Are You Ready for Your Life to Change Dramatically Tomorrow?
May 8, 2014 | Your Finances
While most people were dreading another snowstorm this past March, Woody Wood reveled in it, taking to the slopes in Vermont with zeal. He is no stranger to adventure. He’s biked across Thailand, surfed many waves and skied often. But this run was extra special. It was the first time Woody was able to ski since he was involved in a hit-and-run crash that left him in a wheelchair.
“I cannot tell you how amazing it is to get out and do this. It’s like getting another part of me back,” said Wood. “But I couldn’t have done it without help.”
Wood, a 41-year-old massage therapist, had his life turned upside down in 2012 when he was hit while riding his motorcycle home on a clear fall evening in New York City. The driver of a minivan hit him, sent him flying and then fled the scene. In an instant, the course of Woody’s life changed dramatically.
In the coming hours, specialists told Woody and his wife, Johanna Woo, that he had been paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors conducted seven hours of surgery, fusing bone to titanium. In the days that followed, the couple began the daunting task of trying to get their heads and hearts around the changes they were about to face.
“Honestly, the hardest part wasn’t just the pain; it was dealing with the emotional impact of having your entire life totally changed. I mean it was months before I could think about anything else,” admits Wood. “If it hadn’t been for Jo, our friends and all the people who reached out to help us, I just don’t know….”
Loss of Income and Lots of Bills
While Johanna’s health insurance covered most of the medical expenses, Woody did not hold any personal disability income insurance; and because he was a freelancer, he didn’t have any through work either.
There are a lot of people in his situation. According to a 2013 report by the U.S. Social Security Administration, one in four of today’s 20-year-olds will become disabled before he or she reaches retirement. Yet the report points out that 68 percent of private-sector workers do not hold any long-term disability insurance, leaving them exposed to financial hardships and instability.
Woody’s income was going to be missing from their budget, and they would have to find ways to make up the loss of that income as well as pay for the additional ongoing, uncovered medical costs. They received guidance on applying for federal disability benefits, but a year and a half later they are still waiting for a decision on Woody’s eligibility for some support programs.
With a big cut in income, they had to use savings to cover some of Woody’s medical expenses as well as for making modifications to their home that were not covered by insurance. While they did not have to dig in to their retirement savings, they had to use their emergency nest egg to get by and for the ongoing expenses. They have supplemented their income by renting out a small studio apartment in their home.
Dealing with Their New Reality
When a person is faced with a health crisis, either through an accident or a sudden illness, experts say one of the most important things to do at the beginning is to get help.
Johanna’s first concern was Woody’s emotional well-being. She reached out to the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation and found a counselor who was himself a paraplegic. “Talking to him was so important in those first days when everything seemed really dark,” said Wood. “It helped to hear from someone who’d been through it, to get another perspective.”
The couple also got help from their friends. “A friend came to the hospital to be with me, and she handed me a small notebook and a filing folder,” Johanna said. “And she told me to write everything down and to save every piece of paper and receipt. It was so important.” That’s good advice, according to experts who say there are some issues to keep in mind from the beginning:
- Talk to your employer about time off and how you will update them on your status.
- Chronicle medical bills and anticipated costs.
- Gather and organize all of your medical reports to have on hand as needed.
- Develop a budget for health care and living expenses.
- Check your insurance policies to determine coverage. This includes health insurance as well as any disability plans you may have.
- Assess your eligibility for income assistance through your work, Social Security and other institutions, including non-profits.
- Update your legal documents, such as your powers of attorney and will.
Then there was the issue of how to live. Woody and Johanna were also lucky to have friends and family who were able to help offset the cost of putting in new staircases and lifts with a fundraiser. The organization Wheeling Forward donated a more agile push-wheelchair for Woody. The two also received help from the Greater New York Chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association in navigating and understanding what financial and supportive services might be available to them. “I couldn’t really concentrate on anything,” remembers Johanna. “I got lost walking to the corner store from the hospital. But our friends were amazing. I always had people with me, and they took notes so we could remember what was said when we had decisions to make.”
“We’ve become a part of a new community,” says Johanna. “We went to a fundraiser for the New York City Spinal Cord Association, and we had so many new friends there, so many people who had helped us—and some new people who looked to us for help.”
When asked what the future holds, Woody says he has a strong desire to give back to the community that helped him through some of his darkest hours. His hope is to launch his own non-profit to help connect the various services and resources that serve the community of people who are in wheelchairs. He also has plans to work on a project to bring to light the amazing athletic abilities of people in chairs and with other physical challenges to show how rich and fulfilling life can be.
“Getting back on the snow, on a mono-ski, it shows me how far I’ve come and how much life can still be amazing,” Woody said just a few hours after coming off the slopes. “Don’t get me wrong, I took a few tough falls out there, but it was well worth it … and if I can help someone else who is facing this kind of challenge come out and embrace life again, then that is something I want to do.”