After Paralysis, A Life Of 'A Different 10,000 Things' Austin Beggin was paralyzed in a freak accident last year and wonders what's next. He gets some answers from Tim Flynn, who has been paralyzed for 35 years. One tip: start looking forward.
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After Paralysis, A Life Of 'A Different 10,000 Things'

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After Paralysis, A Life Of 'A Different 10,000 Things'

After Paralysis, A Life Of 'A Different 10,000 Things'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When you're going through a major change in life, it can help to talk to somebody who's already been there.

TIM FLYNN: Austin, nice to meet you, my friend.

AUSTIN BEGGIN: Hey, Tim. It's a pleasure. I appreciate you doing this.

SHAPIRO: That's Austin Beggin and Tim Flynn. Austin's life became something very different last year. He'd just graduated from college with a degree in human resources and had started a job at Nabisco. To celebrate, he went on vacation with his family. They went to St. George Island, Fla. The first day, May 31, 2015, there was an accident at the beach.

BEGGIN: I was probably about waist-deep when I saw a wave coming, decided to dive into it. I was a swimmer my whole life, so it's not like I haven't dove, you know, thousands of times. And for whatever reason, this was the wave.

FLYNN: You picked the wrong wave, man.

BEGGIN: Yeah, the one wrong wave.

SHAPIRO: Austin dove in, hit the bottom and was left paralyzed from the shoulders down. Tim Flynn suffered a similar injury 35 years ago. He was in a car accident. He'd been driving drunk. He's been paralyzed since, though, unlike Austin, he's able to move his arms. Tim is a counselor for people with disabilities. The two spoke for our new series, Been There, connecting people at either end of a shared experience. Austin picks up his story.

BEGGIN: I stayed conscious during the impact. And immediately, you notice something's wrong. Your first thing to try to do is, well, I got to turn over. I mean, I'm face-down in the water. And you realize you're unable to turn to the left or unable to turn to the right. And that's kind of when, you know, the fear sets in.

FLYNN: Yeah.

BEGGIN: I couldn't talk initially. I mean, it was probably three weeks before they released the cuff in my ventilator to allow me to talk. And I love telling this story, that my voice just sounded real raspy. It kind of reminded me of Darth Vader from "Star Wars."

FLYNN: (Laughter).

BEGGIN: So I knew my dad was coming into the hospital that day. He came in, and I just looked at him and said, I am your father.

FLYNN: (Laughter).

BEGGIN: That just kind of reassured them that I was the same person and kind of helped me, you know, remember nothing's really changed with me mentally. Physically, you know, I was unable to move from the shoulders down.

FLYNN: So what this means for the uninitiated is you need a lot of help. And, you know, you have difficulty feeding yourself, I would imagine, grooming.

BEGGIN: Yeah, Tim. I mean, you pretty much nailed it. From feeding to getting dressed to your morning routines - bowels, bladder. I have the ability to be independent with my chair, but for the most part, yeah, I mean, this injury has caused me to be fully dependent on someone for practically everything.

FLYNN: Austin, buddy, that's about as bad as it gets, my friend (laughter).

BEGGIN: Yeah.

FLYNN: And I - you know, I don't want to be Pollyanna in, you know, there's always a silver lining to everything, but if you get through this life is not going to throw anything that's much more difficult than this at you.

BEGGIN: Oh, you could take on anything after this.

FLYNN: Absolutely. And, you know, I really was trying to put myself - I was thinking about you over the weekend, trying to sort of put myself back into that mindset of being hurt for a year, and damned if I didn't start crying. But, you know, one of the important things someone said to me then - this was from one of the psychologists who came in to gauge my level of mental well-being, I guess. You know, after that I threw the first three out who came in and said, how are you feeling? And I'd be, how the hell do you think I feel? You know, get the hell out of here.

BEGGIN: Yeah. Right, I love those questions.

FLYNN: But then someone came in, must've caught me at a moment of weakness 'cause I listened. They said, in every sort of lifetime, you know, we could do about 10,000 things. And they said, so what's going to happen now is you're going to do a different 10,000 things than you were going to do before. So it became figuring out what that new 10,000 things was going to be, you know, from a career standpoint or, you know - am I ever going to have a girlfriend? Am I getting married?

BEGGIN: Obviously, there's no question that the idea of, you know, dating or talking to girls is something that's on your mind. And one thing that happened recently was being in a wedding for one of my best friends growing up.

FLYNN: Yeah.

BEGGIN: But just being a part of it and seeing how my friend, you know, got to hold his wife's hand and, you know...

FLYNN: Yeah, yeah.

BEGGIN: ...Kiss her and, I don't know, dance with her. It's things like that that, you know, you're not ever, like, prepared for...

FLYNN: No, you're not.

BEGGIN: ...In this situation. And I can have, you know, the happiest day leading up to it, but once that moment hits and I see that reality, you know, it sets in that that's something I guess that, you know, I will not be able to do. But - I know that doesn't define me, but at the same time, I mean, those are moments...

FLYNN: It hurts. It hurts, yeah.

BEGGIN: ...That just get you down. Yeah, it hurts.

FLYNN: It hurts.

BEGGIN: It does.

FLYNN: I'm not going say it's going to stop hurting. You know, I really miss walking arm-in-arm with a woman. That's something I loved doing.

BEGGIN: Yeah. I mean, dancing - I used to love to dance.

FLYNN: Yeah, that, too.

BEGGIN: Just that whole idea.

FLYNN: Well, there - you know, you can figure out how to dance. Just encourage somebody to climb up onto your lap and...

BEGGIN: Yeah.

FLYNN: ...And start driving with your head, dude, you know?

BEGGIN: Go for a spin.

FLYNN: Go for a spin, you know? I mean, it's - yeah, it's not the same. I get that. But hey, you're in the middle of this minefield of not the same. And it's not going to change. And early on, where you are, that's really tough. You're waking up and you say, uh-oh. Yep, still paralyzed, aren't I?

BEGGIN: Well, because I don't know if you had it but, you know, there's plenty of dreams I have and...

FLYNN: ...Sure. You're walking in them, aren't you?

BEGGIN: I'm not wheelchair-bound. And, you know, you wish you could stay in that dream, and then you wake up and...

FLYNN: It's absolutely normal to wake up and like, oh, God. Hey, still, buddy, I wake up, you know, and I've got to drag my legs out of bed...

BEGGIN: Yeah.

FLYNN: ...And I'm like, all right, you know? But I've got someplace to go. You know, having a job is really important and having a good one is important.

BEGGIN: Yeah. And I had a job with Nabisco.

FLYNN: Yeah.

BEGGIN: And they were great even after the injury - letters and the amount of people that came to visit me in the hospital. And they always have assured me that, when the time was right - that I would be ready to go back to work, that, you know, we would find a position that was suited for me.

FLYNN: That is phenomenal. I mean, phenomenal.

BEGGIN: Yeah. I mean, there's a lot of people that don't kind of have that opportunity after their injury.

FLYNN: You said you were in marketing and business administration?

BEGGIN: Human resources.

FLYNN: Human resources?

BEGGIN: Yeah.

FLYNN: That's perfect. I mean, it's certainly something you can handle from the chair. You know, look, you've got to come home and have something to talk about at the dinner table. Otherwise, nobody cares about you. You know, from a self-esteem standpoint, it's real important. And one of the big transitions for me - and it took me a good five years to get there - was I kept on looking back into my past, thinking about what I lost. And that's not a strategy for progress. It was when I was sort of able to turn around and start looking forward and sort of looking out into the world and just think in terms of what I got and how I can use it.

BEGGIN: I mean, I kind of made it a focal point right off the bat to - as uncomfortable as it was early on, but just go out as often as I could, whether that was restaurants, sporting events.

FLYNN: Yeah. Yeah.

BEGGIN: So that, you know, I wouldn't keep myself confined to my room where I have just ample amount of time to sit there and think about, you know, all the negative things going on. And that's why, you know, I always enjoy talking to people who, you know, have done well for themselves after this because it's just reassuring that, you know, there is plenty of hope and opportunities out there.

FLYNN: There is. And from what I'm hearing over my headphones, here is a confident man who is smart, got a sense of humor. Just keep it up, buddy.

BEGGIN: Hey, thank you, Tim. I appreciate your time.

FLYNN: I've got faith in you.

SHAPIRO: That was Tim Flynn and Austin Beggin. They spoke as part of our series Been There. If you're looking for advice about a life change, send us an email to nprcrowdsource@npr.org. Put Been There in the subject line.

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