Recovering even when you want to quit

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Rebecca Imwalle
  • 28th Bomb Wing Public Affairs

"The left side of my body was basically dead," Bell said. "It would not move... I could not do anything."

Donald Bell, 28th Bomb Wing Equal Opportunity director, a Winnfield Louisiana native and father of two, began a life-changing journey April of 2014, one that would push him to the brink of quitting everything.

"I was having a few aches and pains in my right arm, which ended up getting very severe," Bell said. "Medications didn't work, so I got an MRI done."

There were several issues with Bell's neck, which the doctors diagnosed as requiring surgery.

"The doctor said I was in really bad shape," Bell explained. "He said I was about a cough away from being paralyzed from the neck down. I didn't want that to happen. I didn't want to become a burden to everyone."

Although very hesitant, Bell decided to have the surgery due to the doctor's recommendations. After four hours in surgery, he woke up in the recovery room. The doctors first asked him to move his right arm and leg, there were no problems. They told him to move the left side- he couldn't.

"After completing the second MRI, the doctors confirmed that there was no damage to the spine," Bell said. "But there was damage to the nerves, which the doctors decided was likely causing my immobility."

Bell recalled the doctor said he may be able to get his movement back, but it would take tough physical therapy and could take a year to recover. Still, there were no guarantees.

"I got to the rehab center," Bell said. "The whole time I was thinking, 'Why did this happen?' and 'I let this happen.' I made the decision to get this surgery."

Bell explained that everything just seemed like a bad dream and that he kept thinking, "This cannot be happening," and "Maybe I'll wake up, and everything will be just fine." Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

"When they woke me up the first day," Bell said. "I just told them to leave me alone. I'll be honest, I was at my worst. It just didn't seem real to me.

As I began to accept what was going on, my attitude started to change and I began to work harder during physical therapy. If they asked for 10 reps, I gave them 20."

After more than three weeks in the rehab center, on the day he had planned to be released, the doctor said the incision on his neck was still draining and that something was wrong.  After a few tests, the staff detected a virus in the incision.

"I was thinking some pills or a shot would cure the virus but the surgeon said they would have to go back in and drain the fluid," Bell explained. "I said no. That I already had two surgeries, one on my back and one on my neck, and you want to go back in?"

The doctors said that if he didn't have this third surgery, the virus could kill him.

At the time, Bell said "So what? I've been through enough, and I've done everything I need to do. I've raised two kids and put them through school; I've been married for 29 years; I've served my country, and as a service member, I've done everything I need to do. I'm tired of what is happening. No one can give me guarantees."

Bell explained that he wanted to quit everything - his family, friends and all the things he enjoyed. Though still nervous and scared, Bell ultimately decided to have the third surgery. To the relief of his family and friends, there were no complications.

"One day I asked a doctor how I was doing," Bell said. "He just gave me this look, and asked about my religious beliefs, and later told me to 'cling to my faith.' He told me that he didn't think I would ever be able to drive again, that I wouldn't be able to go back to work. In his mind, it was over."

Bell explained that if he could measure his anger on a scale from one to 10 at that point, it would have been a 15 or 20.

"For a second," Bell said, "I gave up. The next day, I realized that that doctor probably never wore our uniform. He never worked with people that wore the (our) uniform, because for us, saying 'can't' is simply a challenge."

Bell received remarkable support from friends, co-workers and leadership. Every time he thought about quitting, somebody showed up to visit and say they were not going to let him quit.

"Life has a way of throwing you into something you're not prepared for," Bell said. "You learn to swim in the shallow end of the pool, you spend your life in the shallow end, and then life comes, it grabs you and throws you in the deep end. You're struggling because you didn't train for this."

Bell explained how much it helps when you have people that will grab onto you when you are in a tough situation and friends to help when you think giving up is the easiest way to deal with that situation.

"I spent 36 days in the hospital," Bell said. "It was supposed to only be two. It was the worst time of my life. But some days I had the best days of my life. Because I saw that people cared, I saw the good side of people for once, and it was great."

Soon after recovery, Bell started walking with a cane, driving again and going to work. He is still going through physical therapy, progressing each day with his recovery.

"I'm here today because of the people that helped me," Bell said. "Whether it was a visit or simply a phone call, it helped me realize that I have a huge supportive family.

My family is not necessarily blood relatives, but they're right around the corner. We all have that. Sometimes you just have to look for it."