I always knew I was different. I couldn’t do what the other kids could do even though I was an active, outdoors kind of boy. I was always slower running the bases at sandlot baseball and slower on my bicycle than the other kids in the neighborhood. I tried hard, but I just couldn’t keep up. The doctor told my parents that there was nothing to worry about. All I had was flat feet.
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Upon receiving a draft notice shortly after high school graduation, I enlisted in the Air Force for four years. I had the same trouble in boot camp that I had as a kid — I just couldn’t walk, climb, run or train as well as other young men my age. My physical limitations were so obvious that my drill sergeant wouldn’t let me participate in the graduation ceremony because he said that I “walked funny.”
But I endured and served. I was eventually sent overseas during the Vietnam conflict and flew on bombing missions as a cockpit instrument technician.
This job required me to haul heavy tool boxes up ladders in order to work on B-52 bombers. Twice I went to military doctors to find out why I had so much trouble physically, but they never found anything. One doctor finally offered me a medical discharge without any explanation, but I declined. I wasn’t looking for a way out of the war; I was looking for answers.
As a Vietnam veteran who was honorably discharged in December 1969, I felt proud that I had served my country. I was 23 years old, and up to that point no one, not even the doctors, suspected that I had muscular dystrophy. I returned home to work in the family photography business, go to college and have fun. But a darkness lay ahead of me for which I was completely unprepared.
In July 1975, I was water skiing at a local lake with friends. I was a good skier, and just like when I was a kid, I loved being outdoors and being physically active. But something was very wrong this summer. I couldn’t get up on the skis. No matter how hard I tried, the muscles in my legs just wouldn’t support me. So a few days later, I went to a doctor who put me in the hospital. After three days of testing, he came into my room with a devastating diagnosis — I had Becker muscular dystrophy. The prognosis was grim. The doctor told me that I would probably be in a wheelchair by age 40 and would have a shorter life because of the disease. There was no cure; there was no hope.
For the next few years, I was an angry and bitter man. This affected my work and relationships with others. My negative attitude even destroyed my first marriage. My wife could accept my disease, but she couldn’t accept what I had allowed it to do to me. It seemed as if my world was collapsing around me, and life had little value. Worse still, I didn’t care that I was allowing myself to be destroyed from within.
Through the prayers and intervention of good friends, however, I was finally able to turn my life and my attitude around. In 1980, I was spiritually reborn by accepting Jesus Christ as lord and savior. By endeavoring to grow spiritually, I began to develop a positive outlook on life. I even came to accept my struggle with muscular dystrophy. I no longer saw it as a disability but as a strength.
In 1984, I met the woman who would become my second wife. When I realized that our relationship was becoming serious, I told Linda about my condition and about the prognosis the doctors had given me. I was worried about her reaction and afraid I would lose her.
As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. Linda listened to me, thought for a moment, and then told me that muscular dystrophy made no difference — she loved me because of who I was as a person. She told me not to accept a doctor’s prognosis as immutable — that determination and spirit often confounded the experts. With her encouragement, I continued to work, strive and grow as a human being.
I also continued to walk long after the doctors said I wouldn’t. In fact, I just began using a wheelchair five years ago at the age of 58.
When I retired in 1998, I suddenly had nothing to do and felt bored. I had no hobbies to speak of; work had been my principal activity. Now what was I supposed to do besides watch television all day?
My wife encouraged me to stay active by volunteering. Knowing how much I loved being outdoors, she suggested becoming a volunteer at the Dallas Arboretum. We had been members for years and had always enjoyed its natural beauties. I was reluctant at first — after all, what could a disabled man do for them?
Nevertheless, I finally worked up the courage to go to the Arboretum volunteer office, where I spoke with Cris Emrich, who was then the volunteer coordinator. She never said a word about my disability, but signed me up at once as a tram-tour driver and made me feel welcome and useful. Little did I know that there would be an added benefit to volunteering.
It was at the Arboretum that I developed a love of gardening, ultimately becoming a Smith County Certified Master Gardener in 2007 — the first to do so from a wheelchair. What’s more, I designed my home landscape with plants and decomposed granite walkways to accommodate my wheelchair.
Since that time, I’ve logged more than 3,000 volunteer hours at the Arboretum, serving as a tram driver, tram coordinator and volunteer board member. I’m also a member of the Arboretum speaker’s bureau and make presentations to garden clubs and community groups about how to garden with limited mobility. Although we moved to Tyler, Texas, in 2005, I continue to travel more than 100 miles twice a month to serve in one of the most beautiful gardens in the nation, enjoying being outdoors and meeting people from all over the world.
I’ve learned that muscular dystrophy need not keep me from doing what I want to do. The disease may slow me down, but it doesn’t stop me. I’ve learned to persevere, to adapt, to survive and to thrive! A positive attitude and a determination to stay active can prolong our lives and our ability to do the things we love.
There may not be a cure for muscular dystrophy yet, but that doesn’t mean we are defeated. So plant yourself into something worthwhile and grow!
David Gary, 64, lives in Tyler, Texas, with his wife Linda Gary, Ph.D., and three cats, one of which, Solomon, was adopted from the Dallas Arboretum. A member and volunteer at the Arboretum, Gary says “it changed my life for the better” and encourages others to join. Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through MDA Publications at (800) 572-1717.