Enduring – Believing – Transforming
by: Rich Fritzky
A business leader, husband and father of 12 who, upon becoming a quadruple amputee, learned that life had only just begun.
The past is prologue, it has often been said. I believe that, because there are pieces of my past, marked and defined pieces that never stop instructing, driving, and compelling.
A Word about Family
There was never enough money and there were too many miles, more than 1,300,000 of them on Route 80 alone, and it was 12 pairs of sneakers-not 1, and my son Tommy told me, “Daddy, Daddy, I love you, but please don’t sing”, and the tally for the oldest 4 daughters alone, in their first year of driving, was 2 blown transmissions, 2 seized engines, and 8 accidents, and Maggie made the hamburger pie and I made the French toast and Taylor ham, and our Christmas mornings were a sight to behold, and in the blizzard of 96’ – our Joey ran through the house urging everyone to “Wake up and smell the deck”, and our oldest daughter, Maggie, who now lives but 15 minutes away with her husband and 4 children, promised in her senior year at Lenape Valley to “Kick the dust of Byram off her shoes and never return”, and Maggie and I were always the butt of the “Have you tried TV or Do you know what causes it yet” jokes, and every day was never without its own surprise, and life was lived on the edge, but it was full and rich and blessed.
A Word about Living with Disability
At the great Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, I met a young girl of 19, Kelly. A broken neck – one foolish and sudden dive into the pool in the safety and sanctity of her own backyard had left her paralyzed. Emotional pain and profound sadness dripped from her. As we shared the same mat in morning physical therapy and the same table in afternoon occupational therapy, she had been stuck with me for company. Initially, I just hoped to cheer her up a bit. I’d often tease her about what a smile from her would do for everyone else around her. Gently, humanely relentless, I joked, cajoled, and offered words of wisdom and hope that always seemed to fall short. But I never let up on her, prodding, smiling, calling her out and finally, finally, the worm turned, as her depression got the boot and her own smiles and laughter came to light that place up every day.
Before she left, long before I, we met in that gym and as we put our best into a limited mobility, wheelchair to wheelchair hug, she softly whispered in my ear that she thanked God every day that I had been there for her.
And that was it, the moment, the moment that made neisseria meningitis and near death and coma and amputations and beyond-the-pale suffering and this brave new world worthwhile. I would, I thought, have gone through it all again, all the pain in a brutal fight for life, just for that moment. Kelly answered my long suffering, “why me.” She, in a few words, gave it meaning and purpose. Good God, I had been there for her and she for me, as God had planned. I realized that I was exactly where I had to be and I never looked back.
In that I had to be broken myself in order to be what I had been for her, it suddenly struck me, for the first time, that there was, in my very brokenness, an absolute perfection. As such, acceptance was never an issue and while the seeming absurdity of that thought puzzled even me, I was rather grateful for what I had been invited to be.
A Word about my Greatest Miracle
I have come to the conclusion that God likes me living where the suffering is, just where I have lived for these 9 years – in this place where I have thrived and where I am made to see, over and over again, as He sees.
I do not question, I do not point the finger, I do not complain, and I do not ask why. And every day, I am reminded that I must work hard to stay on the high ground and that I must be broken and humbled anew each day so as to become a more potent force for good and for grace.
I am so keenly aware of the great gifts given me, for again and again, “the Doctors spoke first, but God spoke last”. The meningococcal bacteria destroys the neo-cortex of the brain. Every time, it does this. All of the good stuff is forever banished —wisdom, emotion, memory, knowledge — accordingly, 6 weeks into the coma, my doctors met with Maggie to inform her that my brain too no longer functioned, as it had been lost to the deadly bacteria and what was described as thousands of mini-strokes.
She was told that “Even if I were to awake, I would neither recognize nor know her, nor my children, nor ever – ever – again be able to utter a cognitive thought.”
As I was so very sick and in acute shock, I have no memory of what I am about to relate, but I am told that I spoke with Maggie and a handful of my children just before I disappeared into that coma. I said, “I’m going to rest easy, so I want you to rest easy as well. Just pray and keep the faith. Believe as I believe and all will yet be well.” Interesting, for while I had physically, in shock succumbed, my faith had not.
So when Maggie told our children the devastating news about the reported death of my brain, they revolted in deference to what I had said and Maggie worried so, until I woke up 3 days later, scanned the room, spotted her, and said, “I love you, Maggie.” Just 10 seconds before my eyes immediately closed and I went right back into the depths for another 6 weeks.
It was a cognitive thought – a complete sentence. Just a moment’s grace and while my Doctors feared that Maggie was delusional, we had witnesses and Maggie knew that I had a mind to stay.
Years later, this phenomenon was re-confirmed by a Dr. Leon Smith, the guru of American infectious disease doctors, who, when we met, smiled, shook his head at me and said, “In 50 years in infectious disease, I have neither seen nor heard of anyone – not a one – ever going into a meningococcal driven coma for any extended period of time who ever came back whole or even lucid – not a one – but now there’s you.”
So believe it or not, you doubters, the miraculous or if you’d rather, the inexplicable or impossible, indeed trumped reality.