In 1999, Dr. Peter Vaill, who has held the Endowed Chair in Management Education at St. Thomas School of Business since 1997, conducted a change management seminar at Courage Center. Two years later, Vaill was personally working through a change he himself never would have anticipated: an injury and subsequent surgery resulted in him using a wheelchair. He became one of the first participants at the newly renovated Courage Residence, a transitional rehabilitation facility in Golden Valley. After seven months in intensive physical and occupational therapy, Vaill was ready to live independently again, but this time as a person with a disability.
He spoke at the Courage Residence Grand Opening event in November, where he won everyone’s attention and admiration with his wit and wisdom.
“I’ve discovered five keys to coping with the change I face,” he said, then quickly added, “This advice is not just for someone who is learning to live with an acquired disability, but for anyone dealing with change. Know, too, that these are areas of continual learning for me. I’ll always work on them and will never actually achieve the ‘answer’ in each area.”
- Learn to let go. Stop trying to control everything and be willing to not be perfect.
- Ask for help. Living independently does not mean you need to do everything yourself. It’s OK to live interdependently.
- Set reasonable goals. Celebrate the little achievements; don’t give up just because it’s difficult.
- Get smart about your disability. Learn more about your condition than your doctor and therapists. Be a participant and partner in your treatment.
- Realize that the only healthy attitude is humor.
The last point, humor, is one Vaill particularly embraces. “We have to learn to laugh or else things become too painful and frustrating,” he says. “It’s really easy to waste time and energy and end up in a bad place.”
Vaill described the first time he stood up with leg stiffeners as part of his therapy at Courage. He had lost a lot of weight and while the therapist was helping to stabilize him, his pants started falling down. “So suddenly the therapist had a dilemma,” he recalls with a smile. “She needed to choose between letting my pants fall down, or keeping me stable. She and I had a good laugh over that and the incident became a joke every time I worked with her on standing—until I gained a little weight and the problem went away.”
For much of Vaill’s life, he never gave standing a second thought. In fact, Vaill was a marathoner who herniated a disk while running in March 2001. He went into the hospital in August of that year to have routine follow-up surgery to a laminectomy he’d had in June. But he got a staph infection and endured serious complications, including pneumonia and meningitis. He was in a coma for 33 days. Vaill entered Courage Residence in mid-March 2002. He stayed for seven months and now continues therapy as an outpatient. He is working on standing and walking with a cane.
His life experience tested Vaill’s own theories and proved that no matter the change, it creates a learning opportunity. “I’m not spending any time cursing anything or anybody for what has happened to me,” states Vaill. “My freedom from that impulse is truly one of the great blessings of my entire life. The price of this learning has been high, but it’s real, and it’s worth it.”
Transition to Independence
Learning to live independently after a life-changing accident such as Vaill’s is much more than adjusting to the physical disability. Courage Residence has renovated the physical environment and retooled the programs to prepare participants to live on their own.
“I am tremendously grateful to have access to Courage staff and its programs,” says Vaill. “Without them I would have been in much worse shape.”
The broader program offerings address the needs of the whole person, not just those created by the physical disability. Depending upon individual needs, participants receive education about their disability, medication and nutrition, physical and occupational therapies and speech-language pathology, spiritual and chemical health services, therapeutic recreation, vocational services, driver’s education, assistive technology and other skills training that prepares participants for independently living.
Complementary care services such as massage therapy, yoga and meditation classes, as well as increased mental health services help participants deal with the emotional and spiritual side of having a disability. Closed-circuit TV in every room gives immediate access to programming information.
Believing in Abilities
Vaill has moved back home. He has relearned how to drive with hand controls from a Courage instructor and purchased a stationary bike for exercise. He is working full-time again but considering early retirement. He is able to sail but needs to figure out how to get out on the dock and into the boat with a wheelchair. And he wants to play the piano again, but needs to create a way to use the pedals and fit his chair under the keyboard. No doubt he’ll find a way to accomplish both.
“I have discovered a core faith in myself that had been obscured by all the thinking and analyzing I had been doing,” says Vaill. “From now on, I will be doing everything on a foundation of conscious faith, a ‘breathing after life’ that, without the jolt I received, I might never have known existed.”