My transition from the hospital to the rehab facility had been rough at first.
When my mom came back from touring Rancho Colina while I was still at Cedars-Sinai, she had made it sound like some sort of summer camp. “They have hydrotherapy pools and horseback riding and sports,” she’d gushed, describing all the different programs the rehab center offered. “And they treat hundreds of spinal cord injuries each year, so there will be plenty of other people like you there.”
All that was true, but rehab was definitely not like camp. I had been to camp. Hell, I’d spent eight years of my life living at camp. This was different. Rehab wasn’t recreational; it was hard work.
My days started around seven a.m., when I woke up and went through my morning routine. A nurse would come in to empty my catheter bag and help me with my “bowel program,” which was their polite way of talking about taking a crap. Since I could no longer feel when I had to go to the bathroom, I had to train my body to go at the same time every day to avoid accidents. This was the most embarrassing part of my daily routine, so I was glad to get it over with first thing in the morning.
Once I’d gone to the bathroom, the nurse would help me shower, another humiliating process which involved him or her hoisting my naked body onto a waterproof shower chair and hosing me down, shampooing my hair and washing my body while I sat there helplessly, unable to do much except hold up my arms when it was time to wipe underneath them. It made me feel less than human, like I was an animal.
After my shower, I was transferred back to my bed to get dressed for the day. Then I would eat breakfast before my first physical therapy session began at ten. My physical therapist was a woman named Charisma. She was younger than me, but what she may have lacked in experience, she made up for with her seemingly endless level of energy. “Come on, Kevin, you can do it,” she would encourage me, as she put me through a series of exercises meant to strengthen my muscles and improve my balance and range of motion. Even when I complained, she never stopped smiling.
Once P.T. wrapped, I would go back to my room to rest and eat lunch before my afternoon sessions began. After lunch, I had another hour of P.T., which usually took place in the pool - my favorite part of the program.
The first time Charisma put me in the water, I was fearful, afraid of not being able to keep my paralyzed body afloat. “It’s okay,” she had assured me, as she lowered me into the pool with the help of a hydraulic lift. “I’ve got you.”
Lying in the sling, I’d felt like Free Willy in reverse. I didn’t like the look of my body in my swim trunks anymore. The legs dangling limply out of the bottom didn’t even look like mine - they were pale and skinny from the muscle tone I’d lost lying in bed for the last month. My normally toned stomach had turned flabby, sticking out like a beer belly when I sat in a wheelchair. “It’s called ‘quad belly,’” my nurse Cole had told me the first time I made a comment about this as he was helping me in the shower. “It’s because you’ve lost muscle tone in your abs, which usually hold everything in. Don’t worry - it doesn’t mean you’ve gained weight.” But I still felt like a beached whale.
Once I was in the water, though, the feeling of heaviness and helplessness went away. In the water, I was weightless. Floating with the help of a life jacket and pool noodles, I felt almost normal again. The buoyancy made it easier to lift my arms. I was even able to stand with my feet touching the bottom of the pool as Charisma and her assistant held on to me. I still couldn’t feel my legs, but it didn’t matter as much in the water. I loved it and would have happily stayed in the pool all day if they had let me.
After my hydro therapy, I had an hour of occupational therapy, which was supposed to help me learn new ways of performing the tasks of daily living with my new body. I worked with a man named Ellis, who was from Indiana - not far from my old Kentucky home. We bonded over our shared love of the great outdoors, and he took me outside to work in the courtyard whenever we could.
On my very first day, Ellis had asked me what I wanted to get out of occupational therapy. “We need to set some functional goals for you,” he explained, “so I always ask my patients what outcomes they want to work toward while they’re here. You tell me what kinds of things you’d like to be able to do, and I’ll do my best to help you accomplish as many of those goals as possible in our time together.”
I had been taken aback by his approach, so different from the doctors who had told me what I wouldn’t be able to do after my injury. At first, I wasn’t sure what to say. Of course, I wanted to walk again, but that seemed like a lofty goal, considering Dr. Bone had said I would never regain the use of my legs. Once I thought about what really mattered most to me, my answer was simple. “I wanna be able to take care of my son,” I said. “Mason’s only six months old. His mama’s gone. He needs me now more than ever.”
I’d expected Ellis to start explaining why this wasn’t practical. After all, I couldn’t even take care of myself. How could I possibly take care of a baby? But he didn’t tell me anything like that. Instead, he gave me an encouraging smile and said, “I’ve worked with plenty of quadriplegic patients who are also parents of small children. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely doable. We’ll work on increasing your mobility, so you can chase him around in your chair when he starts walking.” I smiled sadly at the thought of watching my son take his first steps from a wheelchair, knowing I would never walk again. “I’ll also teach you some tricks to compensate for your lack of finger function and show you how to use adaptive equipment to help you with everyday tasks. They’ve got some pretty nifty gadgets out there nowadays.”
In the last few weeks, I had learned to feed myself with the help of a special brace that went around my wrist to hold utensils in my hand. It took me forever, and sometimes I still missed my mouth and made a mess, but it was better than being spoonfed by someone else.
I had also started using a power wheelchair to get around on my own. It wasn’t what I had expected: I had imagined myself racing around in something sleek and low to the ground, like in Murderball, but the chair I was borrowing from the rehab center was big and clunky, with a high back and head rest that made me look more handicapped than I wanted to admit I was. But the truth was, I couldn’t use my hands to push myself in a manual chair. I didn’t even have enough wrist function to operate a joystick yet. For now, my only option was a sip and puff chair, the kind I could control with my mouth. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it gave me more independence than I’d had before, which made me feel better about myself and the future for both Mason and me.
My last session of the day was usually some type of psychotherapy. Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, I went to a spinal cord injury support group, where we sat in a circle in our wheelchairs and shared our feelings. On Mondays and Thursday afternoons, I met with Dr. Austin, the same psychologist who led the support group, for one-on-one counseling. These sessions were often the hardest ones. In group therapy, I could just sit and listen if I didn’t want to share, but when it was just me and Dr. Austin, I was expected to do most of the talking. I shed a lot of tears in front of him as he helped me work through the five stages of grief that accompanied the loss of my wife and the life I had known before the accident.
“It’s okay to be angry,” he assured me, as I finally let out the pent-up feelings I usually tried to hide behind the brave face I put on during other parts of my day. “Bitterness… resentment... they’re normal reactions to experiencing a loss or life-altering injury like you have. Embrace those emotions, and understand they’re a part of the process. You have to let yourself feel the pain before you can heal from it.”
I felt pain, all right - not just emotional pain, but physical pain as well. My first week at the rehab facility had been particularly hard because they’d weaned me off most of the pain and anxiety medications I had received in the hospital. I had stopped hallucinating at night, but my neck hurt even more than it had right after surgery. And if I’d thought being numb from the chest down would prevent me from feeling pain below my level of injury, I was wrong. I had developed a burning, pins-and-needles sensation in my legs, similar to the tingly feeling you get when your foot falls asleep.
At first, I had taken it as a positive sign, thinking it meant the nerve pathways to my legs had started to heal after all. But after examining me, Dr. Bayatmakou, my new spinal cord doctor, had dismissed this notion. “What you’re experiencing is called neuropathic pain. It’s caused by a miscommunication between your brain and the nerves that were damaged when you broke your neck,” he explained.
“You mean it’s not real? Like phantom limb pain or something?” I had met several amputees at the center and heard them talk about the strange sensations they sometimes felt in their missing limbs, as if those parts of their body were still present and painful.
“I’m not saying it’s not real,” the doctor replied quickly. “It’s commonly reported by patients with spinal cord injuries in the weeks following their injury. I can prescribe you something to curb it.”
The new medication took the edge off my pain, but it also made me dizzy and sleepy, which prevented me from being able to sit upright in bed or my wheelchair for longer periods of time. It took a week of playing around with different drugs and dosages for him to find one that worked for me without making me feel worse. The neuropathic pain still came and went in waves, always fooling me into wondering if my legs were finally waking up, but at least it was more manageable now.
Worse were the spasms that had developed in my arms and legs. I had been warned about spasticity in the “quad class” I went to on Wednesday afternoons, where I learned the ins and outs of my new body. “For the first six weeks or so after a spinal cord injury, you’ll be in a phase known as flaccid paralysis, where everything below your level of injury is limp and toneless,” said the instructor, a middle-aged man named Bob, who was a quadriplegic himself. “Around the six-week mark, many people start to develop spasticity - involuntary muscle movements in the paralyzed parts of their body. As your muscles stiffen, they’ll sometimes twitch or spasm.”
Sure enough, six weeks to the day after my accident, I saw my big toe twitch. I was lying in bed when the blanket moved over my left foot. I was excited at first, thinking, as I had with the neuropathic pain, that it meant I was getting some function back. But I still couldn’t feel any part of my body below my collarbones, nor could I wiggle my toe on command. When I told my nurse Cole what had happened, he confirmed that it was probably just a muscle spasm, dousing the flicker of hope I had felt.
Ellis, the occupational therapist, had a more optimistic take on it. “Spasticity can actually be useful,” he told me during our session that day. “When the muscles in your arms and legs are more rigid, you can use them to bear weight, which will help you with transfers. The muscle spasms also reduce your risk of blood clots and pressure sores by moving parts of your body you can’t control.”
I looked forward to the day when I could transfer myself from bed to my wheelchair or shower commode instead of having to be lifted like a large baby or small orca. But this would require the use of my wrists and hands. Unless I regained control over them, I would have to rely on other people and equipment to help hoist my weight around.
That same afternoon, the guys dropped by for a visit, as they usually did after rehearsal. We had gotten into a similar routine over the past few weeks - except while they spent their days singing and dancing, I was practicing my wheelchair moves and trying not to shit my pants. I had never missed being a Backstreet Boy more. But I also missed just being a normal, able-bodied person. There was so much I had taken for granted before I was paralyzed.
The guys were flying to Japan the next day for the first leg of their tour. Listening to them talk about having to go home and pack that night, I wondered what traveling would look like for me from now on. There was no way I would be able to pack my own luggage, pull it through an airport, or lift it off the baggage carousel. I wouldn’t be able to go down the narrow aisle of a plane in my large power chair either. And what if I wanted to go somewhere with Mason? How would I manage a stroller while I was in a wheelchair?
I won’t, I thought with a sinking feeling, realizing my days of traveling the world were over. The Backstreet Boys may have been unbreakable, but I was broken. Unfixable.
I tried not to feel too sorry for myself, wanting to make my brothers’ last visit before they left a good one. When Cole came in to take my dinner order, I looked around the room and said, “Actually, I was wondering if y’all might wanna have dinner with me in the cafeteria tonight. The food’s not too bad for a hospital.”
Howie was the first to agree. “Yeah, sure, man. We’re not picky,” he said with a shrug, as Brian, AJ, and Nick all nodded.
“Do you want me to transfer you back into your chair?” asked Cole. I had been resting in bed ever since I got back from my support group meeting, taking a break from being in my chair. Everyone around the rehab center constantly stressed the importance of changing positions often so I didn’t develop a pressure sore. So far, I had been lucky, thanks in large part to the dedicated therapists who helped me move during the day and the attentive nurses who turned me at night.
“Yeah, that’d be great - thanks,” I replied.
As Cole rolled the Hoyer lift over to hoist me out of bed, Nick cleared his throat. “Does he really need that?” he asked. “I mean, can’t a couple of us just pick him up and put him in the chair ourselves?”
I flashed Nick a grateful smile as Cole turned to look at him. He must have known how much I hated being strapped into that sling, raised off the bed and lowered into my chair like I was a piece of freight rather than a person.
Cole seemed to consider his offer for a few seconds before he finally nodded. “Yeah, okay. I can teach you how to do a two-person transfer. You wanna assist me?”
“Sure,” said Nick. “Just show me what to do.”
Cole talked him through how to help me sit up on the side of the bed. “Damn, dude, your legs are heavier than they look,” Nick grunted as he lifted them off the mattress, lowering my feet to the floor.
“That’s what dead weight feels like, I guess,” I said with a shrug, leaning forward against him as I fought to stay balanced. “Be careful… you don’t wanna strain your back right before the tour.”
“Eh, he’s young - he can take it,” said Howie, smiling as he stood back out of the way to watch.
“No, Kevin’s right. Make sure you lift from your legs, not your back,” Cole warned Nick, as he brought my wheelchair over and parked it right next to the bed. “Okay, now, stand in front of him and put your hands under his arms while I hold onto his waist from behind. On the count of three, we’re gonna pull him up into a standing position and pivot to put him over the chair. I’ll help guide him backwards into the seat, but you’re gonna have most of his weight. Think you can handle it?”
“Yeah, I’m fine - I’ve got you, bro,” Nick said, leaning down to look me in the eye. Despite the fact that he didn’t know what he was doing, I trusted him not to drop me. I draped my arms over his broad shoulders as he slid his hands under my armpits and around my back, hugging me tight to his chest. I could smell the sweat clinging to his t-shirt, but it didn’t bother me. When you share as many tour buses and dressing rooms as we had over the years, you get used to each other’s body odor.
“On my count,” said Cole. “Ready? One… two… three, lift!” Together, they hauled me to my feet. Of course, I couldn’t feel my legs or use them to support my weight, so I leaned heavily on Nick as, with Cole’s help, he wrangled me into the wheelchair. It wasn’t the smoothest transfer, but it was still better than being hoisted out of bed like a baby whale in the Hoyer lift.
Next Cole showed Nick how to position me correctly in the wheelchair, so I wouldn’t fall out or put too much pressure on the bony parts of my body. As Nick bent down to pick up my feet and place them on the foot rests, my left knee suddenly bounced up and down. “Whoa!” Nick let go of my leg and jumped back, looking down at it in disbelief. “Did you just see that?”
“What happened?” Howie asked, craning his neck to look around Nick in concern.
“His leg moved!” Nick looked back at me, his blue eyes wide. “Did you make it do that?”
“No,” I said quietly, remembering the way my toe had moved on its own that morning. “It was just a muscle spasm.” I watched Nick’s face fall as I explained what I had learned about spasticity in quad class.
“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Brian stepped closer, standing next to Nick and staring down at my legs. “Try to move it again. Some messages might be making it through. Maybe this means you’re getting back some function below the waist.”
It was like he hadn’t heard a word I had said. I knew how much my cousin wanted to see me walk again. No matter what anyone else said, he was still clinging to the hope that I would one day. Brian believed in miracles. Sitting by my hospital bed with a Bible in his lap, he had read me the verses about Jesus healing a crippled man. “If He can make that man get up and walk away, He can heal you, too,” he’d told me. “You just have to put your faith in Him and pray.”
I believed in God, but I wasn’t holding my breath waiting for Him to work a miracle. I had put my faith in the medical experts and therapists who promised to help me lead a full life from my wheelchair. Having Brian tell me to “try again,” as if I wasn’t putting in enough effort already, was frustrating. He hadn’t seen how many hours of hard work it had taken just for me to tolerate sitting up in my chair for more than twenty minutes at a time.
“I can’t control it,” I said, trying to be patient with him. “I can’t even feel my legs, let alone move them on my own. Watch… this is what happens when I try.” I concentrated on my left leg, trying with all my might to lift it just a little. But, of course, nothing happened. “See? It doesn’t work.”
I saw the disappointment in Brian’s eyes, although he tried his best to hide it. “Don’t give up,” he said. “You have to believe that, one of these days, you’re gonna walk again.”
I wondered what Dr. Austin would say if he could hear this conversation. With his help, I had begun to accept what had happened to me, but Brian still seemed to be stuck somewhere between the stages of denial and bargaining.
Cole cleared his throat from behind me. “Are you comfortable, Kevin?” he asked, as he came around the front to fasten my seat belt.
“Yeah… I’m fine,” I replied, grateful to him for changing the subject. “Thanks, Cole.” I glanced up at Nick. “Same to you, brother. You did good.”
Nick grinned. “It was no big deal. Better than the Shamu swing, right?”
“Definitely,” I agreed, giving the Hoyer lift a dirty look. “I hate that thing.”
Cole laughed. “Well, I’ve gotta get to the next room. Do you need anything else before I go?”
“Nah, I’m good. I’ve got great help here if I need it,” I said, smiling at Nick and the rest of the guys. As much as I hated having to rely on other people, I was learning to live with my new reality.
At least I could take myself to the cafeteria that time, controlling my wheelchair with a straw-like wand that went into my mouth. When I puffed into the straw, the chair moved forward. By sipping on it, I could stop or go backwards. A light sip would make it turn left, whereas a light puff would turn it to the right. I wasn’t the best at it yet, but I could maneuver well enough to get where I wanted to go within the wide hallways of the rehab hospital.
I led the way, showing off my new wheelchair-driving skills as the guys went with me to grab dinner. I waited for one of them to make a joke about me being like Timmy in South Park, but none of them did. All they could talk about was how cool the power chair was and how great it was that I could get around on my own. I was actually a little disappointed. I knew they meant well and were probably just trying to protect my feelings, but I didn’t want to be treated any differently. When AJ got his foot run over by our van on tour and needed a cane to get around, we made fun of him constantly. I guess it was easier to do that when we knew it was only a temporary condition. Sprained ankles would heal. Crushed spinal cords couldn’t. Even Brian, who wanted me to believe I would walk again, must have known deep down that my disability was permanent.
I tried not to let it bother me as we went through the a la carte line, picking out what we wanted to eat. AJ carried my tray and had me tell him what to put on it. I had to think about what would be easiest to eat by myself and what I would need help with. I didn’t want any of the guys to have to spend half of dinner cutting my food or holding it in front of my face for me to bite into because I couldn’t get it up to my mouth. I ultimately went with meatloaf, which I hoped would be soft enough to cut myself, and mashed potatoes, which were easy to scoop up with a spoon.
When we finally gathered around a table, I had Howie help me put on the wrist braces that allowed me to hold utensils in my otherwise useless hands. There was a fork attached to one, a spoon to the other, their handles both bent more than normal cutlery. They allowed me to awkwardly shovel food into my mouth by raising my arms and bending my elbows at the right angle to bring my hands up to my face. It was a slow, clumsy process. I was about as adept at using my new utensils as my seven-month-old son would have been and made as big of a mess, but it was worth it to be able to feed myself.
“So how much longer do you think you’ll be in here for?” AJ asked me, as I tried to cut my meatloaf with my fork. It was tougher than I had anticipated.
“I dunno yet,” I said, taking a break and setting my hand back down beside my dinner tray. “I’ve been asking around, and everyone has a different answer. Some of the people with spinal cord injuries are only here a couple weeks. Others stay for months. I talked to one guy who’s been here since he got hurt last summer.”
“Last summer?” said Nick, his eyes widening. “That’s, like… at least six months!”
“I know. My P.T. said people make the most improvement within the first six months and then it slows down, so I guess that makes sense. But I don’t plan to be here that long. I wanna get home to Mason as soon as I can.”
“But you also want to make the most progress you possibly can, right?” said Howie, giving me a sideways glance. “I’m sure your mom won’t mind staying out here longer to help out if it means you’ll be better off.”
“I’m sure she wouldn’t, but I hate to put that burden on her,” I replied. “She never complains, but I know how hard these last six weeks must have been for her. She loves being closer to me and Mason, but she hates being so far away from home. I know she still wishes I would have done my rehab in Kentucky.”
“Well, who’s gonna help you and Mason when you do get out of here?” asked AJ, as I raised my arm again to take another stab at my meatloaf. “I mean, no offense, man, but I don’t know how you’re gonna take care of a baby when you can barely take care of yourself right now. I guess I just assumed your mom was gonna move in with you - or that you’d go home with her.”
I sighed. “Yeah, well, all that’s still up in the air. We haven’t made any decisions yet.” Truth be told, I had been putting off having that conversation with my mom. As much as I loved her and appreciated all she had done for me and Mason, I didn’t want her moving in with me, and I definitely didn’t want to move back in with her. What thirty-six-year-old man would? I had always been independent, and I wanted to stay that way.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t even cut my own meatloaf. Without a word, Brian suddenly pulled my tray across the table toward him and started slicing it into bite-size pieces.
“Thanks,” I muttered, feeling my cheeks flush as he slid it back to me. I took a bite of meatloaf, then dug into my pile of mashed potatoes with more force than I meant to, accidentally flinging some at Nick, who was sitting next to me.
“Whoa, watch it there, dude,” he said, wiping flecks of potato off his face. “This must be what it was like to eat dinner with Edward Scissorhands.” Everyone laughed, including me, which eased the tension at the table.
“Sorry, bro. You try feeding yourself without being able to feel your hands.” I held up my arms and looked down at my fork and spoon attachments. “I might as well have prosthetics, like that guy - look. But don’t stare.” I shifted my eyes toward a double amputee sitting a few tables away, directing their attention to him as well. He was being spoon-fed his dinner by a woman sitting beside him, despite the pair of bulky prosthetic arms he was wearing. I watched them for a few seconds before I forced myself to look away, thinking, It could always be worse.
There were plenty of people in this place who were worse off than me. Soldiers who’d had both legs blown off by IEDs in Iraq, their bodies burned and mangled. Men and women with traumatic brain injuries who couldn’t even talk, let alone walk. Teenagers with trach tubes hanging out the front of their necks, which they had broken so high up, they could no longer breathe on their own. Whenever I felt sorry for myself, I would start listing all the ways it could be worse. At least my body still looked intact, even if it was broken beyond repair inside. At least my brain hadn’t been damaged; I could still think and speak. At least my lungs worked; I’d regained the ability to breathe on my own. At least I was alive.
“I was just kidding, dawg,” said Nick, clapping his hand down on my shoulder. “You’re doing great.”
When we finished our dinner, we went back to my room to hang out for a while before the boys had to head home and finish packing. It was weird to think the four of them would be flying overseas the next day for their first tour without me. I reminded myself that would have happened whether I had gotten hurt or not, for I had chosen to leave the group long before my accident. So why did I feel like I was the one being left behind?
“I’m gonna miss you guys,” I admitted, as they got ready to go. “It’s been nice having you all here. I appreciate it more than you’ll ever know.” My voice caught in my throat. I cleared it quickly, hoping they wouldn’t notice me getting choked up. I didn’t want a drawn out, tearful goodbye.
“No problem, bro,” said Howie, putting his hand on my shoulder.
“We’re gonna miss you, too,” added AJ, as Nick and Brian nodded along next to him. I wasn’t sure which one of them had taken my departure from the group the hardest - my cousin, whom I’d brought into the group, or my little brothers, whom I’d always tried to look out for. Nick, in particular, had seemed pretty lost for the last few years, but I didn’t know if that had anything to do with my leaving.
“We got you something,” Nick said suddenly, picking up a box from the floor. I hadn’t noticed it before. “A little parting gift.” He started to hand it to me, then thought better of it and set it down on the tray beside my bed. “Um… do you want one of us to open it for you?”
“Yeah, sure. Y’all didn’t have to bring me anything,” I said, mystified by the large box. I watched as Nick lifted the lid and pulled back a layer of tissue paper. Underneath was a neatly folded garment made of shiny, white satin. I wasn’t sure what it was until Nick took it out of the box and held it up, shaking out the folds so that it hung at its full length. It took me a second to realize it was a boxing robe, white with blue trim. He turned it over so I could see my last name, Richardson, emblazoned across the back in blue letters. A lump rose in my throat as I realized it must match the robes Nick had talked about the boys wearing for their intro on the tour. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes, unable to speak.
Nick smiled, his own eyes looking extra bright. “It won’t be the same on that stage without you, but you’ll be with us in spirit, bro.”
“Once a Backstreet Boy, always a Backstreet Boy,” said AJ with a grin.
“We love you,” added Howie, bending down to hug me. I leaned forward slightly in my chair so he could get his arms behind my back, reaching up to wrap mine around him.
Brian followed suit, embracing me the best he could with the bulky neck brace and wheelchair in the way. “Keep working hard, and have faith,” he whispered close to my ear. “Miracles do happen.”
I forced myself to smile as he pulled back, wondering how disappointed he would be when he came back to find I still couldn’t walk. “Thanks, man,” I managed to say, as I settled back into my chair. Then I looked at the others, meeting each of their eyes in turn. “Thank you all. For everything.”