In 2015, I interviewed my friend Geri about how her life had changed since she’d moved to Korea. The post was called k “Korea. A Vision List.” (Link) At that time Geri was a counselor at the US Army Garrison Yongsan in Seoul, where her fiancé Chris was teaching World History and Advanced Placement Psychology at Seoul American High School. Shortly after our interview Chris was wounded, although not in a motorcycle accident as I reported in a note at the end of the post.
For this interview, Geri and I spoke via Skype when she was at Kadena AFB, Okinawa and I was in the Philippines. (Thanks to Geri for the great photos. )
Chris’s accident was August 9, 2015, when he was visiting family in Florida. On his last day of vacation, he was riding in a friend’s Mercedes when an SUV rear-ended it from behind at a stoplight. Chris got out to look at the damage and was standing between the two cars when a third car rear-ended the SUV. Fortunately, someone screamed “look out” and Chris turned, saw the car coming, and because he was a martial artist, he jumped straight up—no time to go anywhere else. The SUV hit him at the knees and dragged him beneath the car. The Mercedes was pushed fifty feet into the intersection. Chris remained awake and aware the entire time, telling people how to tie off his legs, and to get a helicopter instead of an ambulance. Thank God he’s in quite good shape except that he doesn’t have anything from his knees down. In fact, there was no trauma to his brain or his internal organs.
Chris spent about two weeks at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola, Florida and then another two weeks at Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville. I flew over and lived in the hospitals for three weeks, sleeping on a cot. Because we couldn’t predict our cash flow, we decided I should go back to my job in Korea, live on the mountain and take care of our three dogs. Chris moved in with his brother, Bill, and sister-in-law, Gina, while continuing with physical therapy at Sacred Heart Hospital near their home in Santa Rosa. He also began working with Jack Pranzarone with Hangar Prosthetics in Ft. Walton.
Why don’t you talk a little bit about his rehab?
Well, as fate—or whatever—would have it, he got one of the best surgeons in the area, Dr. Jason Rocha, who was on call at the Baptist Hospital Trauma Center. After the hospital, he went to Brooks Rehabilitation where he also had the best physicians, like Dr. Howard Weiss — people who were used to treating soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. After two weeks at the Trauma Center, Chris was transferred to Brooks Rehabilitation Hospital in Jacksonville because he was doing so well. In fact, many of his caregivers told him how amazing he was. They said they had young men who were depressed and didn’t have the drive that Chris had to walk on the prosthetics and to go back to teaching, scuba diving and martial arts. He had a tremendously positive attitude about his rehabilitation. After two weeks at Brooks they said he’d already mastered everything.
He was amputated above the knees, right?
Yes, Chris has a bi-lateral amputation just above the knees, although his surgeon, Dr. Rocha, made a valiant effort to try and save his left knee with eight surgeries in two weeks. His X-3 prosthetic legs are made by Ottobock in Germany, and they are an amazing piece of technology, with a gyroscope in the “knees” using memory chips and Bluetooth to calibrate the correct alignment and pressure through the use of a computer. Chris continues to work with Jack Pranzarone at Hangar Prosthetics in Fort Walton, but he also received help from a wounded warrior who helped him to learn how to walk and manipulate his legs to go up and downstairs.
Then you got married.
We’d been engaged for years, but with the logistics of possible job transfers, military housing and other legal considerations, we decided it was time to get married. I called our friend Frank Tedesco in the Tampa Bay area, who said he’d be happy to take our dogs, and I shipped them to him before leaving for the U.S. myself. I arrived in Florida worn out from the stress of my job, our situation, and feeling totally jet-lagged. A lovely lady—and friend of the family—offered us her home in Pensacola. The family came together, and we were married on December 27th. Chris was determined to walk on his new prosthetics at the wedding. His other goal was to return to Korea in April and teach the last quarter of his classes at Seoul American High School. After the wedding, I returned to Korea to continue working and to get things ready for his return.
In April, Chris made a few short flights by himself, as agreed, and I met him in Hawaii to escort him on the long flight back to South Korea. While in Hawaii, we decided to go scuba diving. We weren’t sure how we were going to do it, but we just showed up. A couple of military guys were on the same dive boat. (I’ve found that God just places angels everywhere you go.) Before we could even try to figure out how to get Chris and his wheelchair onto the boat, one of the dive masters picked Chris up, put him on his back and cat-walked Chris onto the boat, leaving the wheelchair at the dock. When we arrived at our dive site, Chris “spider-monkeyed” his way to the back of the boat, put on his gear and slipped into the water. Using just weights strapped to his thighs and webbed gloves on his hands, Chris descended the rope. But because his gloves were a bit large he accidentally hit both the air intake and release buttons at the same time while trying to get neutrally buoyant, and he flipped upside down. I saw him scrambling to hold onto the coral, and I quickly grabbed him and pulled him back. Then we released the air. He was fine—we were both fine. It was a great dive. On Columbus Day we went diving again in Okinawa, and he did well, although at first he lost a fin and had to resurface to retrieve it. A deck hand had fished it out of the water.
The trip back to Korea was quite an ordeal, but we got him to the door of the plane. By that time he was able to use his canes to walk back to his assigned seat. We put his legs in the overhead compartment and checked his wheelchair. One day at a time we’re learning how to adapt to changing circumstances.
In Korea our house was on the side of a mountain at a Zen temple, and we didn’t know how he was going to climb the 72 steps up to our front door. Our landlady had a train, but it was just a piece of junk and I was scared to run it by myself. One of our friends from the school was an Air Force mechanic who got the train running, but it still worked only twice. Chris has a lot of upper-body strength, so while I carried the wheelchair up and down the stairs, he hoisted himself along using the railing, and where there was no railing,he held onto ladders. It really was horrendous. He later developed a rash all over his body from poison ivy or some other foliage near the railing. One day, after two weeks of struggling up and down the hill, we came home from work in pouring rain. We couldn’t get the train to work, and Chris tried to go up the steps, but slipped and fell.
It was at that point we surrendered, called a couple of friends who lived in UN Village, and they put us up in their extra bedroom. Earlier in the school year, we had applied for a transfer because the bitter Korean winters are very bad for amputees, and subsequently received a transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. So when we went to the school administrators, we were allowed to access temporary quarters on the base.
About a week before departing from Korea, we again experienced a divine intervention. We already had our plane tickets to see family in the US, to check on our house in Turkey, and to make Chris’ appointments with Hangar Prosthetics. Our household goods had been picked up and were on their way to Cuba. Then there was a call from Washington DC.
“We have a problem. There’s no wheelchair-accessible home for you. Could you wait while we build one? It will be six months to a year. In the meantime, all we can offer you is a second-floor apartment in a building without an elevator.”
After some deliberation they said, “Okay, we’re going to send you to Okinawa.”
Our orders arrived two days before we were supposed to get on the plane. It was a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty.
It sounds like your employers were very sympathetic.
Oh, they were wonderful. I can’t say enough for the SAHS administrators and the Superintendent’s Office in Seoul, the military as a whole, the teachers and staff support at SAHS, and particularly DODEA (the Department of Defense Education Activity), which hires teachers and runs the educational programs for the military dependents overseas. Chris has worked for DODEA for 32 years, and we have found wonderful supportive people everywhere we have gone, including his new Principal and Assistant Principals here at Kadena High School here in Okinawa. When we arrived here, we were told there were no wheelchair-accessible houses on the base. We had to shift again. Chris laughs about this being our unintended adventure. About a month ago we found a one-story house in the Yomitan-Son area of Okinawa. We have a beautiful view of the sea, the floors are completely tiled, and the bathrooms are totally wheelchair accessible. Divine intervention again.
When Chris lived in Okinawa before, he belonged to an Aikido martial arts group here. We heard our Grand Master was coming to Okinawa in September, so we joined the seminar training, where I received my Nidan. or second degree black belt. Although Chris is a Sandan, or third degree black belt in Aikido, we attended the seminar training with the idea that he was just going to watch. To our surprise and delight, Grand Master asked him to sit in the line training with the other martial artists, and he was able to join in. Currently, we are working on setting up another Aikido group here in Okinawa, as we did in Seoul. I think our mission has become to live without limitations: no matter how you might be handicapped, find a way to adapt and do what you want to do.
Where does he get all this strength and determination from? I can’t imagine myself being in that situation without getting enormously discouraged.
Yeah, me too. Friends who have known him for a long time say only Chris could have handled things as he has.I think in a difficult situation all of us can find strength we didn’t know we had. Chris has been a coach for 30 years and also has practiced several styles of martial arts for over 40 years. I think it has played a big part in his attitude and his ability to overcome adversity. He’s deeply spiritual, but not religious. Although we both were raised in the Methodist church, we have an eclectic form of spirituality and a regular spiritual practice which includes a morning devotion, meditation and prayer. Our committed relationship is part of it too, and we love traveling to different countries to visit temples, shrines, mosques and holy places together.
Were there times when you thought that supporting him under these circumstances would just be too much, that you couldn’t do it?
No—and I’m being honest about it. People say it’s amazing how I supported him. But what else would I do? I love this person. Looking back, I think it’s been a really tough year. I’m glad I couldn’t see into the future. In Seoul, when I was working as a counselor, I had a very supportive supervisor. In the morning he’d come into my office with a cup of coffee, sit down and ask, “How’re you doing? Anything I can do for you?” I can’t tell you how much that meant to have that constant emotional support.
I also journaled a lot. I have many journals filled with existential struggle and spiritual conversations with the angels. “What do I do now, how do I handle this? I need help with this.” I continue to journal regularly, asking questions, asking for help, trying to figure out what I am going to do next. I’m a caretaker and a counselor. That’s who I am. At one time I was married to an alcoholic, so now I’m an educated caretaker. I really work at trying to balance taking care of myself with taking care of others. I’m not a martyr.
You have to do that first, for yourself and the other person.
My goal in this house is to help Chris become as self-sufficient and independent as possible. I don’t know why, but I never thought I didn’t want to do this. I believe in karma and to a certain extent in predetermination. I think that Chris was built to do what he’s doing, and I was built to what I’m doing. This is who I am. I have a warrior spirit and I’m always looking to improve myself.
One of the aspects that initially attracted me to living in an Asian culture was the idea of the Kuan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, but my experience is that Korea is very unsupportive of people with handicaps, and this shocked me when Chris got hurt.
In China thirty-two years ago, I learned immediately that there was no tolerance for anyone who was different. I think part of that was Confucianism—or agrarian collectivism—and part was the police state. Since university students were also reserved military, even having one leg an inch shorter than the other one would disqualify you as a university student. Disabled people were shut away. That’s also true now in the Philippines, which is based on a mixture of agrarian collectivism and Catholicism.
To date we’ve seen the most compassion among military people, who go out of their way to open doors, help with the wheelchair, or help Chris get out of the car. While in Korea, Chris had to get to the second floor of a building to get a military ID. There was no way he could get up there. So a couple of soldiers put him into a medical carry-hold and carried him up the stairs.
People come up and ask Chris if he was wounded in the war, and he’ll say he’s a vet, he was a medic, but that he got hurt in a car accident. The cutest thing is the kids, who are really blunt. They’ll say, “What happened to your legs?”
The parents are embarrassed, but Chris loves it. He’ll say, “Well, we think somebody was texting while she was driving and she wasn’t paying attention.”
Chris lived here for twelve years before he moved to Korea, so it’s like home, except he can’t do a lot of what he did here before. We’re both 64 now, but we feel pretty young. My goal is to improve our health, nutrition and lifestyle so that we can be healthy centenarians, like the Okinawans, many of whom live to be over a hundred. Okinawans are not Japanese, but Ryukyu, an island people, very relaxed and accommodating. Many live longer than anybody else on the planet, which has to do with what they eat and their easy tolerant lifestyle, but it also seems to be a very accepting and loving culture. This is what we’re all about on this unintended adventure!