My Story by Bill F.

My name is Bill Fullerton, and I am a C5-6 quadriplegic.

I have been paralyzed for 23 years. I have sensation from the collarbones up. I have a pretty strong tricep in my left arm, but the tricep in my right arm is very weak. I do have strong biceps in both arms, but both of my hands are non-functioning.

Growing up, I loved motorcycles. I finally convinced my parents to buy me my first motorcycle when I was 11 years old. Within the first year, I entered my first race and realized that is all I wanted to do. I was heavily involved in racing throughout my junior high and high school years. I also was big on riding my BMX bicycle.

Unfortunately, in those days, wearing a helmet was not something we did when riding bicycles, so I had about 3 concussions and numerous incidents of broken bones. I kept my parents busy!

Before my injury, I was a student in business school, working on a marketing degree at the University of Oklahoma.

The Accident That Changed My Life

On June 7th, 1988 I started my first day of summer school and had one more semester to go before completing my degree. My friend and I had gone to the river to practice on a track that I had made. I was practicing for a benefit race for a former professional racer who had broken his neck a few years earlier in a motocross racing accident in Paris, France rendering him a quadriplegic. He was somebody that I had always looked up to.

After the first practice session, my friend’s bike broke down, so he decided to pack up and leave. He told me to go with him, but I decided to stay and practice on my own. Unfortunately, on the first lap, I ended up falling on a corner and hit my helmet on a tree root that was sticking out of the ground.

This resulted in a compression burst fracture of my fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. I was wide awake throughout the whole ordeal. It felt like somebody hit me over the head with a baseball bat and electrocuted me at the same time.

I knew immediately that I had broken my neck because I couldn’t move anything. I thought I was going to be there forever since the area was in the middle of nowhere. However, about 15 minutes later, a trail ride luckily came by and found me lying there.

I remember him asking if I was okay, and I told him “No, I think I broke my neck.” He went and called emergency services, and they came and transported me to the hospital.

My Time in Rehab

In a lucky way, I was in good shape back then, so I had no other complications from my accident.

I spent about a week in the Intensive Care Unit, then they did a spinal fusion and put me in my own hospital room where I spent about two weeks or so in recovery.

At that time, I had a Foley catheter inserted in me to drain my bladder. I remember wondering how my bowels and bladder were ever going to work, but at the time, I was more focused on trying to learn to walk again.

After the two weeks of recovery was over, I was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Oklahoma City.

The first couple of days in the rehab center, they would not let me out of bed until I was evaluated. I felt stir-crazy and ready to get things started.

I can still remember when they brought my first manual chair to me. At first, I was unable to push the chair very well, but I pushed as best I could because I knew I had to get my strength back.

At the time, I was the only quadriplegic at the facility. I was in a room with three other paraplegics, so I was always trying to do what they were doing. However, I soon found that to be impossible. It did help push me to do as much as I could.

Between therapy breaks, we had free to do what we wanted. My buddies would go to the room and get in their bed to relax, but all I could do was sit in my chair and wish that I could be relaxing in bed also. The earliest the nurses would put me to bed was at 8:00 p.m. I was so exhausted every day that I could not wait to be put in that bed!

Learning to Self-Catheterize

On my third day in rehab, a nurse came in with a catheter, extension tube, urinal, and a dishpan with soapy water. She informed me that they were taking out my Foley, and I was going to learn how to catheterize intermittently.

I looked at her in disbelief. Surely I would never be able to do this on my own. But the nurse told me she believed I could do it.

In the beginning, it took about 30 minutes to complete this cathing process. At that time, it was considered to be okay to wash and reuse your catheters. This is the process I would go through:

1. The nurse would prepare the dishpan with some hot soapy water and bring it to me.
2. She would use a towel to hold my sweatpants open, so I could access my urethra.
3. I would then get my catheter and rinse it out in soapy water.
4. I learned to squirt lubricating jelly onto a towel, and then I would run the catheter through it to get it lubricated
5. Then I would insert the catheter until urine started flowing into the urinal, which I would hang on the side of my wheelchair or next to me if I was in bed.

I figured out that I could get a good grip on the catheter by using the forefinger on one hand and my thumb on the other hand, even as a quadriplegic!

As the weeks passed, I began to get a little bit better at it. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.

Initially, they had me catheterizing every four hours. This meant that I was woken up at 12:00 and 4:00 in the morning to catheterize. I remember falling asleep during one of my cathing sessions. They also would come in every two hours to turn me so I would not develop pressure sores. It seems like I was always exhausted.

UTIs and Other Complications

I can’t remember exactly how long it took, but I soon developed my first UTI (urinary tract infection). I remember not feeling very well, and I was having problems with suddenly leaking urine, so I knew something was not right.

After a round of antibiotics, I started feeling like my old self again.

However, at that time, they only gave us one new catheter to use per week. Can you imagine? So of course, it wouldn’t be long before I developed another UTI.

After about three weeks, they took me in for another MRI and determined that my vertebrae were shifting. Apparently, the neck brace I was using was not holding my neck stable enough, so they had to put a halo on me. This required me to go back to the hospital.

When I went back to the hospital, they would not allow me to take the loaner wheelchair I was using along with the specialized cushion. The nurse at the hospital put me in a regular wheelchair with a pillow to sit on.

Because of this, I developed my first pressure sore on my coccyx.

Back to Rehab a Second Time

I remember that when I returned to the rehabilitation center, they were very upset that this was allowed to happen to me. They began treating the wound but could not allow me to stay bedridden because I needed as much therapy as I could get before my insurance would quit covering the rehabilitation process.

I worked really hard and learned how to do as much as I could.

The best way I can explain how I felt is like I was a baby again. Here are some of the things that I relearned while in rehab:

  • use the bathroom and self-cath
  • get dressed
  • hold silverware so I could eat on my own
  • hold a pen and write
  • do transfers from bed to chair and back as best I could with a halo on

I wasn’t able to learn how to dress myself yet, because it was impossible to do so with the halo on. When they released me, they wanted me to come back once the halo was off, so they could teach me the things I couldn’t do yet.

Life Back at Home and New Independence

After about three months, I was finally released from the rehabilitation center. I no longer had my apartment in Norman, Oklahoma, so I moved back to my parent’s house to continue outpatient rehab. I still had the pressure sore, so I was also going in for treatments on it.

About a month later, I had my halo taken off. I then proceeded on getting myself moved back to Norman with my girlfriend. I remember we tried to find a house that would be wheelchair-accessible, and my girlfriend would take my wheelchair to see if it could fit through all the doors.

I had a provider that would come out every morning to help me with my bathroom regimen and getting dressed. I hated being reliant on having someone do these things for me. One day when I was out wheeling around in my chair, getting some exercise, I ran into a female quadriplegic who told me she was able to dress and take care of her needs. Something clicked in my
head that day, and I felt determined that I would start learning how to do these things on my own in the real world.

By a month later, I had learned how to dress on my own, and I learned how to perform my own bathroom program.

This newfound independence was one of the biggest turning points in my life since becoming disabled.

I got my first van and was able to get out, drive, and enjoy the world again on my own. I no longer had to be reliant upon others to get to where I needed to go. What a relief!

Not long after that I started back to school and finished my degree.

My Life Over Two Decades Later

It has now been 23 years since my injury. I live on my own and am able to do everything for myself without anybody assisting me.

My first job was at an Independent Living Center where I was in charge of the Technology Center. My job duties were to help provide those with disabilities with the necessary technologies available to them to help them with whatever their needs might be. Unfortunately, I had to quit this job due to another pressure sore that required surgery and long-term recovery.

The next job I took was working for a DME company selling wheelchairs. After that, I worked for a company that modified vehicles for people with disabilities. While working there I was approached by Todd Brown to see if I would like to come work at 180 Medical. I took him up on it and have been working at 180 Medical ever since then, seven years ago.

I enjoy working here because it allows me to help people who have to catheterize. I receive a lot of satisfaction if I am able to teach somebody how to catheterize who would otherwise be unable to.

My current hobbies are riding my hand-crank bicycle and a weight-training. I also enjoy swimming. I used to enjoy adaptive waterskiing, but unfortunately, I broke my femur waterskiing last year so I have decided it is in my best interest to give it up. I have only been snow skiing one time, but I hope to do it again. I still love to watch motocross racing. Once it’s in your blood, you just can’t get it out.

I still like to go visit newly injured patients and offer them advice and encouragement. I remember and understand how important it can be to have someone to talk to who understands when you’re experiencing life anew as a person with a spinal cord injury.

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About the Author
Bill worked for 180 Medical for over 10 years. He loves peer mentoring, sharing his first-hand experiences as a quadriplegic, and helping those with in-depth questions about self-catheterization. He enjoys spending time outdoors, as well as watching and attending motocross events.