He’s been paralyzed from the neck down for 50 years and that makes Walt Lawrence either the longest surviving ventilator-dependent quadriplegic in B.C. or darn close to it.
“He’s outlived any statistical, predictive model. He’s off the charts,” says Karen Anzai, a spinal cord program educator G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre, as she looked at a graph on her computer showing expected lifespans of patients who are ventilator-dependent.
“I attribute it to his optimism, his resiliency, his religious faith and his desire to contribute,” says Anzai, a rehabilitation consultant. “Plus, if you noticed his water cup attached to his wheelchair, he’s constantly hydrating himself with water which may reduce any respiratory complications.”
Pneumonia, lung infections and other complications often shorten the lives of individuals who use ventilators, but Lawrence, 67, has defied the statistics by at least 25 years.
He credits medical advances and a wide support system of family, friends, health professionals, non-profit organizations and many others for his vitality and longevity.
As a big-hearted gesture to show his gratitude, he’s invited hundreds of his relatives, friends, health care providers and other supporters to a “Half Century of Thanks” reception in the Tsawwassen Springs ballroom on Sept. 23 where he’ll personally thank them for their helpful words, kind deeds, presence, encouragement, and their faith in him.
“It’s not what I’ve done, it’s what others have enabled me to do. I could fill B.C. Place Stadium with all the people who’ve helped me for the past 50 years,” Lawrence said at G.F. Strong where the married father of two works as a Vancouver Coastal Health peer counselor for others with spinal cord injuries.
Besides explaining everything they need to know about assistive technology and bodily concerns like skin pressure ulcers, and bladder and bowel matters, Lawrence counsels spinal cord injury patients about finding ways to lift themselves out of their “deepest, darkest pits” so they can ultimately lead lives that are productive, even though they will be markedly different than what they planned or hoped for.
“After my accident, when I couldn’t breathe on my own, talk or move, I would have traded my life for absolutely anybody else’s. But here I am now. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone else’s,” says the always-positive Lawrence.
Lawrence says he had an idyllic childhood in Dawson Creek where he grew up in a close-knit family and hoped for a professional hockey career. It was as a 17-year old with an invincible mindset that he dived into Lake Okanagan one day in August 1968, during a break while on his way to a hockey practice with a junior A league team in Kelowna. It was supposed to be an invigorating, quick dip but he misjudged the water depth and landed badly as he hit the sandy bottom, breaking his neck.
He was in the intensive care unit at Kelowna General Hospital for six months and then he was transferred to Vancouver’s George Pearson Hospital for the Physically Handicapped (as it was then called) where he would spend 16 years, initially on the same ward as polio and tuberculosis patients.
“As a teenager, I had been a fixed-wing pilot, a hockey player with loads of potential. And then, in a split second, I became a quadriplegic with a tracheotomy on a ventilator 24/7. Breathing on your own is NOT highly over-rated,” Lawrence says as he deftly navigates his motorized sip and puff wheelchair.
Lawrence weaned himself off full-time ventilator support years ago; now he’s hooked up to a ventilator only at night in the home he shares with his wife Wendy, a nurse he met while in rehabilitation, and his two daughters, both adopted as babies from China.
Asked what kind of advice he gives newly paralyzed individuals, Lawrence emphasizes the importance of validating their regrets, physical and emotional suffering, and numerous personal fears and challenges.
“It is normal to look back and say ‘if only I had done this or that.’ I remember thinking this after my accident. If only I’d gone straight to the hockey rink, or if only I had taken a different dive in the water. But that doesn’t get us anywhere except trapped in darkness and depression.
“I know how bad it is because I remember I cried enough tears to fill the Pacific Ocean after my accident. My goal is to help individuals see they still have value. No one is a throwaway piece of a puzzle. We all know we are going to die one day but what do we do with our lives while we have them? It is a privilege for me to accompany them as they go through their fragile times.”
Lawrence recalls how, immediately after his accident, he convinced himself that since he was a fit athlete, he’d learn to walk again. But when he got to Pearson and met patients who’d already been there more than a decade, he had a reawakening, telling himself: ‘Oh, this might be permanent.’”
In the 1980s, when Man in Motion Rick Hansen was getting much attention for his relentless advocacy for those with disabilities, Lawrence was agitating for assistive devices, rehabilitation and home care options so that those with paralysis could move out of long-term care facilities into communal-style housing options.
Lawrence’s legacy as a pioneer in the de-institutionalization of those with disabilities has been firmly cemented. Envisioning an independent life, outside long-term care facilities, paved the way for so many others.
“There was a group of five or six of us who believed we didn’t need to live in that kind of environment. We wanted a better quality of life. I know that while I couldn’t care for myself, I could still direct my care,” he says of the first community-based shared-care model, in which therapists would do house calls, attending to the needs of a handful of clients in each visit.
In the early 1980s, the Canadian Paraplegic Association (now called Spinal Cord Injury B.C.) helped with a cost analysis for independent living. Lawrence gives credit to then MLA Doug Mowat, a quadriplegic who has since died, for championing the cause. The idea got a big boost when the study that living in the community instead of the rehabilitation facility would be 30 per cent less expensive, not to mention better for the quality of life of such individuals.
In 1985, that Lawrence moved into a co-op housing cluster called the Creekview Co-operative Apartment near Granville Island. He lived there for many years until he got married.
“At first, the respiratory therapist from Pearson had to come over to help with our ventilators, but then the Provincial Respiratory Outreach Program took over,” he recalled.
“Getting into the community enabled us to see that there was much we could contribute to this world. Many of us became advocates on committees, volunteered and worked to change perceptions,” said Lawrence, a Christian who has received numerous awards and distinctions over the years, including an honorary doctor of divinity from the University of B.C. Carey Theological College.
Fifty years after his life-altering injury, Lawrence says he has no plans to slow down, so intent is he in helping others with spinal cord injuries live good and productive lives.
“The former assumption was that because you couldn’t move, you’d have to be looked after your whole life and couldn’t contribute. But in the era of all these assistive devices and technologies, we can now manage much more on our own. We don’t have to be totally dependent on others,” says Lawrence, who counts Vancouver MLA Sam Sullivan as a role model.
Sullivan said he was humbled by that comment and said the respect is mutual.
“What Walt has done is incredible. He’s been such a great leader and accomplished so much. He’s given much of his life being a role model, helping people, showing them how they could figure out how to live full lives even after traumatic injuries.”
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