How I Discovered My Inner Artist
by Sergio Acevedo, C3 Quadriplegic
My spinal cord injury would not have happened if I had listened and seen all of the road blocks that were thrown in my way that morning. At the time, my day job was working as a welder but my passion was mountain biking so when I woke up on a gorgeous day in early November 2006; still warm enough to be outdoors, brilliant blue skies, the last of the Fall foliage show in full bloom, I wanted to go mountain bike riding upstate with my friends one last time before winter set in. It was my goddaughter’s birthday. My mom asked me not to go riding and to stay and celebrate my niece’s birthday but I went anyway.
My passion was mountain biking.
We got to the mountain and it was beautiful. We suited up and made our way to the chair lift to go up the mountain. After completing several runs, I saw this boulder that I wanted to ride over so on the next ride down I went for it. I must have fallen off my bicycle hundreds of times but this time when I fell, my head hit a tree. My body went instantly numb and I couldn’t move. My heart just melted because I knew that this was a serious injury and that life was about to change in the most extreme way. On the plus side, I scored by my first helicopter ride on the way to the hospital!
Why didn’t I listen to my mom?
After the initial emergency room drama and testing, a doctor rushed into the room to tell me that my spinal cord has been crushed at C3/C4 and I was paralyzed from my shoulders down. The worst part of hearing that was knowing that instead of saying happy birthday to my niece, I was going to have to call my family to say that I was in the hospital in upstate New York with a spinal cord injury. All I could think about was why didn’t I listen to my mom this morning?
My family is the best thing that ever happened to me. I’m sure they must have been mad with me but by the time they took that two hour drive to the hospital to come see me, they had already made arrangements with insurance and decided the best place for me to rehab.
After a week or so in ICU, I was transferred on a ventilator to Mount Sinai Hospital to start my life with a spinal cord injury. I was ready to get better but I didn’t know what was supposed to happen. I needed help with everything from the time I opened my eyes to start the day to the time I closed my eyes at the end the day. The reality is, if someone is not there to help me to do the most basic steps, my life does not happen like it used to. In rehab at Mount Sinai Hospital, I learned how to direct my care and advocate for myself…even if I wasn’t quite ready to actually do that for myself, my family learned how to help me and stood up for me until I was ready.
I was a prisoner in a nursing home…until I escaped!
Since I couldn’t go home by myself, I was discharged to a sub-acute facility and then eventually to a nursing home. I felt like a prisoner. Having no control over the smallest decision from when to get up to what to eat was horrible. I shut down for a while. For about six months I didn’t know what kind of life this was. Luckily, through Mount Sinai, I connected with SCI peer mentors who showed me ways to adapt and survive. I started going to a weekly support group for SCI patients run by Dr. Angela Riccobono called Transition where newly injured people get to meet people who have been dealing with SCI and thriving. Jim Cesario, the SCI Outreach Coordinator, encouraged me to participate in the Mount Sinai SCI Life Challenge Program and I went sky diving, gliding, water skiing and even snow skiing. Who knew it was still possible to get my adrenaline fix through adaptive sports?
Life Challenge and SCI Peer Support groups helped me stay active and social while I was living in the nursing home and my family did everything possible to support me but my dream was to go home. Finally In 2011, I was able to take advantage of Medicaid’s Nursing Home Transition Waiver to get my own apartment and the 24 hour care I needed to live in the community independently. Now I do what I want, when I want. It took more than six months to sort through the complicated paperwork and requirements of the waiver program but it was well worth it. Freedom feels great!
A Mouth Stick Opens Doors
One of the more useful things I acquired during my rehab journey was a mouth stick. With it I can use a computer, sign my name and write. Learning to write was like kindergarten ABC’s all over again and it took a lot of practice before I could clearly see my name. Now I make it a point to pickup post cards whenever I travel or visit a museum so that I can send a card to my niece.
I took up painting after about 4 years of living in the nursing home. l finally agreed to join the Rec Therapy Art Group when boredom got the best of me. Painting with a mouth stick is very time consuming but I had fun…fun just like playing baseball kind of fun and I enjoyed being with a group of painters. I learned more about my fellow residents and liked the attention I got when someone saw me paint. Hearing comments like “I have two free hands and can’t make a circle”, was very encouraging. I enjoyed the art group so much that even when it was nice outside I would go to art first and then go out.
Impossible Dream Project
Painting became my new passion. Today, I continue to practice my art, teaching myself about paints and different artistic styles. I practice so much that I have had the opportunity to sell some of my work including several commissions for people’s homes and offices. I regularly donate items for local fundraisers and started a company called Stick Art to share my art and help bring awareness to what is possible even after a high level spinal cord injury like mine.
Recently, I was asked to be one of 30 artists who were given a piece of canvas re-purposed a front jib sail from Impossible Dream, the world’s only wheelchair accessible catamaran. I was fortunate enough to take a sail around New York Harbor on Impossible Dream back in 2015 so I am really excited to be involved with this project. Finished pieces will be exhibited in October during the Shake-A-Leg Foundation’s 25th anniversary ceremony in Miami and auctioned off to support Impossible Dream, Shake-a-Leg Miami and RiseUp Gallery. See more.
Never did I think I would be a successful artist or that people would know who I am through my art. It might not be racing down a mountain at 60 miles an hour but I get pretty psyched when somebody wants to have a piece of my artwork for their very own.
Advice for someone with a new spinal cord injury.
After almost 10 years of living with a spinal cord injury there are a few basic things I would share with someone newly injured.
- Second, don’t be too proud to ask for help and try to have a positive attitude. Those two things make problem solving possible and, when you can’t move from the neck down, it’s all about the problem solving! It was through problem solving that I found parts of my old self again and found a new purpose for my life.
- First, don’t take your family for granted. Without the love and support of my family, I don’t think I would have been able to survive. I thank God everyday that they have my back and I try to let them know how much I love them every single day.
- Lastly, living with a spinal cord injury is like climbing a mountain…sometimes it’s really hard but if you never give up and keeping moving forward, the view from the top is so worth it.
I am still a student but one day I will be a Jedi Master! Until then, I will keep working on my paintings.
The Mount Sinai SCI Life Challenge Program is funded by a grant from NYCSCIA. To find out more about NYCSCIA Grants and how we help people with spinal cord injuries maximize their independence, click here.
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