A message about compassion resonated with David and Patti Waterman at New Mexico Baptists’ 2016 State Evangelism Conference.
The speaker, Sonny Tucker of Arkansas, had no idea the Watermans were in the audience as he told story after story of reaching out to people who many Christians avoid.
Patti is a wheelchair-bound paralytic.
Baptist New Mexican staff encountered the Watermans, members of Hoffmantown Church in Albuquerque, in the exhibit area on the last day of the Feb. 29-March 2 conference.
The table at the information services exhibit had a pneumatic cylinder, so, as the conversation turned serious, BNM staff lowered the table to accommodate Patti in her wheelchair for a microphone and recording equipment. The conversation turned into a spontaneous interview for an upcoming podcast.
Thirty-eight and a half years have passed since a motorcycle accident left Patti paralyzed from the chest down. Reaching 40 years from the accident “will be a great landmark,” she said.
“I praise God every day,” she noted, smiling and delighted to share her story. “Thank you for asking.”
In Elgin, Ill., she recounted, she had been a cheerleader through both junior high and high school. She also had run cross-country track during high school, something that made soon-to-occur events difficult to understand at age 17. Four months after her graduation, the motorcycle accident in which she was a passenger changed everything. She flew over 80 feet through the air, landing on her head and shoulder. The choices she made that day have shaped her life.
In the hospital, the medical staff told her family Patti likely would not awaken from her coma but, if she did, she would be little more than a vegetable. The doctors were being honest and sincere. Yet, Patti indeed woke up and was not a vegetable.
Doctors told Patti she would never leave the hospital. “They told me I should have died,” she said. Yet, she both lived and left the hospital, though struggling through the new experience of being a teenager in a nursing home filled with elderly people.
The journey of her recovery required resolve. People Magazine ran a story in May 1978 about a Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago chaplain who served Patti among her patients. Nina Herrmann briefly chronicled Patti’s struggle with patience after her 18th birthday.
“I’ve been arguing with nurses and doctors because I want to do things for myself,” she reported Patti saying. “If you can hang on to your patience,” Herrmann counseled Patti, “you have the key to discovering yourself and God.”
Thankfully, Patti had become a Christian at age 12 as her parents were going through a divorce. “I was able to find my strength in living,” she recalled.
After her accident, and as a former cross-country runner, Patti had asked God, “What’s up with this?” She recalled telling herself, as she sat in bed, that she would never be able to work or have a career. “I’m never going to marry. I’m never going to have kids. I’m never going to go to college. I’m never going to get a job. I’m never, never, never.”
Before then, Patti said she had been an optimistic person, positive and hopeful. Then, “All of a sudden my world fell apart, I saw no hope in living.”
Patti began to see some light in life because of her faith. Ultimately, she experienced all those things she thought were lost.
Her story and dramatic progress attracted the attention of television star Barbara Walters, who interviewed Patti in 1979 and released the inspiring story of her determination to a national audience.
After graduating from college with a degree in teaching, she taught in southeast Texas and northwest New Mexico, impacting kids. She also married and became a mother to two children.
Her husband recalled meeting some of the students she influenced and hearing their stories. David called the stories “glowing accounts,” and recalled one in particular of a young man who told of how Patti, unknowingly, kept him from committing a school shooting.
But Patti’s successful recovery from her motorcycle accident didn’t mean leaving hospitalizations in the past. During the ‘90s she had one surgery every year for seven years. Between 2007 and 2009 she spent another 18 and a-half months in the hospital with her life deteriorating. Despite the effects of serious infections and multiple surgeries, she survived again. Most recently, she’s suffered several additional injuries. Through it all, she trusts God. David describes her as “stubbornly optimistic.”
The impact of compassion
The evangelism conference message by Sonny Tucker, Arkansas Baptists’ executive director, resonated with Patti and David because they know what it’s like to need compassion, yet be avoided.
David recounted, “When I met her and started courting her, my friends would tell me I should look for a woman who could walk because I would be dealing with all the issues that ‘crippled’ people have.” They suggested he avoid her.
David, himself wheelchair-bound temporarily in the past, noted that “sometimes, in spite of the fact that society and the church really know very little about the life difficulties of the disabled, most really don’t want to know.” He believes that “the families of disabled people can be won by how we treat the disabled in our midst” – winning them to Jesus with compassion, just like Tucker was preaching.
Today, Patti sees her unique situation, surviving and living in a wheelchair, as creating opportunities rather than limiting them. Because she is disabled and coping both spiritually and emotionally, she was invited to help run a Bible study for disabled people called Living Hope through New Covenant Church not long after moving to Albuquerque.
Just before the opportunity arose, she had been asking God, “Where do You want to use me? Lead me.”
After spending 25 years in Farmington, N.M., she was new to Albuquerque, with few connections and few opportunities.
The Bible study role excited her, enjoying the activities of leading and helping others. “God has your life set up, that whatever ails you, whatever you feel nobody else has, God has a plan for everything. No matter what happens … it doesn’t go by without Him decreeing, ‘Yep, that’s OK; that’s fine; she’ll do fine or he’ll do fine; she can make it through that,’” she said. She knows. She’s been there.
The Bible study includes people in walkers, people with physical issues and people with various mental and emotional disabilities, each having encountered some debilitating obstacle in his or her life. Patti calls their obstacles isolating setbacks. “They are having a hard time getting over it and moving on,” she said. “God uses us with setbacks in life to move forward in the most beautiful way where He will be glorified.”
David thinks the biggest message his wife brings is that “by being there, they look at her and see that she went and got a teaching degree and did all of this stuff. Suddenly, people have this hope that starts to grow, ‘Hey, she did it; I can, too.’
“If we can show them that they have worth as Jesus sees them and that they can contribute to their family and their community, that gives them hope,” he said.
After telling about a recent injury stemming from her condition, Patti described “coming closest to God in her deepest pit.” She wants others to know they can find Him there, too. In such moments, she talks to God out loud. She feels His presence and knows she’ll be okay. And she hopes her struggles open doors for others to interact about the struggles of disabled people. God has given her the kind of compassion she and David hope others will discover as well.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Kevin Parker is editor of the Baptist New Mexican, newsjournal of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico.)