When Bill Cawley works out in a shirt and tie, he draws a lot of stares.
The wheelchair likely has something to do with it, too. But the business attire seems completely out of place. That is, until you learn that Cawley doesn’t sweat, the result of a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He doesn’t need to change his shirt after exercising, so he can go straight to work in the mornings.
In the 14 years since his injury, Cawley, 37, has learned how important it is to smile in the face of adversity. He jokingly refers to his inactive sweat glands as one of the “fringe benefits” of having your spinal cord broken from the neck down.
Cawley’s life as a quadriplegic began in 1992. Then 24 years old, he jumped off a picnic table on a dock at his friend’s New Jersey Shore house into the bay below. It was the same table he’d jumped off numerous times before. But this time, his foot slipped and he barely cleared the railing. His head and neck caught the edge of the slip dock below.
His doctors told him he was paralyzed — a quadriplegic — and wouldn’t be able to live independently for the rest of his life.
The news was crushing. But rather than being dragged down by his fear, he harnessed it. Instead of wondering about what-ifs, he set his eyes on a goal and never looked back.
“I didn’t really spend a lot of time rehashing it,” he said. “I knew I wasn’t going to cure myself, but I needed my independence.”
Not only did he want to be independent, he wanted to work full time — goals he set while his neck and head were still immobilized in an orthopedic halo. And his plan was to achieve both goals within one year of the accident.
He started by relearning “literally everything”– sitting up in bed, getting dressed, eating and even putting change in a vending machine. Everyday activities required a new approach.
His legs were a lost cause, but his arms and hands, though weak and tightly curled into stiff claws, still had some function after he left the hospital.
At first, everything — even picking up the phone — was a major endeavor. Just trying to get out of bed and into his wheelchair sometimes made him pass out, since the lack of muscle tone in his body caused blood to rush from his head when he sat up too quickly. Picking a dime off the ground was nearly impossible.
But in one year, Cawley was back on the job as a credit analyst at MBNA and living on his own. Today, he is a senior vice president and regional program officer with Bank of America Charitable Foundation. Seven years ago, he started a charity called Family & Friends Curing Paralysis, which has raised $700,000.
People who suffer permanent injuries from traumatic accidents often find that friends and family start to distance themselves. That wasn’t the case with Cawley, who credits his support network with making all the difference.
“I had people come to see me from second and third grade,” he said. “I was very lucky. It was a huge part of the recovery.”
Another of Cawley’s goals was to get married and have a family. He met that goal, too. He marred Mary Liz four years ago, and their third child is on the way.
People who don’t know Cawley often express sympathy for Mary Liz, but those who do know him know better, she said. After 12 years of friendship and marriage, Mary Liz is still learning how to live from her husband. She can’t remember a time when Cawley approached life as a disabled person or made anyone else feel the need to treat him that way.
“Life is hard, and we all have our challenges,” she said. “I often will get into long conversations with him about things going on in my life, and sometimes I catch myself and feel silly that I’ve used up his time.”
Welcoming their first child into the world was a joyous time for Cawley, but it brought with it a new kind of challenge. Cawley was used to attacking his own daily obstacles head-on, but he quickly realized the same approach wouldn’t quite work when dealing with a stubborn child. “It was tougher than I thought it would be,” he said.
With 2 1/2-year-old daughter Liza Jane, 14-month-old Lincoln Jix and their third child due in August, the couple have hired an au pair. Some parental tasks give Cawley trouble, but there’s usually some way to compromise. He can’t pick his children up off the ground, and it can take him 15 minutes or more to change a diaper. He can push his children in a swing, but he can’t go exploring in the woods with them. But they have learned to climb into his lap with ease so they can play that way.
“I do what I can,” he said. “I know it might sound clichéd, but I don’t want to ever have them feel like they’ve been cheated because of me. I won’t let it ever come to that.”
Cawley recently returned to Physical Therapy because of shoulder and elbow pain. His arms essentially take up the workload of his legs by pushing around his wheelchair, so they’re constantly being taxed, said Matt McGee, Cawley’s personal trainer at Personal Fitness Training, located in Pro Physical Therapy in Branmar Plaza.
“A lot of Bill’s movement is forward-type movement, which leads to overuse,” McGee said. “We try to keep things balanced in his upper body. He’ll try anything, and he has a great attitude.”
Cawley’s now preparing to share that positive attitude with more people by becoming a motivational speaker. The basic tenets of his message — look forward, make the most of your choices, set goals and be committed — have helped him make the most of his life since the accident.
“My life may have been different, but there’s no guarantee it would be better,” he said. “I love my life.”
By IN-SUNG YOO The News Journal
Contact In-Sung Yoo at 324-2909