CURE NATION: I really enjoy interviewing strangers. People fascinate me; seeing how differently we all go about the sameness of being human. I learn a lot while interviewing my subjects, but never has my subject interviewed me. Until today.
Andrew Greenbaum is a market analyst for AMGEN Pharmaceuticals in California, currently sheltering in place with family in Florida. His bio with the Triumph-Foundation, where he is currently an Ambassador, includes this statement: “Since (my injury) I’ve been building the life I want and I strive daily to choose happiness.”I have to ask him – how does somebody just choose happiness?
Andrew considers the question and then says, “You choose happiness minute by minute with every decision you make. Here’s an example from this morning. Mom asked me to go on a day trip with our 70 pound “puppy”. We get to the beach and Mom goes to get iced coffee, hands the dog to me. Now I’m in my wheelchair, front and center as people drive in, nowhere to hide. Suddenly I feel the dog going behind me and I know my balance is off. Sure enough, I went over backwards onto wood chips! It was just me and the dog, and I was on my back. Somebody stopped their car and called out, ‘you need help?’ Decision time. My old answer would have been “No, I’m good” and tried not to attract any attention. But this time I say, ‘yeah, I guess I do!’ I gave the dog to the girl, they grabbed my footplate, and I’m up. My mom returned and I was just sitting there; smiling like nothing had happened.
That’s the kind of stuff you risk – public embarrassment – but here’s why. Another woman came up to me with that look the pity that you get to know so well. I say, everything’s fine, my dog’s just a bonehead. Then I get in my car, I’m driving, and I deliberately smile and wave to her. She saw me and her face just exploded with joy! That’s the take-away.
“You can minimize your risk by staying at home, but putting yourself out there, that’s the good stuff. It’s going to be hard and it might be embarrassing, but that’s where the joy is.”
Andrew continues, “We need to be able to connect with people from a place of common reality. I know that you are supposed to be interviewing me, but I’d really like to know – what do you think, Julienne?”
Andrew was still in High School when he went on a snowboarding trip to Sugarbush, Vermont. That Sunday he collided with a tree and was airlifted to the hospital with a spinal cord injury, broken ribs and a head injury. Andrew did his rehab at the excellent Kessler Rehab Center in New Jersey, his home state at the time.
“The clarity around that time is still evolving for me. I was so grateful that the head injury didn’t destroy my ability to think, to function in the world. The biggest moment for me came a few months after I got hurt. I was sitting with a friend who was in my bedroom, crying because he had just been dumped by his girlfriend. I realized that relatively I had a lot more to be upset about than he did. But in that moment, subjectively, he felt a lot worse than I did.”
“What do you think, Julienne?”
I tell Andrew that I agree, each person’s pain is real, not to be compared to another’s experience. Then his next sentence shocks me, it is so familiar: “Before I got hurt, I was selfish and hedonistic,” Andrew confesses. “When something like this happens you really have to take stock of your life.” I had said the same thing when I had gotten out of rehab, faced with life in a wheelchair. He questions me about that, we discuss our sameness, then he leaves me behind in the philosophical dust: “We all require the same things, like in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – food, water, shelter, security and love. Self-actualization.”
You can see what changed the boy who got paralyzed into the man he is today. He finished high school online and continued on to college because doing anything else, “just wasn’t an option culturally. I mean, I was 18, so it was time to go to college. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was trying to find what feeds my soul. Sports and music were my creative outlets.” Andrew plays guitar and sings, solo for now, but hopes to join a band in the future.
Wheelchair basketball took him on a journey that ultimately led to the Maccabi games in Israel. “They’re like the Jewish Olympics.” Andrew explains. “I had to fundraise for the 3-week trip, which included a tour around Israel. My dad is Jewish, so I had already been there on a birthright tour when I was 18.”
I draw a blank and apologetically tell him so. A birthright tour, it turns out, is a free trip to Israel for those of the Jewish religion between the ages of 18-26.
“They do these trips to introduce Jewish people from around the world to Israel. It’s a beautiful country, beautiful people. All religion can take it off the rails, but there are wonderful aspects to any religion, among them, faith.”
And the Maccabi games? As Andrew recalls the games you can almost hear the grin on his face. “Yeah, the games were actually really cool! All the athletes got to come out of this tunnel in a huge stadium, grouped by country. There were all different sports, and about a hundred of us from the USA.” His voice slows as he continues, “I was 27 years old and I got to go see the rehab hospitals, they toured us around. In Israel there are lots of amputees in wheelchairs, mostly due to violence. “
I’d seen the photos of Andrew in India, being carried up mountains in a contraption slung between two people. In Nepal he was barefoot in his wheelchair in the dirt. I ask about how he was lucky enough to get to travel.
“Travel?” Andrew’s voice is amused as he considers the irony. “It started when I went to business school. After college I focused on getting into the workforce and making money, and higher education is part of that process. Then in business school we got to travel to Czechia, Germany, and Switzerland to see how business is done in different countries. That was unexpected! Really great.”
Again, Andrew startles me by asking about my experience. We take time out for a discussion on how faith is necessary to banish the uncertainty that is endemic to the human experience. As we attempt to define faith, Andrew sums it up beautifully:
“It’s my crucible. Faith is the belief that your needs will be met either through Universal intercession or your own volition. It’s the opposite of fear.”
What Andrew Thinks About Cure Medical
Heady stuff! Bringing us back to the physical plane, I ask Andrew his thoughts on Cure Medical.
“I use Cure Medical catheters and I think the fact that they support SCI research is great – that alone speaks volumes about the type of company they are.”
Andrew has another thing he likes about Cure Medical: “From a practical standpoint, I like it that both their straight catheters and closed systems have better packaging with less garbage to throw away. “
I tell Andrew that I agree, I use Cure Medical catheters and I really like that a quadriplegic started the company. We talk about community, support groups, the need to feel that you belong. With the Triumph Foundation, Andrew finds that community and contributes to it.
“We all need to know that we aren’t on this journey alone. Triumph has resources and relationships to help us all feel that way. Just like me at the beach today, you can choose to engage with the world even at the risk of your disability presenting uncomfortable situations.”
Again, the rolling philosopher doesn’t let me down:
“Having a foundation, a moral code and community tradition is so important. I think a fundamental quality of life is uncertainty, so anything that you can pawn that off on is great. Faith is comforting, so it is necessary.
“I don’t want to rush things but there seems to be a certain peace as you get older. I’ve been so long on the solo spiritual path; I’m hoping to find a partner who is of the same mind as I am.
“What do you think, Julienne?”
You can reach Andrew Greenbaum at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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