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Each Day Requires Determination, Brings Discovery as New Wheelchair User Adjusts to Life

Former patient misses walking his dog, but finds joy in spending time with her as he and others adjust to his new normal.

By Ken Johnson, LPC
Former Spinal Cord Injury Patient, Shepherd Center

My dog, Zoe, the whippet, has no real concept of a wheelchair. In my walking days, she knew to move out of my way when I walked through the house. Now, when I approach her in my wheelchair, she doesn’t move. She does not understand the concept of moving furniture.

In the past, when I sat in a chair, I stayed put. Now, when I sit in my wheelchair, I roll around the house. I try and explain to her that I no longer walk. Life has changed. This wheelchair is my new normal. That means I can’t take her on our regular evening walks the way I used to. Our evening walks were our time together, Zoe and I exploring the neighborhood. I tell her we have to do things differently, but she is a dog. She just tilts her head and stares at me.

Many people I know have similar reactions. They are unaware of how my life has truly changed since I was paralyzed in fall 2013. While there are many things I do the same as before my wheelchair, there are many more things that require a completely new approach.

My friends have a tough time understanding what it takes to live with paralysis, and frankly, so do I. It’s hard to understand what takes me so long or why I don’t keep the same pace I was known for before paralysis. It’s hard to comprehend the complexities of life now. I can no longer just walk through life. I now wheel through life with a new purpose, a new resolve and a new attitude. Nothing is taken for granted. Everything I do has a purpose. I just want to make it through my day. Each day is a triumph of determination and discovery. I rejoice in the discovery of what I can do, and I grieve the realization of what I can’t do.

I think I take life less for granted now that I’m in a wheelchair. Maybe that’s because, from a wheelchair, life’s ups and downs have greater impact. Just wheeling down my driveway to the mailbox is a major life event. Wheeling back up to the house is a workout in itself.

It’s hard to understand the adjustments one has to make when living with paralysis. My life has become one of slow motion. No longer do I rush from one activity to the next. I’m forced to slow down. This has been a difficult adjustment. My body is no longer able to live full-throttle. My brain still gets ahead of my body. I struggle to get my paralyzed legs to catch up with where my brain is telling me I need to be. And so I’m learning to slow down and look at life from a new perspective – one of appreciation for the little things I do.

Like my dog Zoe, I, too, miss our evening walks, but now we are learning to enjoy our morning time together. When she jumps on the bed before I slide into my wheelchair and presses her head into me in greeting, no walking is necessary.  

KEN JOHNSON is a licensed professional counselor with 20 years experience in private practice. He is the administrative director and founder of East-West Psychotherapy Associates in Marietta, Ga. Ken has a master’s degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Ken experienced a medical crisis in September 2013 that left him with paraplegia. Subsequently, Ken spent four weeks in rehabilitation at Shepherd Center. The experience at Shepherd Center helped prepare him for life in a wheelchair and set the stage for a shift in his private practice to include counseling individuals and family members facing medical traumas and disability issues. Ken has been married for 31 years to Cathy. They have two grown children and live in Marietta, Ga. Ken can be contacted at 770-419-5657 or at

For more information on spinal cord injury rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, click here.

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.