Paul Wright dreamed of one day living in Seattle’s bustling downtown and working in one of the many sprawling skyscrapers. But as a boy, it seemed like a near-impossible dream. He was born with a physical disability,, a condition that prevents joints from moving as much as normal. Doctors thought he would never walk much less live an independent life. Wright has done that and much more, and on June 14, will head back to his alma mater, Western Washington University, for this year’s commencement ceremony. He is one of six 2014 Presidential Scholars that will be recognized for outstanding scholarship and service to the community. Below is Wright’s story, in his own words, from diagnosis at birth to successful business man.
Growing up, I knew at a young age that I was different from everyone else, but I was not going to allow my disability to dictate my life.
I was born with a physical disability called arthrogryposis, which causes stiff joints and missing muscles. When I was born I was only able to move my head due to my condition. Doctors told my parents I would probably never walk.
At only two days old, my parents took me to Seattle Children’s Hospital where I received hand splints and leg casts. At three months old, I had hip surgery and had to wear a full body cast for four months. The first sign of hope for a more independent life came after months of physical therapy and literal hand holding. I moved my finger at 10 months.
After hip and foot surgeries and more physical therapy I gained more movement and started moving my legs. Then the miraculous happened. My sister, Sarah, stood me up with my back against a wall and I took my first steps. At such a young age I had already defied my doctors.
Reflecting on time spent at Seattle Children’s
I can vividly remember the countless trips to Seattle Children’s. It was something I became used to. Driving into the city and seeing the Seattle skyline. I used to dream that someday I’d work in one of those skyscrapers. We’d arrive and walk through the doors, but I never felt like I was in a hospital. I remember the huge fish tank that seemed never ending, my dad reminding me to smile for my X-ray pictures, my mom packing my favorite snacks, the Mickey Mouse statue who I “high-fived” every time I visited, the clouds above us as we rode in the elevator, and the endless supply of videogames, crayons, coloring books and games.
Above all, though, I remember the people – the compassionate, caring, wonderful people of Seattle Children’s. Each person my family or I talked with poured their heart and soul into making Seattle Children’s a caring and supportive place to receive treatment. The nurses were there for me right after each surgery to reassure me that my family was just around the corner. They helped me through my childhood.
One doctor in particular had a profound impact on my life. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of. He performed some of my most crucial surgeries. I credit him for basically making my feet. Along with being an amazing surgeon, he cared about me and my family, and took the time to develop a personal relationship and friendship with us.
Transition to independence
As I got older, surgeries and visits to Seattle Children’s became less frequent. I was becoming a young adult and learning how to become independent.
A pivotal moment in my life occurred on Sept. 19, 2010 – the day I moved into Western Washington University’s Residence Hall. I was living on my own, going to college and doing what few thought I would be able to do. I was overwhelmed with happiness. I had made it, but I was sad as well to be leaving my parents’ side. I remember looking at my mom, both of us with tears in our eyes, and her saying, “You have worked really hard for this, and here you are.” I felt such a sense of accomplishment and pride. I had beaten the odds, had overcome the impossible and was achieving my dream.
While attending Western, I pushed myself to again truly excel in everything I did. My biggest achievement came in the summer of 2012 when I had the honor of accepting the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ National Medal of Inspiration Award, presented to one accounting student each year who has overcome extreme adversity for remarkable success. It made me realize I had a story to share and the opportunity to inspire others.
Standing out in all the right ways
Today, as a young adult, I have in a way “graduated” from Seattle Children’s. Looking back, I realize that the surgeries and process of gaining independence was only half the battle. The other half was internal – understanding what it meant to have a physical disability, and acknowledging it as a part of my life. With a world so heavily focused on looks and appearance, standing out was difficult.
I can’t say I was fully accepting of my disability until recently. There are days that get the best of me. Some days I lose my balance and fall down hard, get the wind knocked out of me and scrape my elbows. There are days where everything seems difficult to open, hard to hold or just out of reach.
There are days my feet hurt because I walk more than I should, and days where I feel like everyone is staring at me. On those days, I dust myself off, stop caring about what others think and move forward. There’s so much more in life I want to achieve.