Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stephen Hawking and Me

Stephen Hawking has amazed and fascinated me from the day I first encountered him on TV. That a human being whose body is so limited that he requires electronic gadgets to move and even communicate has such a brilliant mind is probably not overly unique. What Professor Hawking has done with his mind is unique -- and staggering.He has been called "the greatest mind on earth." I cannot disagree.

After seeing Professor Hawking on TV, I purchased and read his book A Brief History of Time and then The Universe in a Nutshell. Both books are written so that non-scientific dudes like me can have some understanding of Professor Hawking's concepts. Some understanding, but far from complete understanding. The brilliance of the knowledge he has shared with us is so immense that to fully perceive it would require a lifetime -- or more.

That being said, I do share a very small part of Professor Hawking's existence: there are times when I sit in wheelchair. (Not the Rolls Royce type that he has; I have a very simple one with no gadgets).

Unlike Professor Hawking, I can walk without the chair; I can talk without a gadget. Still, there is something about being in a wheelchair that seems to  broadcast to some people that we (all in wheelchairs) are more handicapped than we truly are.

For example, last Monday I had an appointment at the Verterans' Administration outpatient clinic with my case managing physician. I prefer to attend AV appointments, be they at the clinic or the hospital, riding in the chair. It isn't that I can't walk, it's that the distance I must walk is so great that walking exhausted both my legs and my lungs.
And. for some reason, all of the chairs at VA facilities have arms on them and my fat ass excessive posterior doesn't fit between the arms.

When they finally called me from the waiting room of the clinic to see Doc Lauren, the first stop is always for a weigh in. The nurse who escorted me was one whom I did not know (and who did not know me). At the scales the nurse asked Sam, my temporary caregiver who was pushing my chair, "Can he stand up?" I answered, "Yes, I can." and demonstrated that skill by getting up and standing on the scale. (Where I was pleased to learn that I have lost 17 pounds since my last weigh-in).

During the visit the nurse continued to address remarks and questions to Sam, ignoring my presence., until I said, "Please speak to me, not my caregiver." It was as if my sitting in a wheelchair and breathing from a portable oxygen tank broadcast that I was not just having problems with mobility and breath, but also with hearing, speech, and probably understanding.

That visit wasn't the only time someone has addressed my caregivers when I've been in the wheelchair. I suppose some folks simply make assumptions about folks based upon things like the person is mobility challenged. (Lord, I really dislike that politically correct phrase!)

So last week, after the visit, I began thinking: If folks make those assumptions about me what assumptions must folks make about Stephen Hawking? Do they discount the greatest mind on earth because that mind is housed in a frail body? I rather suspect they do.

They do for the same reason people judge others based upon the color of the skin, the accent with which they speak, the length (or shortness) of their hair, and lots of other superficial stuff. They do so because they don't know the person.

I rather think that this world be a much more peaceful and just place if people allowed themselves to know others rather than making superficial judgements about them.

I wish.


  1. That must have been very frustrating for you. I hope the nurse learned a little lesson there.

    And congratulations on your weight loss!

  2. We (humans in general) do tend to make snap judgments about our fellow life-travelers, don't we?

    My late hub eschewed the use of the wheelchair most of the time for that reason. Like you, he did use it at the VA because of the great distances one must walk. We were fortunate that the staff always addressed him directly, only looking to me when he deferred. In fact, our experience at the VA was what I would term exceptional, in that he was always treated as a "whole" person, despite his body's failures.

    Nick,, I've had similar thoughts about my brother who is in an advanced stage of Parkinson's. He has one of the most brilliant minds I've encountered, an amazing quick wit and charming personality I've ever known. The Parkinson's has robbed him (and us!!) of much of his physical expressive abilities. His smile is all but gone; you have to look closely to see the slight upturn at the edge of his mouth. His facial muscles no longer express his mirth. To a new acquaintance, his quirky jokes must seem incongruous, coming from a blank dead-pan face. We get it. We know him. But he had a similar experience with an in-home physical therapist, when she addressed her questions to my SIL, until he told her, "Please ask the questions to me. My face and my body don't work will, but my mind is still very functional most times."

    I try to be slow to make judgments, to wait till I know what is behind the exterior of a person, but I don't always succeed. Thank you for a reminder.

    I'm sending you an essay I wrote about our experiences at the VA in KC.

  3. Congratulations on the weight loss!

    I am sorry to hear about the way the nurse behaved. It always astonishes me how people can be so patronising!


  4. Good post, Nick! I can understand how people can, unconsciously, think that those with one perceived "disability" would also think that they have other disabilities. Still, it would be great if our medical educational system taught our professionals to first find out their patient's abilities before assuming.

    I'm glad that you spoke up for yourself. You rock, Nick!

  5. Well done on the weight loss Nick.

    I have heard people who use wheelchairs say that they are treated like imbeciles as folk only see the chair. Sad isn't it?

  6. Very well said, my friend!
    :) The Bach

  7. On the subject of Stephen Hawking, I thought this might interest you: LINK