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Book review: “A Different Kind of Courage: One Man’s Story of Triumph Over Paralysis”

Richmond area writer captures the remarkable spirit of Don Bridges.

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On May 2, 1987, Don Bridges was enjoying a favorite pastime – playing rugby with the James River Rugby Football Club. It was a pleasant spring day as he got engaged in the highly physical contact sport.

Bridges, who was working on a graduate degree in health administration at Virginia Commonwealth University, did his warm-ups and commenced play. He smashed into the other team. But he couldn’t get up. “I was lying flat on my back, looking up at the sky," he said. "My body felt as if it were somewhere else."

Tragically, Bridges’ life was changed forever. Spinal fractures had left the 24-year-old a quadriplegic. He is confined to a wheelchair that he directs by breathing through a tube. Despite the need for 24-hour care, he’s managed to get his degree, marry, and become the stepfather to children, although he later divorced.

His story, told by veteran Richmond area journalist Paula C. Squires, is remarkable. Her taut book, “A Different Kind of Courage: One Man’s Story of Triumph Over Paralysis” (Dementi Milestone Press), traces Bridges struggles without slipping into tear jerking.

What makes a huge difference is that Squires has been tracking Bridges’ progress for more than 33 years. And she has somehow managed to squeeze all that into 146 readable pages.

For the rest of his life, Bridges would need someone to put a breathing tube down his throat. He’s also needed three-times-daily catheterization to void his bladder. Muscle massages were necessary so they wouldn’t atrophy.

The dice was stacked against him, long-term. Squires reports that a 20-year-old who became a quadriplegic can only expect to live another 17.1 years. A 40-year-old might live another 13.1 years.

Bridges was lucky. He developed a broad group of supporters, including family, former classmates from Virginia Tech, rugby players and others. A big element was his membership in the Mormon Church that not only supplied services but brought him into a vibrant social group. The Whitten Brothers car dealership helped him buy a tall roof van at a discount price.

The power of positivity

At first, it was dicey. Just after his injury, Bridges found that the Richmond area had limited health care options for his type of injury. The closest facility was in Atlanta and Bridges went there for several months. There was treatment available at a facility operated at a Veterans Affairs hospital locally and in June 2020, the Sheltering Arms Institute opened in Goochland County that targeted appropriate long-term treatment.

Despite his strong support group, Bridges faced issues with some of them. Some divorced and remarried. A new spouse said she couldn’t have a marriage and offer full time care. In some cases, a helper ends up in a nursing home for other reasons and can’t work for Bridges any more.

Squires writes that Bridges' biggest savior was his positive attitude. She quotes one of his doctors, Kevin Keller: “I think about Don when I get a call from a patient who starts taking antibiotics one day and then calls the next day to question why they’re not working yet. Here’s Don, who’s been on a ventilator for 35 years. How come he never calls? He’s the gold standard.”

One question I had about the book was why Bridges wasn’t quoted very much. Squires explained: “He’s typically not given to longwinded speeches. He states his opinions succinctly and usually with a dry wit. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy talking with him. “

The book has many color photographs that add much to the three decades-long story. My only complaint was that the author puts in a chapter at the end about Sheltering Arms that seemed like an afterthought.

After reading this book, you may find yourself wondering about the quadriplegics who don’t have the deep and vibrant support networks that Bridges has had. What happens to them?

In many ways, Bridges, who suffered a horrible injury, was blessed.

Author Paula C. Squires will be holding a book signing on Friday, Nov. 18 from noon until 2 p.m. at ACAC Midlothian, 11625 Robious Rd. in Midlothian, Va.

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