Ascent: How one quadripleic fought for a full life and soared

Published 8:46 pm Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Building a financial business that caters to multi-billion dollar corporations, going on photographic safaris, painting astoundingly lifelike pictures, taking arresting photographs, learning how to fly a glider, four-wheeling along the bluffs above a roaring ocean are exciting things to do. People do them all the time. There isn’t really anything overly noteworthy in each of these activities, although some people have become famous by doing them. Those people had perfect use of all their extremities.

One man did all these things and much more without the use of his legs or full use of his arms and hands. Bruce McGhie’s story is about the ordinary becoming extraordinary.

He is considered a quadriplegic, and became so in 1955 before there was a Disabilities Act, before there were ramps and handicap parking spaces, and when being a paraplegic was a condition of hopelessness, a quadriplegic was near death.

McGhie had finished Harvard and entered the Air Force as an ROTC second lieutenant. During a training exercise, he fell head first 40 feet. The injury was not reparable. He did not live the rest of his life laying down however, he soared through the rest of his life in a wheelchair and other vehicles. He was constantly striving for some normalcy in his life, straining to be independent.

Just one of the obstacles this man had to face is daunting enough, but McGhie fought his way into a relatively normal lifestyle by the grit of his teeth and with his weak hands. He suffered the indignity of reliance upon everyone for his smallest need just after his injury. During the agonizing recuperation, he learned more than how to dress himself. He learned how high his mettle would take him. He learned the depth of his future wife’s love and strength. He learned that God has reasons for everything and for everything there is a season.

“When you really stop and think about the specific physical obstacles of meeting the simple day-to-day commitments of a job and personal life out in the normal world alone in a wheelchair, it almost seems impossible. You want to turn over and go back to sleep. Fortunately, I never did think about them in any overall, systematic way. I just started doing things, trying to tackle the obstacles one by one as they came up,” he wrote.

This is such a magnificent life lesson, stated in such simple terms. “Ascent: How one quadriplegic fought for a full life and soared” is chock full of these jewels.

Sheer determination and the love of his life helped him to grasp life by the tail and hang on for a most exhilarating ride into the upper atmosphere of our world.

McGhie not only married, but he and his wife were able to adopt two children. This was back when handicapped persons were relegated to hospitals, rest homes and back rooms. His is a most remarkable story that covers America from shore to shore and the southern tip of Africa. It is the story of how one man surmounts incredible odds to soar over the Grand Teton at 14,700 feet in a glider with only hand controls.

Handling a glider is hard enough using both feet on the rudders and both hands on the joy stick and other cockpit controls. McGhie is the first quadriplegic to get his soaring flight license. But, that came later in life. After he flew across the Atlantic Ocean to help in the financial public relations of a client. The South African apartheid, the white domination and segregation, was crushing for him to behold, yet there was something about that beautiful land that drew him back year after year.

“Sometimes you come abruptly to a point in life when you know that nothing will ever be the same, when it’s clear that your ‘new’ life will never match what it might have been, when you don’t have any clue how you’re going to cope with the day at hand—much less the rest of your life…Often you are looking over the precipice at death itself. If the event is a catastrophic disability such as blindness, quadriplegia, paraplegia, stroke or the like, only time will allow the plot and the drama to unfold…Yet, there are surprises. One thing is certain: The souls of the actors will be tested,” McGhie says.

This book is a must read for anyone who has ever faced or is in the midst of facing mountainous challenges. It is inspirational. It sears life lessons into the heart and it gives hope that life may be hard, but one should never take it laying down because success has a momentum. Once you’ve succeeded in something you must keep reaching and keep striving.

“The tougher the challenges, it seemed, the sweeter the victories,” he wrote. “Could it be that, having lost almost everything I always took for granted and then fighting to get back the elements of a decent, fulfilling life, I’ve gotten more out of living than the average person does? It’s a radical idea.”

I give this book four stars. The writing is excellent. So gripping is this story, all the elements of drama are woven into McGhie’s autobiography, it is almost surprising to see the photographs of people he is talking about.

You can buy this book at our local bookstore, Bell, Book and Candle. Publisher is Ruder Finn of New York, NY.