Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Don't They Know They're Smarter Than Me?

With the French visa situation deteriorating, and the week of music in the rear-view mirror, it was time to depart on Leg II of the voyage. I was off for a ten-day stint in Ann Arbor, Michigan teaching disability issues to medical students at my most hated rival institution, the University of Michigan.

Being a devout member of the Tribe of Illini, I was weighing my allegiance against the greater good of departing useful information to enhance the quality of education at a school that I have sworn an oath to defeat at all costs. In the end, I decided to play it straight and give them proper instruction, lest they attack the sterling reputation of the University of Illinois (Or Illinoise as Lou Holtz calls us).

This is where my hatred for the University of Michigan began. 

The invitation came at the behest of Dr. Andrew J. Haig who also happens to be my brother. The medical students are required to take several short seminars on various topics to fill out some basic requirements. Our course was called Physical and Mental Disability:  Around the World and in Our Backyard.  To bolster our course, we were joined by Dr. Karla Blackwood, an emergency psychiatrist from South Central L.A. Karla is one of the most incredible people I’ve ever come across. A single mom in her 30’s Karla busted out of one of the worst school systems in America and made it through Michigan’s rigorous medical school to become both a faculty member and practicing physician. Although quite soft spoken, she is absurdly competent and thorough, letting her preparation and experience speak as loud as a bull horn.

Brother Andy has been on the faculty at Michigan going on two decades and as North American Vice President of the International Society of Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine he is a global leader in Physiatry. People are often confused with the term ‘Physiatry’ (doesn’t even spell check!),  a relatively new field of medicine started by FDR’s personal physician Dr. Howard Rusk. Physiatry, or Rehabilitation Medicine, is what goes on after a surgeon does their work. Often times the surgeon is great at cutting and sewing, but unschooled in the science of getting people back to form. That’s where the physiatrist comes in. Rusk is one of the great unsung heroes in American history. He convinced FDR to establish rehab centers for wounded soldiers in WWII giving them proper care and enough time to heal before sending them back to battle. No other army had ever used this practice so when our soldiers went back to the front they were far healthier than their German counterparts.

Dr. Howard Rusk in Life Magazine. 

Rounding out the field was yours truly. Although I know didly-squat about medicine, I have lectured all over the country on disability issues and have the nasty advantage of actually needing disability codes and laws.
We had one class of five students and another of nine students. Each class had three, two-hour sessions over the course of seven days. Each one of us did the heavy lifting for a day while the other two would toss in expert commentary and answer questions on our day off.  

Karla led off the series with an in-depth description of mental disability, using real-world examples from her practice. This covered the entire gambit from schizophrenia, to depression, to post-traumatic stress disorder. Although all her cases were quite compelling, the most dramatic story was the case of a Sudanese refugee who had escaped her brutally abusive husband and made it to America, only to be trapped in the lurid world of international sex trafficking. It was unclear how she got to America or what she was doing in Michigan, but her nearly constant mental and physical abuse had brought her to Karla’s office. She was at risk of deportation and Karla was called on by the State of Michigan to testify on her PTSD and that she was, in fact, in danger of her life if she were to return to her home country. She also had a young daughter who had just entered into the local school system. The woman was almost completely isolated and friendless having little English and nearly no social interaction at all. It was a harrowing scenario that yielded dropped jaws from both students and faculty. The case is still in the hands of a judge.

I took the stage on Day 2 and gave a two-part presentation. Part I was a definition and description of various forms of physical disability. When people hear about physical disability they immediately think of wheelchairs, but those are just the most visible cases. Blind persons, deaf persons, the elderly and others all need some kind of legal protections to insure they can fully participate in society.

Read and memorize. There will be a test. 
Part of this discussion is the annoying topic of 'Appropriate Language', or how to address people with disabilities. As you can tell by the name of my blog, I HATE the PC terms that are used to describe people with disabilities. It's called 'People First' language and it is a huge waste time. The gist of it is that you are to address the person, not the disability. Therefore I am a 'person with paraplegia' not a 'paraplegic'. This kind of crap tends to freeze up people because they don't know how to properly phrase things. Can you say, "I have a blind friend." Or do you have to say, "My friend is blind." Either way, the guy can't see and I don't know why people are so caught up with this. But they are. There's even a movement out there now that claims the term 'handciap' is offensive. The proper term, 'disabled' is twice as offensive. I'm not disabled, I'm handicapped. I am 'able' - it just takes me extra time. 

Rarely do you find me agreeing with conservatives, but on this PC crap, I'm with them all the way. 

Part II was a bio piece explaining how I got in the chair, what it was like to endure the initial shock and the steps I’ve taken to regain as much as possible of my former life. The session ended with a slide show of various devices used for transportation of the disabled all over the world. If this trips your trigger, take a peek at the PowerPoint presentation   (40 megs).

With my job officially done it was time to relax a bit so Andy and I headed off for an open jam at the famous Tap Room in Ypsilanti. I was packing my axe from the Charlottesville gig and got to play a set with a local blues trio. We kicked out Steve Martin’s King Tut, All Along the Watchtower and a ZZ Top cover (can’t remember which one, they’re all the same anyway). I have now performed in the two most famous cities starting with Yp. Ypsilanti and Ypres, Belgium. I’m guessing I’m on the short list for that double.

Ya gotta stop for a sign like that right? 

Finally Andy had his day in the sun where he gave a rundown of the dos and donts of climbing the ladder in the rehab medicine world. He pulled quite a bit of info from his stint as a teacher in the business school and gave a great clinic on brainstorming and thinking out of the box. He made the students jump out of their comfort zone and stretch their concept of what being a doctor is all about. They all say they want to become doctors because they want to help people, but figuring out just how that’s going to take shape is never easy.

But at the end, we were no longer in control of the group. It was up to them to fill out evaluations and critique the content as well as our presentations. Being the dumbest person in the room I was pretty nervous over what these over-achieving type-A med school gunners had to say. I wasn’t sure if it was a waste of their time or were they actually gaining valuable knowledge.

The results were surprisingly positive. Had I been talking to practicing physicians it would have been a yawner, but these students had had very little interaction with disabled persons. Karla’s stories were mesmerizing and Andy spun them right out of their comfort zone into a new, more confident appreciation of their future. One thing we decided we needed to do was have one big class instead of the two small classes. The topics were fairly emotionally charged and we felt we short-changed the second group on added discussions.

But what the hell, they're just Wolverines anyway. 

With the course in the books, it was time to pack up and head back to Oregon. I had three short weeks to load my life into a few bags and head off for the Alps. 

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