Freak accidents happen in life whether we like it or not.
A few days ago, I tripped on the carpeted floor of a community center while playing table tennis and landed hard on my right side while other players stood and watched helplessly. But I was able to get up and finish the game, and I congratulated myself for not breaking a bone or two. Two days later, however, I was in bed with fever, moaning in pain. When it passed, I realized that the fall could have been much worse.
Steve Constance, 59, who is in charge of the nutrition program at the Matt Ross Community Center in Overland Park, could never forget the freak accident that nearly claimed his life in 1974.
Then 19, Steve and two other students at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, were returning to the campus from Kansas City long past midnight on Halloween night. Steve doesn’t remember how or where it happened. What he heard later was that his car slammed into a concrete bridge railing over a creek. The three students were rushed to a local hospital, but the next day, they were flown to Kansas City.
Steve was in coma for 10 days in St. Luke’s Hospital. After six weeks, he was released, but his recovery was slow and painful. While recovering, he missed playing tennis and his trombone the most.
Thanks to continued treatment and physical therapy, he was fully recovered after five months, and was able to do everything he had been banned from, including taking part in college life. He was more determined to get his bachelor’s degree in business management than at any time before. It was his second chance at life and he was grateful.
More than two years later, on July 17, 1977, he woke up around 4 a.m., feeling that something was seriously wrong with him. He had excruciating headaches, no energy, and worst of all, his mind wasn’t working the way it used to. He yelled for help but instead of his voice, an alien growl crawled out of his throat. He managed to stand so that he could go downstairs and alert his parents but he fell over like a log and hit the floor hard.I’m in trouble, he thought. I might be dying at 22!
He crawled to the door with all his might and banged it until his parents rushed over and took him to an emergency room. After many tests and a long wait, the doctor declared to his parents, “Your son had a stroke.”
Though Steve’s mind was foggy, a sense of guilt crept up in him for what he had said the night before. He and his parents had visited a family friend who had had stroke and couldn’t do anything for himself. Steve and his father did just about everything for the helpless man; they set him upright, helped him eat and drink, and cleaned him up, too, like a baby. On the way out, Steve said something he’d regret for the rest of his life. “Dad, if I ever have stroke and be helpless like him, I’ll kill myself!”
Lying in his hospital bed less than 12 hours later, Steve kept denying that he’d be like that stroke victim. In spite of the doctor’s order to lie still due to the swelling in his neck that could cause an aneurysm in his blocked carotid artery, he’d force himself to his feet, only to fall and alarm the medical crew.
After another long period of treatment and physical therapy, Steve again recovered, except that his right arm and right leg are permanently paralyzed. He finished college, got married, landed himself a job and was able to play his trombone with some adjustments.
Instead of using his right hand to move the slide up and down while his left hand holds the trombone, Steve secures the bell of the trombone on his left knee and uses his left hand to move the slide. He has played in several community orchestras, including the Overland Park Symphony and the Olathe Symphony.
He also worked at Sprint for 17 years in the inventory management department from 1986 to 2002.
Steve has a secret hope. Someday, he wishes that a surgeon could reconnect the nerves in his brain with those damaged ones in his right arm and leg, so that he could cut his own steak and change a light bulb on the ceiling, without asking a friend to do so each time it burns out.
“It’s not been easy,” Steve says, with a tinge of sadness. “But I don’t let my disability take control of me. What’s gone is gone, you know, but I still have plenty to live for. I am grateful that I have a job while many are out of work; I can still play music I love, and have my two adult children (son, 22, daughter, 20) who make me a proud father.”