The youth I saw confined to a wheelchair was a startling contrast to the boy I remembered from the year before. I remembered him as a happy, 18-year-old Indian boy whose swift, strong legs had carried him up and down the basketball courts. But that was yesteryear. Today he was in a wheelchair. Today his dark eyes and handsome smile caused me to stand in awe of his youthful courage.
I first met Don a couple of years ago and learned that he was a convert to the Church. His widowed mother lived in a remote section of the Navajo Indian reservation, and he was a participant in the Indian student placement program. His school work was excellent; he played the piano skillfully; and with the same slim, brown fingers he could paint beautiful pictures or strum the guitar in accompaniment to his clear soft voice. Don’s personality was pleasant, his standards were high, his testimony strong. He was soon to graduate from high school, and his plans were to spend a short time with his people on the reservation before returning to live with his foster parents, where he would work preparatory to receiving his expected call to the mission field.
Life seems to have a way of changing the most carefully made plans, but no one would have expected the traumatic experience that awaited Don. His fun on the reservation was cut short by painful events, and his mission began in a much different way than one would have imagined.
While riding in the back of a pickup with some of his friends, Don accidentally fell out onto the hard, black pavement and skidded painfully along its rough surface. That was the last thing he remembered until he awoke in a hospital bed, his body in physical torment.
An excruciating pain in his back persisted through the long night, and as the new day began, Don found himself unable to move his arms, hands, or legs. He was paralyzed from his neck down!
Following an emergency operation, he awoke in a recovery room conscious that the pain in his mended back was subsiding; but he was also painfully aware of his helpless limbs that refused to respond to his efforts to move them.
Don’s concerned doctors had little hope that this condition would ever change. As he lay helpless in his hospital bed, fighting back the tears of discouragement, he poured out the feelings of his heart to his Heavenly Father, asking for strength to endure and for a recovery from his affliction if it were His will.
Night after night while others slept, Don struggled through the long, dark hours attempting to move his helpless hands that lay inertly by his side. He would pray and try, pray and try, repeating over and over in his mind, “I can do it, I can do it, I can do it!” Then, as the early morning light filtered softly through the blinds of his window, he would surrender himself wearily to a merciful sleep.
On one such interminable night, Don’s heart suddenly pounded with excitement as an almost imperceptible movement was made by one of his fingers! Holding his breath in suspense, he moved his finger again!
There was no sleep for Don that night. A wonderful, elated feeling of hope buoyed his troubled spirit and gave him renewed determination to regain the use of his hands.
Each night became a new adventure as gradually, with great effort and perseverance, the use of his hands and arms slowly returned to him.
In the meantime, Don’s doctor had procrastinated the unwelcome task of informing him that he must mentally prepare himself to accept his paralysis as an unalterable fact of his young life.
With great difficulty, the doctor broke this news to Don. It was a poignant moment for the good doctor who turned quickly to leave the room to conceal his emotion. As he made his exit, he stole a last glance at Don lying quietly in his bed. Just at this moment, Don reached his arm up to the head rail of his bed and pulled himself into a more comfortable position. The startled doctor could not contain himself. “Do that again, Don! Do that again!” he shouted with excitement. Soon the room was swarming with nurses and doctors who came running to learn the cause of the great commotion. It was a moment to be remembered.
Although Don was happy to feel the strength gradually return to his arms and hands, he had to fight back the tears when he looked down at his helpless legs.
In these trying circumstances he began to fulfill his desire to be a missionary. He told his roommate about the Book of Mormon and gave him a copy to read. Charles, a Hopi Indian boy, immediately became engrossed in the book, and, when darkness came at the close of the day, he continued reading. He devoured the words of this book for three days and two nights, jealous of the time it took to eat or rest. Finally, when he had turned the last page, he rose from his bed and walked over near Don’s side and asked, “Don, where did you get this book? I have shared in the traditions of my people that we hold to be sacred. Many of our traditions are written in this book. Where did you get it?”
Don happily shared his testimony with this new friend as he told him of the restoration of the gospel and of its special meaning to them as Lamanites, a covenant race and descendants of the Book of Mormon people.
Soon after this Charles was released to go home, anxious to share this new message with family and friends. Don was moved to a rehabilitation center in Denver, Colorado. He was quite unprepared for what he encountered at his new residence in the paralytic ward. Everyone seemed depressed, discouraged, and despondent. Patients could not understand how Don, who was in an equally distressing condition, could seem so happy. Some of them asked, “Why are you always so happy and smiling?” Don replied, “My smile keeps the tears from my eyes, and my laughter keeps the lump from my throat.”
With courageous determination Don took advantage of the special care he now received. Long after others would tire and leave the gymnasium, he would remain—trying, trying, trying. Through his valiant effort, accompanied by humble petitions to his Heavenly Father, he was finally strong enough to go up and down the parallel bars alone; and then he was able to walk with braces and crutches. His new mobility permitted him to attend church services. This spiritual comfort brought him great joy, but he was totally surprised by the reception he was given upon his return to the hospital. Everyone teased him for going to church! In his characteristic way, Don’s smile merely broadened at their taunting. He resolved to do something about the gloomy atmosphere in this, his new home, so he happily embarked upon the next chapter of his mission.
In the days that followed, he could be seen wheeling himself down hallways and into every room where patients would receive him, preaching the gospel to all who would listen. He became known good-naturedly as “the prophet,” a title that he accepted graciously.
In the evenings he often lifted his voice in song as he accompanied himself with his guitar. Others began to join in, and the spirit spread. Friday nights soon became known as the time for a hootenanny, and patients joined together with voices raised in song and laughter. Patients began to smile and call each other by name. This new spirit extended into other activities as well.
One of the more dramatic examples was the organizing of a wheelchair olympics.
On the day agreed upon, patients wheeled excitedly from place to place as they marked out a course for the coming events. Wheelchairs were lined up at a starting line, while occupants leaned forward, intently waiting for the starting signal. The signal was given, and they were off in a flurry of wheels and laughter. After a breather and an untangling of wheels, patients were given a chance to challenge another wheelchair. Don looked around, and pointing his finger at one of the chairs, said, “I challenge that chair.”
“Don, you can’t do that,” the astonished attendant replied. “That chair has a motor!”
The competitive young man was undaunted and remained firm; so a course was set and an eager audience waited expectantly for the signal to begin this most unusual race. Soon the signal was given and Don’s hands fairly flew as he propelled his chair toward the finish line. When he had gained full momentum, he ventured a cautious look toward his opponent, only to discover that he was shifting to a higher gear! To complicate matters further, a woven wire fence was stretched a few short feet behind the finish line.
With the heart of a champion, Don ducked his head and gave it everything he had. He crossed the line only inches ahead of his opponent and crashed happily into the wire fence. He was picked up and dusted off amid excited expressions of admiration. He had won!
All was not happiness for Don, however, for he longed to see his home, his family, and his friends. In spite of his high resolve, his vision clouded when he looked down at his crippled legs. Wonderful Church members tried to fill his hour of need, and Don said, “Through their kindness they put a smile on my face and laughter in my mouth.”
As time drew near for him to be released, he began to worry about his acceptance by friends and family upon his return.
The day finally came when his foster parents arrived. It was an ordeal for Don to muster up enough courage to direct the question that had filled his mind completely. “Do you want me to come back?” he asked apprehensively. They softly replied, “Of course, Don. We have a bed waiting for you.” The kind response was too much for him! This time his tears flowed freely and mixed with theirs in a demonstration of joy and love.
On the night of Don’s departure, a special hootenanny was held in his behalf. His many new friends shook the rafters with a song rendered in his honor: “Too Many Chiefs and Not Enough Indians Around This Place.”
The courage and spirit of this young man had touched the lives of others and left an indelible impression.
Two of the residing patients and two members of the nursing staff who waved good-bye to Don had embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ as a result of his influence. Many looked to the future with new hope, and each felt a personal loss at his departure.
Upon his return home, Don’s numerous friends were out to greet him and welcome him back into their circle of friendship. Don soon found a job at an LDS mailbox bookstore that enabled him to meet the payments on his car, a vehicle equipped with special controls that would carry him to his work and to the Mesa Community College where he was enrolled for classes.
As I concluded my visit with him, he handed me a letter. “What is this?” I asked. “It’s a letter from my physical therapist in Denver,” he smiled in reply.
I unfolded the pages and began to read. “Dear Don,” the letter began, “I don’t know how to thank you. Yesterday was the happiest day of my life. It was the day I was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
I hope I will remember the example of Don. I hope I will remember his parting words when I asked about his future. He looked directly at me and spoke with conviction: “I’ll wipe away my tears and let the winds of discouragement blow. I cannot fail, for God is with me.”