NEW PORT RICHEY — There was a steep learning curve in Doug Conlin's scary new world.
Bonnie Conlin positioned her son's arms around her neck. She lifted him out of bed and turned to the wheelchair. But she had forgotten to lock it in place.
"I looked at him and we both started laughing," she said. "Oh, boy, we're going down."
She lowered him gently back into bed. With his trademark patience and good humor, Mr. Conlin waited to be lifted again.
• • •
When the accident happened, he was preparing to step into limitless freedom.
It was 1977. He was a high school senior in Michigan. He swam, hunted, fished, rode his speed bike. He was persuasive and funny, a great public speaker. He could have been a politician.
One day, Mr. Conlin and his friends had time to kill at a school gym class. They grabbed a rope and pulled it tight from end to end. Mr. Conlin went over like a high jumper. He landed on his head, breaking his neck.
He spent five months in a hospital and struggled through his course work. He got a new electric wheelchair on graduation day. He buzzed down the aisle to get his diploma.
He got three standing ovations.
• • •
If his neck broke another half inch, his mother said, he would have been totally motionless. But he could move his hands just enough to seek independence.
It took him hours to sign his name, but he did three signatures at his graduation party. He learned to drive a special push-button van. He studied architecture in college and drew blueprints with the help of devices.
He volunteered at hospitals teaching new nurses to handle quadriplegics. His mother learned, too. She woke up every two hours to turn him over so he wouldn't get bed sores.
He joined a Michigan chapter of the Jaycees, who met high up in an old building. Mr. Conlin's friends carried his chair up to the top. His mother fretted, and he gave his standard response.
"Don't worry, Mom."
• • •
He tried to live on his own in Michigan. In 1987, when the ice and snow became too much, he moved to New Port Richey, where his parents had retired.
Mr. Conlin became president of a local Jaycees chapter. He took needy children on shopping sprees. He started a spinal cord research foundation and stayed up on medical advances.
He traveled the country with his companion of 22 years, Edith Gingrich. His family figures he would have lived for years more if not for the curve ball.
He examined his options. Treatment could have prolonged his life — but he would be confined to a hospital bed.
He wanted his freedom. So he made his choice.
He died Thursday. He was 48.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.