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Making It

Motivational Speaker's Dreams Were Detoured but Not Lost

March 18, 2001|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Life's unpredictable detours foil many promising careers. But Art Berg, who was left a quadriplegic after an auto accident years ago, vowed he wouldn't let adversity stop him from achieving his dreams.

In 1983, Berg had a promising future. He co-owned a growing tennis court construction business. He was a talented athlete who water-skied, snow-skied, ran and played basketball and tennis. He was engaged to his high school sweetheart.

But on the day after Christmas 1983, while accompanying a friend on a drive from California to Utah, Berg's life changed forever. His friend fell asleep at the wheel, and the car hurtled over an embankment, rolled several times and crashed in the Nevada desert. Berg, who was thrown from the passenger seat, remained conscious. He knew instantly something was very wrong; he couldn't feel his arms or legs.

"One of my first realizations was that all my dreams might be gone," he said.

Later in the hospital, doctors gave him horrible news: He had a cervical-level spinal cord injury. He was a quadriplegic, they said; he probably would never walk again.

Berg's list of injuries was long: He had lost lung function; he could no longer sweat; he had no control over muscles in his chest, abdomen, legs and hands; and he has very little remaining strength in his shoulders and arms. Berg remembers one doctor who suggested that, because of his serious condition, Berg accept that he might never marry, have children or hold a job.

He struggled to fight depression. He lost 48 pounds and was subject to excruciating medical procedures. Metal tongs were bolted to the side of his head. When he was later fitted with a halo brace, bolts were screwed into his forehead and behind his ears. The anesthesia used in the procedures didn't work.

"It was the most pain I'd experienced in my life," Berg said. He had to wear the halo brace for 12 weeks.

Regular visits from his fiancee and parents kept Berg going in the beginning. They urged him, "Don't quit, don't give up, don't give in." His fiancee told him they would still marry. His mother read him stacks of cards from well-wishers and repeated the phrase that would become Berg's motto, "While the difficult takes time, the impossible just takes a little longer."

Berg began to see his condition as a detour, not a permanent roadblock.

"I had to dream new dreams, ask new questions and think new thoughts," he said. He also decided not to be a "why-ner"--a person who asks frustrating, pointless questions such as "Why me?" and "Why did this happen?" He vowed instead to keep focused on the present and to set goals.

He also realized he had the power to control his perception of his condition and his response to it. It was up to him to view his life as a tragedy or as an opportunity.

"If I chose to be angry, it wouldn't change things," he said. "If anything, it would push people away from me. So I chose to be happy. I saw happiness as a choice we can make every day."

The medical staff was puzzled by Berg's demeanor. When Berg received a copy of his medical chart, he found that a doctor had written that he was exhibiting "excessive happiness." On the chart, the physician suggested Berg be isolated from family, friends and other patients so he could get over his denial and accept the gravity of his condition, Berg said.

His tribulations had only begun. He had to relearn basic life functions, such as how to feed himself. On his first attempt, he fell face-first into a plate of scrambled eggs, and, because his rehab instructor was out of the room, remained in the position for nearly 30 minutes. But he took the setback good-naturedly, even joking about it to the startled instructor upon her return.

This was the attitude he carried with him through his rehabilitation. He accepted that his reentry into the world beyond the hospital would take time and great effort. He fought the temptation to give up too easily. It took him four years to be able to put on his own pants, five years to don his socks and shoes.

He likes to tell people, "Before my accident, there were 10,000 things I could do. Now there are 9,000 things I can do."

Berg learned to use his shoulders, arms and two functional chest muscles to their greatest advantage. He developed his fingers' limited motor skills and trained himself to trigger muscle spasms so he could perform actions such as picking up a pencil, shaking hands and turning door knobs.

Eventually, when Berg could get around in a wheelchair, type with two fingers, hold a pen and answer phones, he decided he was ready to return to work. He began calling employers to apply for sales jobs.

"On the phone, they would sound enthusiastic and promising regarding my qualifications, anxious for me to be a part of their team and sometimes almost even hiring me before we had a chance to interview,"' Berg wrote in "Some Miracles Take Time" (Invictus Communications, 1990). "But then into their office I would roll, and their enthusiasm turned to disappointment and concern."

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