By Dr. Patricia Knott
"Ironside" was a hit television show some years ago in which Raymond Burr played a special consultant to the police department.
Every week the world tuned in to see "Ironside" put away yet another menace to society. Mr. Burr played his role with convincing passion and realism, and watching his accomplished performance was as big a reason to tune in as the drama that was sure to hold you captivated.
"Ironside" was not your typical young twenty-something leading man sporting muscular abs, pecs, and biceps, able to jump tall buildings with a single bound. Raymond Burr sat in a wheelchair for the entire hour he led his team to victory in the capture of yet another criminal and America did not seem to notice or care that he sat instead of walking.
Being a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation physician, people with impairments hold a special interest for me. I think they are some of the strongest and bravest people the world has to offer. Imagine a prolonged illness sapping all of your energy and strength and then, through diligent participation in physical therapy, having to push through what you feel to regain what you've lost.
What would be your outlook on life if you awakened from surgery after a motor vehicle accident and one of your legs has been amputated above the knee? Would you be able to fight off the grasping fingers of depression if a stroke leaves your arm immobile at the age of 29?
I see people working through these and other misfortunes on a daily basis in the specialty I practice. It is an honor to watch them succeed in their goal of reentering society with as much of their previous functioning as possible. Of course, I work with adults, but there are facilities that specialize in pediatric rehabilitation. Then there are those facilities that specialize in rehab for the blind and the deaf among us.
When I first entered a residency program for physical rehabilitation, I was often asked how I could endure caring for so many tragically injured or catastrophic disease impaired patients on a day to day basis, people who could no longer walk or talk or feed themselves. My answer was simple: After the other doctors have turned them over to me-their immediate medical concerns taken care of but still unable to live without the assistance of another-I get to see most of them walk out of the hospital with a renewed hope in their ability to take up their places in the family and community.
In rehab, we concentrate on the remedial methods to improve strengths the patient has but which may not be truly functional for him at the time of admission-such as the movement of an upper extremity but inability to feed himself. If we cannot get improvement by remedial means, then we will look for a means of accomplishing a task in a different way. If a patient never develops the strength to stand or the balance to safely ambulate, then we will teach him/her how to become totally independent from a wheelchair level.
Raymond Burr in a wheelchair playing a top-notch investigator was acting in a role as a paraplegic, but there are many in the arts and entertainment industry that have had to make use of rehabilitation techniques to continue to fulfill their passion for the work they love and to act upon a desire for creativity.
Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder never allowed blindness to interfere with a stellar career in the rock 'n' roll music industry, and are household names around the world. Beethoven lost most of his hearing in his twenties but continued to produce beautiful music for the symphony.
The violinist Itzhak Perlman performs seated because of the effects of polio. Legendary actress Sarah Bernhart continued to act on stage despite a leg amputation. Patrick Swayze was able to make movies like "Dirty Dancing" with some fancy foot work despite having a limp. The voice of Darth Vader belongs to James Earl Jones, who had problems with stuttering. Claude Monet continued to paint in spite of going blind due to cataracts.
These artists, along with many others, have given the world some reasons to smile, and their contributions have been made with the bravery of those who push forward regardless of some life-changing "inconveniences." They prove that the concept of a character such as "Ironside" is absolutely within the realm of possibility.