Stephen Morris, 73, has always been an athlete. Morris earns that title, not just as a competitive tennis player (which he was), and not just as a high school tennis coach (which he was), but rather, as someone who continually upholds an athletic mentality. Morris has overcome tremendous obstacles in his life, but he is an athlete for his conviction, his appreciation of failure, and his ability to clench down and power onward. We think of Morris as an athlete for his grit (and over here, we don’t use that term lightly).
Morris says, “I have the controls. If I don’t make the choice, someone else will.” Read more of Morris’ story below—from the path that brought him to the Freedom Chair, to how he secured the chair through his VA, to the ways he claims each day as his own.
Life before the Freedom Chair
Morris tells us a bit about his background in sports and the path that brought him where he is today.
All my life, I played competitive tennis and I even taught at the high school level because my son was a tennis player. I’ve always been athletic.
I did not play tennis professionally, but I played at a pretty high level. A couple of years ago, I was starting to get slow—every 15-20 minutes, I had to put my butt in a chair. It then got to the point where I’d even have to lay down for a couple minutes. My legs would just go numb on me. The VA told me that I was just getting old and slowing down.
I had a stroke at 61 years old. I went blind, and that made me realize how fragile this life of ours is. I worked in a high-stress environment for years and doctors told me I was going to kill myself if I kept it up. I reassessed how important it all was. I retired.
I also decided to sell my home and move to a less-affluent area. This was, in a funny way, well-timed. I was prepared to wind down. Throughout my life, I’ve had three bouts with cancer. Like my family says, I’ve had so many things go wrong with me I’ll probably live to be 110.
Finally, I was referred to vascular surgery and they did a circulation test. With my nephew sitting next to me, the doctor told me I had absolutely no circulation in my left leg. At that point, I had a small cut on my left heel, which got infected. I tried taking care of it, but it got worse and worse and they eventually determined that my left leg was essentially dead. If I didn’t let them amputate it, I would be dead in two weeks.
Three days later, I was in surgery. They amputated, and everything was great. I could still do everything pretty much everyone else could (my right leg was still…left).
And yet, after a stroke, THREE bouts with cancer, and a leg amputation, Morris was presented with yet another dilemma.
I went in for a checkup and my right leg had no circulation. They told me they may have to amputate that one, too. Five months later, I was back in the hospital. In an attempt to save the right leg and increase circulation, they took arteries out of my arms and put them in my legs. Then, they couldn’t stop the bleeding in my arm. They eventually had to amputate the right leg.
The doctors said this was all a result of the smoking I did forty-five years ago. I smoked for maybe fifteen years, two packs a day. I stopped in my early thirties. Apparently, long-term smoking restricts blood vessels. The cancer I had gotten (bladder cancer) was also from smoking. Over 80% of bladder cancer is caused from smoking. It takes 20 years for the carcinogens to start affecting you.
Enter the GRIT Freedom Chair
I’ve got a large circle of tennis people in my life, and one woman had read about this goofy-looking thing—the Freedom Chair. She sent me a link. From that moment on, I thought: That’s something I want to do.
I got in touch with GRIT just about the time they were being approved by the VA. I went through my local doctor and asked about it, and all of a sudden, I get a notice that I have to appear in front of a committee. I had my caregiver drive me. I go into the meeting to find three doctors and three technicians—they immediately dug in and started asking ALL of these questions.
With equal parts humor and strategy, Morris persuaded the room of doctors and technicians.
I went through this whole routine with them and one doctor said, “Well, why do you think we should approve this for you?” I looked at them and said, “I think the reason we are all here is to figure out how to keep Stephen out of the hospital, and I think that’s sitting here with the Freedom Chair.”
When the chair arrived, no one at the VA knew how to work it, so I became the guinea pig. Of course, I hit every chair and table imaginable. We decided it would be best to take it outside. Within a couple of minutes, I had a pretty good grasp.
Same Morris, some brand-new wheels
I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I don’t have a circle of friends who have these things, so I can go out around town and use it as a great conversation starter.
I haven’t really transported it to off-road areas yet. Recently, the VA cut my caregiver to two days a week, plus her driving scares the crap out of me.
But, locally, everyone’s yards are gravel or desert landscaping. The chair has allowed me to go out in the backyard, over the gravel, and do my gardening. I like to go out and do all of that type of stuff. This has allowed me to do it, and that’s sort of a big thing to me.
The “let me fail” rule
I try and find the challenges, as I tell everybody, before I let anyone help me. Let me fail. Someone who isn’t making a lot of mistakes isn’t trying hard enough. The fastest way to success is to make a lot of mistakes. I’m really good at finding my boundaries, and then I’m okay getting help.
Physically, except for my legs, I’m no different than I was ten years ago. I opted to give up tennis because it’s hard to find others locally that play, let alone at the level I’ve played my whole life.
Morris continues to focus on his successes and his goals, rather than the challenges. He finds ways to use the Freedom Chair as a tool to achieve tasks and even train his four-legged companion.
I’ve beaten all of it and I feel good about it. I was concerned about whether or not I could teach a dog from a wheelchair. I took it upon myself to do it anyway, and her training started the day we brought her home. I want to take her with the Freedom Chair to a more country-like setting. Her biggest limitation is me.
The truth about working with the VA
I hear so many people complain about the VA, but I have nothing but praise for them. The one thing I saw is that people expect the VA to do things on their time frame, but that’s just not how the VA works—this is because of their size alone. You have to have patience.
The VA gets to everything when they best can, and I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut. I’ve learned, if you just exercise a little bit of patience, they will get to you. Once they are with you, they will spend whatever time they need to resolve the issues with you.
On using equipment and keeping a clear mindset
What galls me are people who have a room full of exercise equipment that just sits there. If you don’t use it, and you don’t make that commitment, don’t buy it—it will just take up space. But if you make the commitment, it’s a wonderful tool for companionship. If you can’t say to yourself, “I’m going to commit to this,” don’t bother.
I feel very strongly about the chair. I’ve gotten very comfortable with it and would encourage people to at least try it. In my case—without legs—it limits what I can focus on, and my upper body strength is my key to living a full and long life. I think the machine sells itself, but it wouldn’t be worth anything if you don’t put your butt on it and use it. For weeks, I wouldn’t sit on it unless someone was there as a spotter. Now, I make sure to have my phone with me. I even put an umbrella on it!
The Freedom Chair has given me a different angle as to how I can keep my body in the optimum shape that best suits my needs. I’ve looked at the competition and for the price it really doesn’t make sense to not go for it.
I speak to fellow vets that are in wheelchairs. I’m sort of the example to these young guys. I’m seventy-three, and if this old guy can do it so can you!
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