Refusing to accept a dismal prognosis

I read “In Constant Pursuit of Excellence” with more than casual interest. Vicki Godal’s compelling story about motocross racer Aaron Baker (The Malibu Times Nov. 4) struck me in a deeply visceral way.

At age 10, my grandson, Devon, is where Baker was 15 years ago, training with the dream of becoming a professional motorcycle racer. He is coached by his father, a former champion, who teaches him the rules of the sport and keeps his bike perfectly tuned.

While practicing on his motocross track at home last week, Devon’s front wheel hit a rock sending him over the bars, fracturing and dislocating his left wrist. This is the third break to that slender arm. But having watched hundreds of videos of his favorite racing heroes and seeing their accidents, Devon is stoical about injuries. “It goes with the game,” his dad says.

During the past year, racing injuries to his friends have ranged from minor to serious to fatal. We know this may dim his passion for the sport, even as his racing victories spur him on. But he is never pushed to ride. His mother tells him, “Any day it doesn’t feel right to you, just back off and give it a rest. On the days when everything feels good, then go for it.”

A few weeks ago, the day after a big win, Devon’s stomach aches. He tells his mom he has a bad feeling so he stays home. That’s okay with everybody. We never talk about fear as though it’s a weakness. We all tell him it’s important to listen to your inner voice.

During the years that I trained jumping horses and riders I saw lots of wrecks. Only two were fatal. In both cases, the children said they were not sure whether to compete that day. One was urged to go on, the other was told it would be fine not to ride but decided to do it anyway. The result was the same for the kids but definitely not for the parent who pressed his child to go against that feeling.

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I’ve also seen riders seriously injured who struggled against overwhelming odds to recover completely. And then there were those with spinal injuries who seemed to accept the limitations of life in a wheelchair. Most of those left the sport entirely, too dispirited to even watch friends compete. A few used their disability to redirect their energy from riding to coaching and judging or to helping others with rehabilitation.

It has always been a mystery to me why some people accept a bad prognosis without question, without a fight. I talked this over with a very wise doctor, a pediatrician and psychiatrist, who explained the difference in some people’s reactions when faced with the probability of permanent disability.

He said many things come into play in the first weeks following a serious injury, some triggered by existing problems and attitudes. Sometimes a sedated patient will hear things said in the operating room that the subconscious mind accepts as fact: He’ll never walk again. He’ll be lucky if he can move anything. Other times the doctor will give a devastating prognosis and the patient, instead of accepting it, is motivated to fight, to prove the doctor wrong.

Of those who accept a lifetime limitation, there are stages similar to those in patients diagnosed with a terminal illness. Anger, frustration, despair and finally acceptance. It seems Aaron Baker went through most of these but not acceptance. His mother’s insistence that he not be told the real prognosis was apparently the right choice for this young man.

As we all saw with actor Christopher Reeve, the struggle becomes a cause, a reason to endure the pain, a way to help others. Whether or not the goal is ever reached, the heroic effort takes on a life of its own, even if it’s not exactly the life one originally had in mind.

I gave the copy of Baker’s story to Devon’s mom and dad to read first, to see if it might help in dealing with his recovery and his unspoken fears. Earlier in the day he had been angry and frustrated that it was a beautiful day and he should be out riding. I reminded him that he would only miss riding for a few weeks or months. That’s not like knowing the proscription against doing what you most love is forever.

After Devon read about Baker, we talked again. The story put his relatively minor injury in a new perspective, anger and self-pity completely gone, courage and determination definitely back. He also said he knew his mom would always be there to help just like Baker’s mom was there for him.

13StarsManager
13StarsManagerhttps://malibutimes.com
The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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