Life’s Not Fair


My buddy Milton lived in one of these, yet he remained
forever and inexplicably cheerful.

Milton died. I showed up for work Monday, and that’s the first thing my nurse said. I felt a little bit ill.

You do what I do long enough and you make some deep connections. I am ever amazed at the intimacy implicit to my job. You close the door to that little exam room and folks will open up about some of the most amazing things. In Milton’s case, he did more for me than I could ever do for him.

Milton was a big strapping guy with a wife and two daughters. Then one day he had a car wreck. When he woke up everything had changed.

I used to have a recurrent nightmare when I worked in the emergency department. In my dream I was driving down the road and suddenly blacked out. When I came to, I was staring into a dazzlingly bright light with some total stranger screaming, “Squeeze my finger! Squeeze my finger!” That actually happened to my friend Milton.

Milton came through the accident with a catastrophic cervical spine injury. He left for work a normal guy. He ended the day a quadriplegic. There’s no putting that back in the box.

What must that feel like? I literally have no idea. Limitations of the language preclude my capturing the raw gravitas of that moment in prose. However, Milton lived it, and he was still freaking awesome.

Using tools like these is second nature to me. However,
such simple stuff was out of Milton’s reach.

Little Things

Arguably the most satisfying thing I have ever done as a physician orbited around an exchange with Milton. Milton used a motorized wheelchair and a custom van to get around. He came to see me one Saturday afternoon for a wound on his left forearm.

The abraded place on his arm corresponded with a bare screw poking through the armrest on his wheelchair. You or I could have fixed that in five minutes with a screwdriver and a little hardware. However, this trivial little chore was beyond Milton’s physical capabilities. He had put a request in with Medicare two months before, but you know how that goes. The government has no competition, so they therefore have no incentive to hustle. In the interim Milton’s arm was in serious jeopardy.

I jumped in my jeep and scurried down to the local hardware store, picked up the requisite nuts and bolts, and fixed his chair on the spot. Milton tried and failed to pay me for the service. As I said, the most satisfying day I’ve ever had as a physician.

My buddy Milton’s with Jesus today. He doesn’t need this anymore.


Quadriplegia was suddenly Milton’s new normal. In fairly short order he also tragically found himself the sole parent to two girls. Milton could not get into and out of bed without assistance. He could no longer do his job. Most normal folk might have contemplated suicide. Milton, by contrast, just went out and found a different job.

It was honestly surreal to deal with this guy. He would come in sick with the inevitable maladies that went along with his unfortunate injury. Every single time his first question was to ask when he could get back to work. Deep inside that horribly broken body of his, Milton’s heart was simply indestructible.

His story was undeniably pitiful. However, Milton didn’t want pity. He wouldn’t take it were it offered. He ministered to strangers in the waiting room and had zero tolerance for laziness. I have seen folks work harder to get on disability for some hallucinated malady than they ever would have worked at a real job. Milton had little patience with folks like that and told me so on numerous occasions.

Every time I saw Milton he made a point to shake my hand. It was a floppy sort of shake, but it was a sincere gesture between friends. In all the years I knew him I never saw him break. He had good days and bad, to be sure. But he always had a spark of sincere joy just underneath the surface. Why was that? How could that possibly be?

Milton had Jesus in his heart, and that extraordinary power was bigger than a lifetime of confinement in a wheelchair. Milton was a good man caught in a bad situation, and he never let it beat him down. Milton inspired me way more than I ever helped him.

I would encourage you to do what I have done. Use Milton’s example to improve your own life. The next time you get frustrated and start to let that little spark of self-pity germinate just think of Milton. Despite suffering unimaginable hardships Milton prevailed as a great dad, a productive citizen, and a wonderful friend. If he can pull it off so can we. He’d want that to be his legacy.

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