—another sore on his ass.
It’s hard to protect against pressure sores on the buttocks, which are widespread in the SCI and a big danger. The actor Christopher Reeve didn’t die from a respiratory problem. Complications from infected sores on his rear end killed him.
“I get depressed when I come here,” Russ admitted. “I’ve made every kind of craft there is. Model cars, baskets, leather wallets, pen cases. I got to get out of here.”
Janet Escobedo, the SCI’s recreation therapist, acted as waitress on Sunday for people who couldn’t get to the buffet table on their own. Patients do different things to cope, she said. “Some are brutal realists. And some engage in fantasy thinking.” In other words, after a half year as a quadriplegic, you accept your situation or you start to believe you might be on “Dancing With the Stars.”
Robert Cave, an Army veteran everyone calls R.C., is a realist. From Odessa, Texas, R.C. spent life after the service following oil rigs across the Southwest, including stops in Farmington, Artesia and Carlsbad. A few years ago almost 1,000 pounds of pipe fell on him. He can walk a step or two with a cane. But at 54, he knows he’ll spend most of his days in a motorized chair.
“I used to have Thanksgiving football games with my kids and grandkids,” he said. “No more.” As long as he can watch his beloved Dallas Cowboys on television, R.C. said he’ll be fine. “I guess what I’m saying is that if the Cowboys ain’t playin’, I ain’t watchin’.”
Joe Keddington, a former Air Force captain, was bicycling in Salt Lake City last July when a hit-and-run driver struck him from behind. The collision sent Keddington flying over his handlebars, and he landed headfirst in a pile of dirt. “First few months, I felt like I died. I wished they had left me in that ditch to die,” he said. “Then you feel better. Then you go to rehab, and you feel bad again. After a year, everybody says they’re glad to be alive.”
On the big screen, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger dropped back to pass. As he started to throw, he slipped. An excited announcer shouted, “He’s lost his footing!”
“Hey, I know the feeling,” said Martinez.
Laughter filled the room.