AQA

Finding hope

30.08.21 03:38 PM By Dan

In our Soul Food for Dark Days series, writers share responses to loss and reveal where they've found help when they needed it. Dave Jacka recalls how he opened the door that led him to a life of adventure.

Dave Jacka found a path from despair to freedom.
Story by Dave Jacka

As I sat in the recliner wheelchair unable to move, all I could do was stare at the pale blue wall in front of me.  In that moment, the consequences of my motorbike accident transformed from a vague thought to the dark and painful realisation that life as I knew it was over. Two months previously, I’d broken the fifth vertebra in my neck, leaving me with quadriplegia.  I was nineteen years old.

My despair felt so deep it was as though a plastic bag had been pulled over my head, leaving me unable to breathe.  My identity and dreams were gone. Any remnant of hope that I had clung to for a worthwhile future had dissolved. 

Over the next seven months of rehab, I began the slow journey of relearning the most basic of tasks: feeding myself, brushing my teeth, putting a top on.  These tasks - so simple in my previous life - were now challenges that felt so great that I didn’t know if I could ever achieve them.

Before my accident I had a plan for my life, but now I felt utterly lost.  I desperately needed a little hope that my situation would get better, to feel that I was in some way progressing. 

One small goal

I began by focusing on one small goal: feeding myself.  Without functioning fingers to hold a spoon, I watched as a nurse strapped a Palm Pocket—a Velcro band that holds a spoon or fork—to my hand and slid a spoon into its pocket.  My first spoonful of soup hit my chin, dribbling down my neck. I felt embarrassed and frustrated.  Not ready to give up, I changed tack and attacked the casserole, managing a good mouthful without spillage and munching away with a very satisfied grin.  Initially it was exhausting, but with each mouthful I got better at it.

As I mastered such small but important goals, my confidence grew, allowing me to take on bigger challenges.  As my goals got bigger, I followed the same strategy, breaking each down into smaller goals—micro-goals as I called them—that were far more achievable than the huge goal itself. 

Each time I achieved a micro-goal, it boosted my determination and commitment to keep going. When I encountered an obstacle that seemed impassable, the key was to get creative and find different ways around it. 

Simple solution

When I began learning to transfer, I couldn’t lift myself from the wheelchair to the bed because the chair would shoot away and I ended up on the floor.  It was only after trying many different options that I came up with the idea of a hook to hold the wheelchair in position against my bed.  This simple solution enabled me to transfer independently, increasing my freedom and changing my life.

This strategy of focusing on a goal and breaking it down into micro-goals, committing to taking action, and finding different pathways to get around obstacles, was the key to helping me move forward from my accident. 

Now, 33 years on, I can affirm the value of this approach, which has become the foundation of how I live my life. 

It provides an open attitude to life that helps me navigate the everyday challenges of living with a physical disability. More importantly, it constantly focusses my perspective, allowing me to see possibilities instead of impossibilities. It has given me the confidence to dream again, and to transform those dreams into reality.

Author Note: Dave Jacka OAM was the first person with quadriplegia to fly a microlight aircraft solo, and the first to fly a light aircraft around Australia.  His book Six Percent, an account of his journey from injured motorcyclist to solo pilot, was published in 2019 and is available from https://davejacka.com/books/ and Amazon.com. Dave has been living with a complete C5-6 spinal cord injury since 1988, and is a member of the AQA board.

Read more: I was still the same person