As a special blog post, and as part of his blog tour to promote his book Adversity Builds Character, I’m honoured to host a short piece about Tom Ufert.
I won’t make a big introduction, as the piece itself introduces Tom more than adequately, but I would like to say it’s great to have this chance to help Tom get his message out there. He is a remarkable man, who has overcome many challenges in his life.
Tom Ufert, a 46-year-old quadriplegic afflicted with three different disabilities, is an inspirational voice in our troubled times. He received his Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and History as a scholarship recipient from Centenary College of Louisiana.
Tom is a former Rotary International graduate Fellow who attended Australian National University in Canberra, ACT, specializing in East Asian political affairs and was a White House Fellow nominee. He is a former Lyndon Baines Johnson Congressional Intern and constituency aid for two former United States members of Congress. His past services for eleven political campaigns on both sides of the aisle were highly valued by former Louisiana Governor Charles “Buddy” Roemer, Henson Moore, the former assistant chief of staff to U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush, and the present U.S. Trade Ambassador, Ron Kirk.
At age 23 he was the youngest artistic Board Chairman in the United States as head of the Shreveport Summer Music Festival.
Over the years he has acquired extensive customer service experience in the food and beverage, hotel, insurance, home security, and pharmaceutical industries. Mr. Ufert has served as a member of two other 501(c) three charity boards including his beloved fraternity Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia as well as the community advisory board for his former rehabilitation hospital. His professional memberships include Phi Alpha Theta, Sigma Tau Delta, and the Worldwide Who’s Who. In recent years he has worked tirelessly as a volunteer fundraiser for numerous AIDS charities in his community and served briefly as the community affairs liaison for Legacy Founders Cottage.
Tom, a native of Louisiana, now resides in Texas.
Here, for your pleasure, is an excerpt from his book Adversity Builds Character.
Chapter 13 – Rehabilitation for My Body and Soul
The day I woke up with a sudden change of heart and a renewed sense of purpose can only be explained as an act of God. Having seen what happens when the human spirit gives up, in my mom’s case — an overpowering sense of hopelessness, was not going to happen to me. The drive, the determination, and the sheer will to live could not have been possible without my faith in God and the loving encouragement of Brandon and all of the medical personnel at PRH. That bastion of support girded me for the physical and mental struggle rehabilitation was going to require. Knowing now that the HIV virus was streaming through my veins instilled in me the mental, physical, and emotional drive to overcome those physical challenges I could conquer. In essence, my thought process concluded that it would be impossible to survive the effects of HIV if I did not first master my new physical challenges.
Physical rehabilitation is no easy task. Furthermore, learning how to cope with physical challenges does not come readily. In fact, it is a long arduous process of trial and error, measured in a seemingly endless cycle of success and failure. Rehab of any kind does not come quickly and literally tears at the very fabric of your soul. I am living proof, however, that in God’s infinite creative wisdom there is no greater miracle than the adaptive and ever-healing human mind and body. I was most fortunate to have been given rare insight into this rehabilitative process by the individuals most closely associated with my care: my physical therapist, occupational therapist, my personal nurse, and my recreational/pool therapist. Their thoughtful and inspiring dedication to my recovery was invaluable to my positive mental outlook. The encouragement I received from these miracle workers of modern medicine made the difference between self-pity and the sheer will power to overcome my adversity. For example, the staff at PRH was enthusiastically supportive when I chose to comically decorate my titanium halo for the Halloween and Christmas holidays. Furthermore, my efforts to spread humor and good cheer to my fellow patients by regularly surprising the nursing staff with my wheelchair horn were met with smiles rather than frowns. Herein lies a prime example of the incredible healing power of a strong positive mental outlook. In many ways, my successful recovery was similar to the philosophy of actor Robin Williams in the movie Patch Adams: You must treat the patient, not just the illness. However, the gathering of such a collaborative team spirit did not come overnight.
My first physical therapist was a relatively young girl who was both dedicated and blindly determined. However, her “bedside manner” left a lot to be desired! For the first six weeks of my therapy even the basic task of getting out of bed and into a wheelchair was exhausting. The extra twenty-seven pounds of metal screwed into my skull made every movement precarious. Physical therapy requires several different routines of exercise to rebuild stamina and balance. Primarily, the patient exercises on a padded table referred to as an exercise mat. One of the exercises that are initially attempted is simply to sit on the side of the table with your legs hanging over the edge and your feet on the floor. Daily routines call for a series of bends at the waist with your arms outstretched to help orient your body for stability. Normally, for a “partially paralyzed” patient, this is a fatiguing endeavor. My situation was exacerbated by the additional weight upon my head which made orientation and equilibrium almost impossible. My PT became increasingly impatient and condescending towards my fears of toppling over onto the floor. Granted, every precaution was taken by the therapist and her assistant to ensure that this did not occur. However, insurance and guarantees never totally erase fears of the unknown. Under normal circumstances, such exercises were understandably difficult and tedious, but my titanium halo only magnified the strain. At one point my PT lost her patience and said in an accusatory tone, “I am sick and tired of blaming the halo for your resistance to the necessary exercises of your recovery!” For me that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The very next day I requested to meet with my entire therapy team at the end of the week to voice my concerns. At that meeting I strongly expressed my desire to change therapists, arguing politely that the present arrangement was counterproductive. I requested another PT who had shown great interest and compassion for my condition. Over time, our conversations had been enlightening, and she reassured me that she was more capable of producing results while acknowledging my limitations.
If there is one lesson that I learned from years of listening to Chuck and Karen tell stories from their work at the hospital, it was that patients needed to be their own advocates. As the healthcare profession has grown, patients have increasingly become mere case numbers and charts of endless statistics. Medical personnel are overworked and hospitals are understaffed resulting in a dehumanizing effect on the profession as a whole. No one is at fault. It is just the simple truth about our modern healthcare industry. Therefore, patients and their families must be vigilant and proactive to prevent improper care, careless mistakes, and a desensitizing approach to medical treatment. I am eternally grateful to Chuck and Karen for teaching me to be my own advocate!
Personal advocacy requires a personal responsibility. This means one must take the initiative to be well informed and educated about your own health and treatment. Such a direct approach to your own health and well-being does not condone rudeness or blind arrogance in the face of expert medical opinion; it does require an honest self-appraisal of your medical condition. Therefore, you and you alone must have the mental wherewithal to take care of yourself and a positive attitude in your recovery. There are centuries of historical examples demonstrating the miraculous healing power of the mind over the body. With the right support and encouragement, a strong positive outlook can literally turn disasters into miracles. I’m living proof of that fact.
My new physical therapist (PT), Layne, proceeded to teach me more about my own body than I ever knew before. By way of her instruction and suggestion, I discovered that the human body can adapt remarkably to permanent injury. She taught me how to utilize “spastic energy” caused by my MS as a means to overcome irreversible neurological damage to the spine. She was patient and supportive, all the while being determined and persistent in our daily physical therapy. Her methods were creative and open minded to alternatives such as biofeedback in a constant effort to help my body adapt to its new life altering condition. Many of these previously nontraditional methods required coordinated assistance from other members of my therapy team.
One of the advantages of the team model approach to rehabilitative care is that every aspect of the patient’s therapy is carefully integrated. Meeting weekly, each member of the team is able to update their colleagues about the specific developments in their sphere of the therapy. This routine intercommunication perfectly enhances joint cooperation for the patient’s total care. For example, my PT was able to provide relevant medical evidence to my social worker showing the therapeutic benefits of biofeedback that justified its insurance coverage. Similarly, thanks to the coordinated progress reports and projected cost benefit analysis of both physical and occupational therapy, my insurance carrier approved the purchase of both manual and electric wheelchairs. Traditionally, insurance will cover one or the other but never both! Remarkably, my therapy team’s magnificent group effort successfully garnered over one quarter of a million dollars in benefit coverage. Repeatedly, the PRH therapy staff stressed that it was their job to secure every possible benefit so that I could focus on recovery.
For five and a half months I resided at Plano Rehab progressing steadily towards discharge and my return home. During that period of time my strength and stamina steadily improved. Due to the excellent dietary care I easily recovered the nearly twenty-five pounds that had been lost following the accident, embarrassingly gaining nearly six waist sizes by the end of my inpatient status. Shortly before my discharge in early 1993, the titanium metal halo was removed to reveal the miraculous healing of my spinal fracture. However, one of the metal screws did weaken and become loose just after Christmas. I have never felt more intense pain in my life. This experience did require massive amounts of pain relievers to endure the agony. Though I do not recall much of the week long ordeal, I have been told that the medication-induced euphoria resulted in my ironic observations of three humorous clichés; one, that it was absolutely true — I had holes in my head; two, that I really did have a screw loose; and three, I had finally lost my halo! Laughter heals the world.
Careful attention was also given to the goal of my successful reintegration into life after rehab. For example, one week before my discharge, I resided independently in a preparatory “apartment” without supervision for a full twenty-four hours. This therapy technique helps the patient cope mentally, physically, emotionally and psychologically with the rigors of returning home. Though medical assistance was only an emergency button away with periodic spot checks to insure my safety, I was solely responsible for dressing myself, bathing, meal preparation, independent transfers from my wheelchair to the bed and toilet. The experience was terrifying, but essential for a successful reintegration into “normal life.” My occupational therapist (OT) and social worker cooperated closely with the Texas Rehabilitation Commission (TRC) to ensure the acquisition of necessary equipment required for independent living and my return to work. Their joint efforts provided adaptive computer equipment and a fully equipped handicapped van that predominately insured a successful return home.
I would be remiss if I did not properly recognize the invaluable service of both my doctor and my employer. Dr. R. expertly coordinated every aspect of my rehabilitative therapy. His expert care and deeply compassionate demeanor made the difference between success and failure in my recovery. As for my employer, Mr. H. at Sister Insurance Company, Inc. was no less than a miracle worker. His generosity and heartfelt concern were endless. In fact, had it not been for a direct phone call personally to the CEO of the insurance carrier, I probably would not have been fully covered. As it turned out, a policy technicality would have prevented full coverage for my injuries and medical care. However, because of Mr. H’s financial holdings as a major stockholder in the insurance carrier, his wishes carried a great deal of weight. I learned later that he had instructed the carrier that “I was to be fully covered without any questions.”
All of this support and encouragement from my therapy staff, employer, co-workers and friends greatly enhanced the recuperative process. That core support group would have been inherently inhibited were it not for the further blessings of understanding, forgiveness and unconditional love from my “adopted” family. Words cannot adequately describe the shame and humility I felt at the moment of confession to the Campbell clan. In one fell swoop, they discovered the extent of my physical injuries, the depth of deception I had contrived to conceal my lifestyle, and the overwhelming sense of final doom with the announcement of my HIV status. Their eyes conveyed disappointment, but their hearts demonstrated true love. So many afflicted with HIV never know such compassion. I will be forever humbled in the light of such a divine blessing.
Finally, I have to express the deepest amount of love, respect, and admiration for Brandon. Throughout this entire ordeal he continued to work full time at Plano Rehab striving to fulfill his employment obligations for the hospital while simultaneously keeping tabs on my therapy and recovery. Despite any hidden feelings of hurt or anger, he demonstrated an unquestionable loving devotion towards me. The daily anguish of watching me struggle through my rigorous rehab regimen must have been doubly grueling for him because he would then have to go home to an empty apartment. The undeniable cause for my injuries, my infidelity, must have been like a dagger driven into his back right through his heart. However, his overwhelming love seemed to give him reason enough for forgiveness. He never offered any words of complaint, though fatigue and stress were clearly visible in his eyes and upon his face. I am deeply grateful for his love and he will always hold a special place in my heart.
In the end, my life, my recovery, and everything I am since September 28, 1992 are living proof that miracles happen every day. Furthermore, your life can change in a split second, but through the grace of God and the love and friendship of people in your life you can overcome any hardship. Accepting that reality unquestionably leads me to know in my heart and soul that Adversity Builds Character. None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the dedicated love and friendship of all these remarkable people. Their determination to help me succeed is deeply humbling and only further demonstrates the incredible healing power of another person’s faith in your character. I thank God for their belief in me, for it has made me a better person.
Thank you very much joining us on the tour. This was the final stop… for now. I would like to take a second to thank everybody for following the tour, whether you read the posts, hosted Tom or helped share his message. You have played a wonderful part, and have helped to make this tour the success it was.