By Chris Norton
Editor’s Note: On October 16, 2010, Chris Norton suffered a crushing spinal injury playing college football. The injury was so severe, he needed to be airlifted by helicopter to Mayo Clinic. Taken from the new book The Seven Longest Yards written by Chris and his wife Emily, this post picks up the story mid-helicopter ride through his subsequent surgery and initial prognosis.
I sought the Lord, and he answered me;
he delivered me from all my fears. — Psalm 34:4
“Help,” I wheezed, but I didn’t know if I had made any noise. The roar of the helicopter drowned out every sound. If I couldn’t hear myself, how could the EMTs hear me? The answer was: they couldn’t. “I can’t breathe!” I said, but no one moved. “Help,” I called again, but neither EMT turned toward me. My only hope was to make eye contact with one of them or for one of them to see me mouthing “help.” Both were looking the other way. I wanted to wave my hands to get their attention, but clearly that wasn’t an option. Surely the heart monitor will alert them that I’m struggling, I hoped, but still no one noticed. I was on my own.
Desperate to breathe, I went into full-on panic mode. This is it. I’m going to die in a helicopter on my way to a hospital with two EMTs right beside me because no one noticed I needed help. I started to give up and let the inevitable happen, but I could not bring myself to do that. No, I thought, I am not going down without a fight.
I closed my eyes and went back to the ritual I used before every game to help me get in the right frame of mind. Before I took the football field, I visualized exactly where I would run, where the ball would be, where the other players might go.
That’s what I did in the helicopter. I visualized myself breathing. I imagined my lungs filling with air and expelling it out. Then I counted. One breath. Two. Three. I focused on the air I was getting instead of the air I wasn’t. With every positive thought, each breath got a little easier. I’m going to make it, I told myself. I’m going to be fine.
From the moment my body hit the ground after the tackle that put me in this mess, I had focused completely on what I could not do. I could not move; I could not feel; I could not breathe. The obstacles kept getting bigger and bigger until they completely overwhelmed me. Everything changed when I switched my focus to what I could do. For the first time, I realized that my attitude had the power to change my reality. I have never forgotten that lesson even though it was about to be tested more times than I could count. The first test was about to begin.
Before I knew it, we were on the ground, and I was wheeled into another sterile room full of masked doctors and nurses. They didn’t waste any time cutting off my pants and socks and setting up an IV. Someone walked away with vials of my blood, but I never felt anyone drawing it. It was the most bizarre thing to be poked and prodded and feel absolutely nothing.
Then came more of the same questions. This time doctors poked different parts of my body as they asked if I could feel what they were doing. The answer was always the same until one of them asked, “Can you squeeze your butt?” Well that’s a new one, I thought. I was about to say no when I felt a sharp jab in my butt.
“Hey! I felt that!” I’d never been so happy to be poked in the butt in my life. I expected the doctors and nurses to share my excitement, but no one said anything. To me, though, the fact that I felt something below my neck was encouraging.
After another round of X-rays, a doctor told me I needed surgery to repair a grade IV spinal dislocation. Before they could operate, the doctor wanted an MRI. But they couldn’t simply slide me into the MRI tube in my present condition. First they needed to realign my neck using traction. I didn’t know what that meant until I saw someone carrying a round contraption with screws on both sides. It looked like some kind of medieval torture device. My heart pounded as they placed it on my head.
I got two numbing shots in my head before the doctor said, “This is probably going to hurt.” The next thing I knew, I heard a spinning sound, and a stabbing pain shot through my brain. Great, the one part of my body I can feel is the one they have to put this torture device on, I thought. “Uh, did you numb my head?” I asked. “It feels like someone is driving two nails into my skull.” The doctor gave me more numbing medication, but the pain didn’t let up. I felt something warm dripping down by my ear and to the back of my head. I didn’t have to see it to know it was my blood.
But the medical staff was just getting started.
To realign my neck, the doctor had to add weight to a pulley system connected to the contraption on my head. The weights subtly pushed the bone over. The doctor added weight in five-pound increments until at 45 pounds I heard what sounded like someone chomping into a celery stalk. My neck had snapped back into place. I sighed with relief. The worst pain I’d felt in my life was over.
They removed the head stabilizer and replaced it with a neck brace. The edge of the brace reached the middle of my head. When they laid me on the MRI cot, I felt like I was resting on the edge of a piece of metal. While it wasn’t as painful as the traction, it was extremely uncomfortable. I sighed. This day just would not let up.
I was miserable as the doctor explained that I’d have to lie completely still for an hour during the MRI—which was obviously easy for me at the time. A technician switched on the machine. There was a whirring sound as the cot under me began to move. The light above me slowly disappeared as I slid into the white plastic tunnel. The tiny tube was even smaller than it looked. The ceiling was almost on top of me. Once I was completely inside the machine, the whir stopped. Instead, my ears were blasted with what sounded like a jackhammer. This is going to be the longest hour of my life, I thought.
Worry started rising inside me until I remembered the helicopter ride. Don’t focus on the negative, I reminded myself. Focus on the positive.
Trapped in an MRI tube, I wasn’t sure what the positive might be, so I prayed instead. I’d been praying most of the day—“God, give me the strength to get through this.” That’s what my family did when life got tough. I grew up going to church most Sundays and praying before meals. I’d never doubted my belief in God. At the time, I didn’t realize there was a difference between believing in God and believing God. I just knew that I needed him at that moment more than ever.
“God, can you give me a break, just this once?” I prayed. “Please, can I just fall asleep? All I want is to escape this for just a little bit. Please let me fall asleep.”
Suddenly, my eyes snapped open as my cot slid out of the machine. Despite the jackhammering and the claustrophobia, I had fallen sound asleep. How? There was only one explanation: God had answered my prayers. All day I’d asked, God, what are you doing? Are you going to show up? Now he reminded me that he was with me the whole time. In that moment I felt God’s presence more clearly than ever before. “God, I know you’re there,” I prayed. “It’s going to be okay. I know you’re in this with me.”
Immediately after my MRI, hospital employees wheeled me into surgery. My doctor stood over me and explained what was about to happen. “The whole procedure could take six hours,” he said. “Do you have any questions?”
My voice caught in my throat. “Will I ever walk again?”
I couldn’t make out his expression because the doctor bowed his head. “I don’t know, Chris.”
My eyes filled with tears. I didn’t know how to stay positive with those words ringing in my ears. Then tears welled up in the eyes of the nurses. It was hard not to notice when the only thing not covered were their eyes. Before I could process what the doctor had said, someone placed a mask over my face. The heart monitor beeped away as I faded out of consciousness.
What felt like one minute later, my eyes fluttered as nausea rose up my throat. The surgery was over. It had only lasted three hours—half of what they’d expected. I thought that had to be good news.
Still groggy from the anesthesia, I forced my eyes open while I tried not to throw up. The room was blurry and spinning around me. I had a sense that my family was in the room with me, although I kept moving in and out of consciousness. When I became more aware, all I could think was, Why is this tube down my throat? I wanted to reach up and yank it out. When my arms didn’t cooperate, I pushed against the tube with my tongue. I heard a voice say, “Stop, Chris. You need that to breathe,” but I didn’t listen. I kept pushing the tube out of my mouth with my tongue until a nurse finally removed it. She replaced it with what looked like straws under my nose.
I melted with relief when I finally came to enough to see my parents and sisters Alex and Katie next to me. “Mom. Dad,” I croaked. My throat was still sore from the breathing tube, and my lungs were weak from my injury.
“The surgery went great, honey,” my mom said, kissing my forehead. She was using that funny voice she always has when she’s trying not to cry. “The surgeon will be in any moment to give us an update.”
“You did great, buddy.” My dad patted my shoulder and cleared his throat. They stayed next to me in my dimly lit hospital room until the surgeon arrived.
“The surgery went much faster than we expected,” he said. “We thought we’d have to operate on the front and back of your neck, but we only had to go in through the back. Basically, we took a piece of your hip bone and used it to replace a bone in your neck. You now have that bone and several screws fusing your C2, C3, and C4 vertebrae together.”
The children’s song about dry bones ran through my mind as the surgeon talked to me. My mind had trouble comprehending what he was saying as he told me I’d suffered a grade IV dislocation and a fractured break of my C3 and C4 vertebrae. “Based on what we’ve seen, and on the fact that you have no feeling below the injury site, I estimate that you have a three percent chance of recovery,” the surgeon said.
“What?” I asked. “You mean, I have a three percent chance of ever walking again?”
The surgeon stared at the floor before he spoke. “No. A three percent chance of ever moving or feeling anything below the injury site.”
I wanted to look around and see if he was talking to someone else. Even in my worst nightmares, I had never imagined myself trapped in a body that could not move. I was an 18-year-old athlete, a hard worker, the kid with a bright future. I was indestructible. This could not be my life. No, I planned to become an All-American football player, meet the girl of my dreams, graduate with a business degree, and someday buy a lake house. Or even better, the girl of my dreams’ family would already own a lake house. So much for that, I thought.
Yet even as that thought flashed in my head, a sudden urgency came over me. Maybe I was naive; maybe it was faith. I don’t know what it was, but something inside me said, No. Not me. I will not let this happen. I can’t let this happen. This isn’t going to be my life. I am going to beat the odds.
I looked up at the surgeon and mustered all the strength inside me to move something, anything. Somehow, I contorted the muscles in my shoulder into a shrug. “No way,” I said. “I’m going to do whatever it takes to be in that three percent. I won’t be that 97 percent.”
The surgeon was visibly surprised that my shoulder had moved ever so slightly. “You just beat the odds right there,” he said, pointing to my shoulders. “You aren’t supposed to be able to move anything below your neck. That’s huge, Chris.”
That’s just a start, I thought. I’m going to get my life back. I’m going to walk again. Just you wait and see.
Taken from The Seven Longest Yards: Our Love Story of Pushing the Limits While Leaning on Each Other by Chris & Emily Norton. Foreword by Tim Tebow. Click here to learn more about this title.
Quadriplegics do not simply walk again — yet millions watched as Chris Norton took ten nearly impossible steps. With his fiancée, Emily, supporting at his side, those unbelievable steps became the start of an extraordinary journey for them both. The Seven Longest Yards tells the unforgettable love story of how Chris and Emily battled unbelievable odds with faithful determination to discover that life’s lowest moments can be our greatest gifts.
In a moment, Chris went from a talented 18-year-old college football player with a promising future to flat on his back with a broken neck and a 3% chance of ever moving or feeling anything below his neck, much less walking again. The life Chris dreamt of — including his hope for finding love — was shattered. At least, so he thought. Determined to prove the doctors wrong and to find love, Chris pushed himself through grueling, daily workouts until four years later, Chris walked across the stage to receive his college diploma, with Emily’s help and the world’s astonished applause.
Meanwhile, Emily faced her own challenges as she sunk into a deep battle against anxiety and depression. Despite a devoted fiancé, a fulfilling career working with youth, and a strong faith, she couldn’t shake the mental darkness that clouded their promising future.
Day by day, decision by decision, Chris and Emily committed themselves to taking the extra step, trusting God, and leaning on the help of others. In a story of unforgettable grit and courageous faith, this extraordinary couple’s journey led them to ultimately tackle the longest seven yards together — down the wedding aisle and into a new life.
And what a new life it has become: as Chris and Emily have adopted five beautiful girls and welcomed seventeen (and counting!) foster children into their home and hearts. From their private struggles to shared blessings, their moving memoir told from both of their unique perspectives is your stirring invitation to put one foot in front of the other, especially in the face of the impossible. You might just find, as they have, that God can transform our lowest points into life’s greatest gifts.
Chris Norton is an in-demand motivational speaker with a message of hope, resilience, and faith. He has spoken everywhere from small classrooms to stadiums with audiences ranging from schools and colleges to non-profits and corporations. Past clients include John Deere, the NCAA, Culvers, and the University of Iowa football team. Chris was named to ITA Group’s list of “The Hottest Event Keynote Speakers for 2018” that includes Michael Strahan, Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Barbara Corcoran, and Magic Johnson. Currently residing in Florida, Chris wouldn’t take back the play that left him paralyzed due to the positive influence his story has had on millions of people worldwide. His Chris Norton Foundation has raised close to one million dollars to help others with spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders.
Emily Norton’s lifelong passion is to make a difference. Growing up in the small town of Muscatine, Iowa, Emily encountered many kids who came from unfortunate circumstances causing her to be heartbroken. Not one to sit by idly, Emily sought out ways to love and care for everyone who was hurting, whether it was being a mentor, starting an after-school program for middle school girls called Girl Talk, visiting group homes, or creating a talk show to share inspiring stories. Emily received her degree in family services from the University of Northern Iowa to pursue her dream of helping kids in foster care. Over the last year she and Chris have fostered 11 children with five currently in their home. Emily believes life is for helping others and making an impact.