Determined to Walk Again


After an accident crushed Cecil Wilder’s legs, his family and friends rallied to help in his healing. But could he meet his goal to walk again in six months?

Perhaps the ancient oaks that line the river running through the city of Sacramento, California, give backbone not only to the community but also to its residents. Much like these oaks, Cecil Wilder, age sixty-seven, has lent strength and stability to the Saints of Sacramento for four decades. Then one night this spiritual giant of a man was felled in a severe accident that would test not only his endurance but that of family and friends as well.

On that particular Thursday in April 1994, Brother Wilder, senior member of the Sacramento California Stake high council and a temple ordinance worker, had been up at 3:00 A.M. to travel two hours to the Oakland Temple, where he worked a long shift before returning home. It was early evening when he decided to drop in at the shop where his son, Cecil Jr., or Cec (pronounced “cease”), forty-two years old, was working late. The family’s commercial painting business was located in a large warehouse, and Brother Wilder arrived just as Cec was about to lift by forklift a large, one-ton air compressor up onto an eight-foot-high platform.

The heavy compressor was mounted on top of a large air tank, making the apparatus top-heavy. Father and son had moved the compressor a number of times and had developed a system that seemed to work. Cec would run the forklift, and Brother Wilder would steady the compressor as it tipped forward and slid off the forks into place. But they had never tried to do so eight feet off the floor.

Cec carefully slid the forks under the compressor and raised it to the high platform. His father, standing on the edge of the platform, reached out to guide it into place. But this time something went wrong. Suddenly, the compressor began sliding sideways and off the forklift. Brother Wilder saw it coming straight at him and in a reflexive movement jumped backward and off the platform, falling eight feet to the concrete floor. The compressor followed him down, gouging a three-inch hole in the floor where a corner first hit and then toppling onto him, pinning both legs and a hand under its weight.

A feeling of complete peace washed over Brother Wilder as he lay there pinned. Everything will be all right. Sweet whisperings of the Spirit penetrated his heart and fortified him for what was to come.

Stunned, Cec jumped from the forklift with a cry and ran to his father. He tried to lift the compressor, but it wouldn’t budge. Calling on strength not his own, he reached under it again and heaved it up against the platform. His dad rolled himself out from underneath and lay stunned and bleeding. Eleven-year-old grandson Andy, who had been playing nearby, ran to the office area to call for emergency assistance while Cec cradled his father’s head in his arms.

“Don’t worry, son,” whispered Cecil. “All will be well.”

Cec, with tears streaming down his cheeks, was sure his father did not know the extent of the injuries, for he could plainly see that both legs had been crushed as well as one hand. Suddenly the thought came clearly to Cec: Andy wouldn’t know our address here. Leaving his father, he ran to the phone extension in the shop and picked it up in time to hear the emergency operator asking for directions. He blurted out the information and ran back to his father.

Again Cecil whispered to his son, “Cec, don’t let it worry you. It’s nobody’s fault. The Lord’s already assured me I’ll be all right.”

Later, at the hospital, Cecil Wilder learned how seriously he was hurt, but strangely, he felt little pain. As he was being prepared for surgery, he again felt the comfort of the Spirit assuring him that everything would be all right. He was not worried.

But Arlene, his wife of nearly five decades and ward Relief Society president, was very worried. She was permitted to see him briefly just before he was wheeled into surgery. “Why did this have to happen?” she asked in tears, thinking of his love for others, his unselfish nature, and the more than twenty years of service he’d rendered as a counselor in the bishopric and later as bishop of the West Sacramento Ward, where they still reside.

Extending comfort to his loved ones, Cecil explained, “The Lord has assured me I will get better. Please don’t worry.”

Dr. Steven Olson, orthopedic surgeon and assistant professor at the University of California—Davis School of Medicine, was called to the emergency room. Later, he spoke with the family. “His left heel bone is crushed and the right knee joint has been shattered. His hand was severely damaged, but I think we can save it. The biggest problem is the knee. There were a lot of tiny segments too small to work with, so I ended up taking a bone graft from his hip and reconstructing the knee joint. I’ve reconstructed it with a plate and screws to hold everything in place.”

“Will he be able to walk again?” asked Arlene.

“He is to put no weight on his legs or feet for at least three months,” Dr. Olson replied. “But yes, he will probably walk again one day. Maybe in a year.”

Bishop Kimber Goddard had been out of town when the accident happened. “I felt impressed to call home and check in,” he recalls. “When I heard about Cecil, I cut short my trip and returned immediately.” Bishop Goddard quickly realized that in the hours following the emergency no one had had time to consider the long-term effect the accident might have on the family. He suggested that Arlene call the family together and offered to meet with them.

“They held a family council to determine the family’s needs for the coming year and how they could be met,” explains Bishop Goddard. There were large issues to consider, such as finances, the family business, and who would nurse Cecil. But there were the small things, too, such as who would take care of the yard work.”

Besides Arlene, the Wilders’ two married sons and their wives attended, along with Alyssa, an adult granddaughter living with Arlene and Cecil. Assignments were given and willingly accepted. Devin, the younger son, agreed to build a wheelchair ramp to the house as well as take over the day-to-day decision making for the family business. Arlene would handle the family finances and handle the insurance claims and paperwork from the accident. Cec would be in charge of the house and the family’s various vehicles in addition to his customer workload with the family business. Twenty-two-year-old grandson Darren would take care of the yard.

Ward members were also included in the plan. Donna Campbell, a nurse, was asked to oversee Cecil’s recovery when he returned home. She was to create a plan that would utilize ward members to visit daily and to assist Cecil with physical therapy. As word of Cecil’s accident spread, people began arriving at the hospital in a much-appreciated show of concern and support. Priesthood leaders and home teachers visited and gave priesthood blessings. Friends and neighbors came to spread good cheer and encouragement. So constant was the stream of visitors during Cecil’s nineteen days in the hospital that one day when Arlene decided to use the hospital’s back entrance, the security guard responded to her casual inquiry for directions to the third floor with detailed instructions directly to Cecil Wilder’s room.

In the days that followed, more than a hundred cards and letters arrived. The family decorated one entire wall of his hospital room with messages of love and support. Sooner than expected, Dr. Olson released Cecil to return home. The pattern for his recovery was set.

“We rented a hospital bed and put him in the family room,” Arlene remembers. “He needed twenty-four-hour care at first, and I slept on the couch next to him.”

Once home, Cecil made himself a promise to walk in six months. Doing so would cut the expected recovery time in half. Relentlessly, he began pushing himself to increase in physical strength and mobility. “My first goal was to move my fingers, then to wiggle my toes,” he recalls. “I worked at it every day, constantly.”

His next goal was to lift his leg, even an inch, off the bed. With the help of close friends such as Carl Wigren, he made slow but steady progress. Carl came to the house every single day for six months to help his longtime friend.

“When I heard about Cecil,” says Carl, “I made a decision I’d been thinking about for some time: I applied for early retirement. My wife had been ill too, and I decided to help them both.”

Progress came slowly. Then one night, only ten days after his return home, Cecil was gripped with pain. At 2:00 A.M. Arlene called their neighbor, Ruth McCray, and requested the use of her van and her help to take Cecil back to the hospital.

Tests showed that trauma resulting from the accident had caused Cecil’s gall bladder to rupture. A doctor who specialized in cancer explained to Cecil that during the many tests they had run, they had discovered that one of his kidneys showed a mass. “I’d like to take it out when we go in for the gall bladder,” the doctor said.

The night before the scheduled surgery, Bishop Goddard visited Cecil. “I found him on the telephone, calling the families he home teaches to check on them! One of the sisters was also in the hospital. Cecil was giving her comfort over the phone.” The bishop gave Cecil another priesthood blessing before leaving.

Surgeons operated the next day and removed the cancerous tumor.

“That gall bladder attack became a blessing in disguise,” says Cecil. “Cancer in the kidneys generally goes undetected until it’s too late. We caught this very early, before it had spread.” After sixteen more days in the hospital and a foot-long scar, he was sent home again.

“We were never without visitors at the house,” Arlene recalls. “Ward members arrived in the early morning, and someone was always here until late, sometimes 11:00 P.M. They helped care for Cecil, and sometimes me. Some sisters even went to the store for me. Other times friends stayed with Cecil and let me leave the house for a short time. Their support was a great blessing.”

Arlene’s schedule had always been hectic, but during the early part of Cecil’s recovery the pressure took her almost to the breaking point. While nursing her husband both day and night, she learned that her son Devin had to undergo surgery also. Then a water line under the house ruptured, leaving them with a big mess and no hot water for several days. As a final blow, Arlene broke her leg and ankle. “It was a very hard time for me,” she admits. “I felt angry, then incredibly drained. I had to pray about it every single day. I had to tell myself, ‘It’s going to get better.’”

Weeks later, another setback occurred when Cecil’s knee began to swell. “The swelling was a sign of irritation,” explains Dr. Olson. “I had to go in and suction out small pieces of bone that hadn’t knit in the healing.”

By now Cecil was sitting up in bed, and with the help of a slide board, he could get into a wheelchair. At last he could leave the house. Attending church on fast Sunday, he signaled a deacon to bring the microphone to his chair. He talked of the outpouring of love the family had experienced and then made a promise. “Next month I will go the podium to bear my testimony,” he told ward members.

A month later ward members watched him keep that promise, but he still spoke from a wheelchair. “Next month I will stand here,” he promised.

New goals were set. It had now been three months, and Cecil Wilder was anxious to stand up. First he sat with one leg over the side of the bed. Finally, he put his weight on both feet, if only for a few seconds. Weeks of lying down had affected his ability to maintain balance. But he stood. Weights were added to the motorized limb mover, which automatically extended and retracted his leg over and over again, slowly building its strength.

One month later he attended sacrament meeting and, with the help of a walker, stood to bear his testimony. He gazed at the congregation of friends who prayed for him, visited him, and helped him. They were his ward family. His moving testimony reflected his deep appreciation for them and for the Lord’s blessings. During his years as bishop, feelings of being a ward family had been strong.

“He’s been like a dad to me,” says Maggie Smith, a member of the West Sacramento Ward and the only member of the Church in her family. “I often go to him when I need advice. He’s like that to everyone,” she adds, referring to his kind helpfulness and magnanimity. She visited him daily while he was in the hospital. “I saw him get discouraged. I saw tears in his eyes when it was so incredibly hard and discouraging. I was glad to see a man who had served others so much have that kind of love come back to him from so many people.”

Sacramento stake president W. Scott Thorpe agrees. “When I came to visit, his first concern was for his high council assignments. I told him some of them had been given to his friend, Charles Putnam, who was called to take his place. But he continued to worry. One of his assignments was to oversee the girls’ camp facility. We were doing some building at the campsite, and he knew the most about what was going on. Long before he could walk, he had us drive him up to explain things to the architect.”

Cecil Wilder’s dedication to the gospel was shown in other ways. While in the hospital, he spoke to nurses, hospital staff, and roommates about the Church. “One night the young man in the bed next to mine told me he’d been in an accident and lost both his legs. We talked until 2:00 A.M. about life after death and what this life afforded us. He agreed to meet with the missionaries.”

Another night Cecil had a long conversation with a male nurse. It seems the nurse and his wife had been looking at various churches they might join. Cecil made him promise to attend a Latter-day Saint ward before deciding.

Another fast and testimony meeting came, and Brother Wilder, using crutches, again slowly made his way to the front of the chapel. “Next month I will walk up here by myself,” he promised.

“Dad has such determination,” says Cec. “When he heard the doctor tell him he wouldn’t walk for a year, he probably just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to walk in six months.’ He was determined to do it. All of us wanted to help him. It drew our family together.”

Bishop Goddard agrees. “In one of the priesthood blessings, I remember promising Brother Wilder that this trial would bring to pass great good and that their family would enjoy a new closeness. And they have.”

Says son Devin, “I hadn’t thought much about prayer for a long time. Suddenly we were having family prayer in the family room by Dad’s bed. Every night. I was scared that he wouldn’t make it. And I worried that if he did, he’d never again go camping or fishing, which he loved. This experience has reaffirmed to me that there is a God and that he really cares about us.”

Six months and two days after the accident, Cecil Wilder stood up in fast and testimony meeting and, leaving his cane behind, began the long walk to the front of the chapel. Although he had not yet taken more than ten or fifteen unaided steps at one time before that day, he moved slowly, a step at a time, to the front of the chapel. As he approached the stairs, a determined Brother Wilder declined the bishop’s offer of assistance.

I … will … do … this!

Every eye watched this courageous and greatly admired man make his way painfully to the podium, just as he had promised.

“My brothers and sisters,” he began. “I stand here today because of your love and your prayers. Surely our Father in Heaven has heard them. Thank you. … Thank you.”

A year later, Brother Wilder is once again busy serving members of his ward family, this time as high priests group leader. With only a slight limp and an occasional twinge of pain to remind him of his ordeal, he can be found repairing lawn sprinkler systems, building a redwood fence, performing basic home repairs, and dropping in at the family business from which he retired.

And because of his experience, he—as well as many who have observed his remarkable recovery and drawn strength from it—stands taller and stronger in spirit, reflecting the truth of the Apostle Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philip. 4:13).

[illustrations] Illustrated by Keith Larson

[photo] Photo by Judy C. Olsen