Wheelchairs + Tennis = Life Narratives #8 The Roulette Wheel of Hideous Misfortune

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The flight to Kansas City was pretty smooth considering the likelihood of a choppy flight in the spring. I was on my way to the First Annual “Wheel It Forward” Tennis Tournament, an indoor tournament at the Northland Racquet Club in Kansas City from April 10 through 12. It was a small tournament with eighteen participants, a radical difference in numbers and “feel” from the Cajun Classic I had played in a month before.

Some wondered why I would spend money to go to a tiny tournament in the Midwest with no history of success. I wasn’t sure why, either. I knew I was crazy about playing wheelchair tennis. I suspected I would have a better chance of winning a game or two at a small competition. And the big draw was meeting the legendary Nick Taylor, a top-ranked quad player who serves the ball with his foot.

But it wasn’t until the end of the tournament, and after I had met and talked to some of the people involved that I realized what I had stumbled upon: a confluence of individual narratives that, while marked with trauma, gave rise to life-affirming possibilities, the kind of possibilities that so many around me in the summer of 1980 clung on to as I battled death.  We begin this story with one Brian McMillan and his motorcycle.

Brian’s Narrative

Raised in Austin, Texas, Brian grew up in a “tennis family.” Everybody played, from his father, who flew planes in WWII, to his two older siblings. Tennis was all the rage in the 70’s, and Brian was caught up in it, playing tennis for his high school. “I was okay, but not great.”

Brian moved to Kansas City in the summer of 1991, where he went to grad school at Kansas State and received a Master’s degree in landscape architecture. After he graduated he worked for architecture and civil engineering firms doing land development.

But work was work. Brian’s passion was motorcycles, from BMWs to beautiful Italian bikes, at one time owning three powerful road machines. He didn’t ride every day, but when he did, he road with a purpose, finding roads with plenty of twists and turns. For Brian, who often road with his brother, Walter, there wasn’t a bad road in Arkansas to do what Brian called “technical riding.” Brian even went to riding schools. And he played it safe—or so he thought–faithfully wearing gloves, a helmet, a protective jacket, and boots.

Brian didn’t give up on tennis. After moving to Kansas City, he joined the Northland Racquet Club to participate in a “hit and run” clinic held every Saturday morning. A handful of people regularly showed up and Jim Pfeiffer, the club’s tennis pro, ran the clinic.

Life was good for Brian. He pitied people in wheelchairs. How could life possibly be good for them? Whenever he saw someone in a wheelchair, he said to himself, “Oh man, dude, your life is over.” He figured “they were barely limping along and just getting through life.” He didn’t know anyone with a disability. He just thought it was bad luck. He called it “the roulette wheel of hideous misfortune. The ball lands on your number and you can’t believe it.”  He, like most of us, thought the ball would never land on his number.

But on May 31, 2002, it did. On that day, a Friday filled with sunshine and scenic beauty, Brian, age 44, came face to face with the hideous misfortune he so loathed.

The road to Brian’s misfortune began when he and Walter, who lives in Austin, Texas, planned a four-day weekend to ride on state highway 125 that runs through the Mark Twain National Forest in southern Missouri. Brian had ridden the twisty highway before and he wanted to introduce the adventure to Walter. They agreed that Brian and his wife, Donna, would meet Walter and his friend, Pat, at a halfway point, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

They arrived there Thursday afternoon, May 30th, and had dinner in the Ozark Mountains. After breakfast in the morning, they hopped on their motorcycles and road for several hours. It was a beautiful, sunny day. A gorgeous day to ride. Walter took the lead, Pat the rear, and Brian and Donna the middle.

It happened at about noon. Brian powered his bike on a twisty turn and it hit a patch of gravel or sand. The bike flew out from under Brian and Donna. She rolled into a meadow and suffered at most a skinned knee. Brian wasn’t so lucky. He slammed into a tree. Pat raced ahead to bring Walter back while Donna search frantically for Brian. She found his broken body in the bushes near the tree.

Brian woke up in the ICU ward of St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, having been medevacked there minutes after the crash. A morphine drip dulled the pain, the pain of a spinal cord injury that left him a complete paraplegic. Donna was devastated. They had been married only eight months before the crash. She cried herself to sleep and woke up thinking it was all a nightmare. But it wasn’t.

Brian spent seven weeks in hospitals to allow his broken scapula and clavicle to heal. Once the bones mended properly, he began his ride back to daily living by doing the arduous work of physical rehabilitation–learning how to live again without his legs. For four months, first at an outpatient clinic in Kansas City and then at the Chicago Rehabilitation Institute, Brian spent long hours working on his upper body strength, doing all sorts of exercises on mats, navigating parallel bars, lifting weights, getting himself off the floor and into his wheelchair, and using a “transfer board” to move himself off of his wheelchair and onto something else, say, his bed.

Brian returned to his home in Kansas City in September, 2002. He and Donna lived in a 1,200 square foot loft in a converted four-story coat factory. A 1925 Otis elevator serviced the building. Not too much was required to accommodate Brian’s wheelchair. They brought the bed down from the raised platform bedroom area Brian had built and replaced the bathtub with a roll-in shower. Donna, who worked in a hospital, took an extended leave of absence. His mother, Patricia, and Walter came from Texas to be with them.

But then came that inevitable day when Donna went back to work and his mother and brother returned to Texas. That’s when the enormity of it all hit Brian, almost as violently as his impact with the tree: He was alone. In a wheelchair—for the rest of his life.

Brian hit bottom when one day he attempted to use his transfer board and fell to the floor. Three months earlier, had he fallen on the floor, he would’ve hopped back up on his legs and thought nothing of it. Now his legs were dead to him.  And no one was around to help him.

He pissed on himself. “I’m fucked.”

“There’s no second chance,” Brian told me. “You can drop out of school and go back again. You can get divorced and marry again.”

“The roulette wheel of hideous misfortune.”

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