Not everyone wrestles with having a disability every day; but I do. The difficulty of performing daily tasks and relying on family members for assistance is difficult, which is why it is truly important that my heart has something to grasp onto — hope that I will be able to one day achieve my goals without any barriers. This hope, which keeps me from accepting defeat, comes from one special person who has helped me realize that remaining optimistic, even when faced with severe challenges, ultimately leads to a very successful life. In order for you to understand my story, you must also appreciate the following story of Dr. Lee.
Robert Lee is the firstborn child of a traditional Korean family. Since early childhood, he loved gymnastics and dreamed of winning a gold medal for Korea. To increase Lee’s chances at success, his family relocated to the United States and, at age 15, he started to officially train with one goal: to become the first gold medal gymnast representing Korea. He could almost picture the scene right before his eyes—the thundering applause as the performance ended, the heavy weight of the gold medal around his neck and the most triumphant smile upon his face as his country’s anthem played. Unfortunately, that dream he had been so passionate about shattered to pieces in an instant on July 4, 1983.
On that hot Independence Day, Robert was preoccupied with packing his belongings for another training session. His mother drove him to the bus terminal and as they were waiting, they chatted while eating oranges. Little did he know, in just a few short hours, that moment of peeling oranges would be the last time he would ever enjoy such a simplistic bit of normalcy.
Upon arrival at the gym, Lee spotted the empty practice mats surrounded by his competitors. Immediately, he headed to the mats, feeling determined to demonstrate a perfect performance in front of his coach and many friends. As Robert Lee was about to complete the final component of his routine, he suffered a devastating accident.
Landing with his neck hyperextended backwards, his chin hit the floor.
Lee lost consciousness for about ten seconds, and as his surroundings slowly came into view, he realized what had happened to him. In an effort to save face from the embarrassment of falling, he went to push himself up. However, something was strange: his neck would not move at all and he couldn’t push off the ground with his hands. Slightly panicked, he tried to stand up by pushing off his knees, but, again, he wasn’t able to. Lee knew right then that something terrible had happened to him.
The next few moments were beyond anything imaginable. He spent the long ambulance ride thinking about how his parents did not yet even know that anything had happened to their son. All he could do was lay there immobile, as a tube was inserted through his nose and an uncomfortable oxygen mask covered his face.
While Dr. Lee lay on the hospital bed in the emergency room staring blankly at the ceiling, doctors and nurses were constantly coming and going, speaking medical terms that sounded foreign to an 18-year-old. The doctors became increasingly disheartened when he showed no response of feeling in his legs or toes, and after countless X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, he was taken back to his room. Once his parents arrived at the hospital, they rushed to his bedside, where they learned the devastating truth that Robert Lee could not even turn his head to the side to greet them.
It was on July 4, 1983 that, while everyone else celebrated their freedom, the young Robert Lee learned he had lost a great deal of his own. After the hyperextension of his neck, he became permanently paralyzed from the neck down at age 18.
Determined to overcome this, he underwent countless hours of physical and occupational therapy to try to earn back his lost independence. After some sessions of physical therapy, he was finally able to do so as he recovered the strength in his arms. He then had to learn how to manually push his wheelchair around. Despite this accomplishment, Robert is still unable to flex each one of his fingers and he was forced to relearn how to write with the help of a special device.
Today, Robert Lee is a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Johns Hopkins Hospital and is recognized as one of only two quadriplegic doctors in the United States. Most importantly, as living evidence that remaining optimistic can lead to unimaginable success, Dr. Lee motivates patients by never letting go of hope even in the most difficult situations.
Dr. Lee has had so much influence in my life that it is hard to put into words. Meeting him last year was the first time I had been introduced to someone with a spinal cord injury. I can relate to him so well because I too overcame many struggles to be the person I am today.
I was born prematurely weighing one pound, 13 ounces with a disability called Cerebral Palsy after suffering permanent brain damage. As a result, I have limited movement in my hands and legs and I am dependent on a gait trainer or wheelchair for mobility. Similar to Dr. Lee, I have little to no use at all in my left hand and I usually perform all general activities with my right hand. Dr. Lee has given me the hope that I need to become the person I know I can be.
When Dr. Lee was invited to a speaking engagement at my church in Dix Hills, my heart opened up to him with such a wide embrace. I felt an immediate connection because I could almost understand everything he’d been through because of my own disability. I can relate to him directly because we’re both in wheelchairs and have experienced similar heartaches and pains that accompany that reality. I feel so comforted and assured that there is someone like me that persevered through the challenges that I now face. When I am going through another session of therapy, I go in with the mentality to accomplish something I couldn’t do in the past. His willingness and determination to overcome challenges has made a lasting impression on me. The most precious moment for me was when Dr. Lee gave me such a radiant smile that day in church. That was the moment when he had found one special place in my heart. My love and support for Dr. Lee continues to grow each day and his example of optimism affects my dreams because I can now understand that no obstacle can prevent me from living a life filled with happiness.
By: Lydia Kim