Health & Medicine

Son's paralyzing injury changes everything in instant

Deborah Morris
Deborah Morris

Contributing writer Deborah Morris writes The Fru-Gal, a weekly column in the Herald-Leader and on focused on saving money. During the summer, her son was involved in an accident that changed his and his family's life. Here she tells that story.

Like everyone, I've seen stories over the years of how tragedy changed a person's life forever in an instant. On July 7, I experienced it.

My youngest son, John, 23, fell from a third-floor balcony and was paralyzed from the waist down.

I don't even remember talking to the doctor after my older son, Brett, passed me the phone. But that conversation began my family's new reality.

John had moved to California in February to work at a ski resort and then intern with a jockey insurance company during the summer. The horse industry runs through my family, with my husband, Joe, leading Golden Gate Fields racetrack in Berkeley, Calif.

John was staying at my husband's Berkeley apartment during the internship. It was there that he walked out to the balcony while reading the mail. Instead of sitting on the chair, he sat on the balcony railing. It's an act he has replayed in his mind countless times. Why didn't he just sit on the nearby chair?

He says it was the slowest yet quickest fall, and he was conscious during all of it. As he fell 35 feet to the ground, he grabbed a tree, which I think saved his life. When he tried to get up after landing, he realized his legs wouldn't work.

People say he was lucky he didn't hit his head or break other bones. It could have been worse, they say. It's the hardest situation I've ever experienced, so I don't feel so lucky.

John was in surgery for five hours and had two rods installed in his back to treat what the doctors call a complete spinal cord injury with a fractured vertebrae.

The staff at his rehabilitation center helped him learn how to live, as his father and I watched over his progress. He worked hard daily with physical therapists, occupational therapists, weight trainers and more. His drive to survive was and is amazing, and the staff wouldn't let him give up. Each day, we posted pictures of his progress on his personal page on (JohnMorrisJourney).

The well-wishes from friends, family and colleagues were overwhelming. John celebrated his birthday in rehab and received more than 100 cards, many coming from what he has always called my "crazy coupon followers."

As John worked on his rehabilitation, his father and I learned the nightmares of dealing with insurance companies. Our insurance wouldn't even pay for the bench John needs to take a shower.

Insurance threw up obstacles, but we found our friends eager to help us overcome them. The horse industry, which my husband has been involved in since learning the business from his uncle Loring Norton, a member of the Harness Racing Hall of Fame, has banded together to help our son.

Our friends in the industry have organized a golf tournament on Oct. 15 at Canewood Golf Course in Georgetown to raise money for John's medical care and future needs. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, Daily Racing Form and Equine Savings have been influential in organizing the event. Among others helping have been The Breeders' Cup, Adena Springs Farm, Keeneland, Turf Catering, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital, John Deere and The Stronach Group, plus so many more. It has been overwhelming.

We've become part of this special group of people who take care of one another, not just in Kentucky but all over the United States. We've heard from horsemen in Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, California and elsewhere who want to help our son. It's one story after another of goodwill that reminds us we are blessed to be here today as a family.

We're looking to the future. John has as many prospects for his future as any 23-year-old. He's looking into activities like sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, clay shooting and archery.

The opportunities are endless.