When you see someone with a visible disability, you might ask yourself what you would do if suddenly and without the benefit of warning, you were permanently deprived of the use of part of your body. Perhaps you would obsess about the horrific turn your life had taken and dwell on your abrupt losses. Or maybe you would be able to cope and move on with your life. You might be able to discover an unending source of strength from which you would need to draw just to get through each day. You might possibly find joy in what could be seen by others as a diminished existence. And you might be able to accept your new limitations and even find new ways to excel.
At least three such extraordinary people live in Ventura County, where nearly one in six residents has some disability that is severe enough to make it impossible for them to make a solo run to the store or even to visit their doctors without help. All three of these people are as different as their personalities and circumstances. Yet they all have certain elements in common: the support of their families, a love of life, and a deep belief in a higher power. Plus, they have all survived a life-threatening and life-altering loss of mobility at a young age. Each has had battles with cancer or drug addiction, circumstances that would have broken the spirit of lesser people. But these three survivors have much to teach the able-bodied population about waking up each day and fiercely taking on the challenges of life.
Pflaumer: FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD
Breanna Pflaumer is now 18 years old and has graduated from high school. She first appeared in a story for VCReporter in December 2007. At that time, Pflaumer, who has brain cancer, was not doing very well. Her previous three years had been a parade of dismal prognoses, treatments, brain surgeries, strokes, partial paralysis, mind-blowing nausea and utter exhaustion. Her diminutive frame was shrinking. Navigating just one stair was a colossal effort, and she was living for the special moment when she would get her diploma with the rest of her high school class.
Initially, Pflaumer had been given just weeks to live when her cancer was first diagnosed at the age of 14, and, although she endured delays and ineffective treatments due to miles of bureaucratic red tape, she is now experiencing a truly meaningful recovery. Pflaumer has more than defied the odds with her feisty attitude and eternal optimism. She has proven to be stronger and tougher than a deadly tumor. Although portions of the tumor were unreachable by the most talented surgeon, it has been tamed to the point where Pflaumer now is feeling like her old self. And, importantly, for the first time in years, the tumor is not affecting her appetite.
“My favorite food is fondue. My mom deep-fries everything; mushrooms, artichoke hearts, chicken, shrimp. And then for dessert — chocolate fondue. Yes, I eat it all, oh, yeah. Now I have snacks after dinner like a bowl of ice cream.
But I also love the milkshakes at In-N-Out, the chocolate one,” Pflaumer said.
Pflaumer’s life has completely turned around, and she is finally enjoying something that most people take for granted, simply being hungry. Her eyes now sparkle and her skin glows. Her hair is full and shiny. And Pflaumer, who weighed as little as 45 pounds, now has grown two or three inches in height and has nearly doubled her weight. Her alarmingly skinny arms and legs of a year ago now are shapely with muscle tone, the result of her daily workouts. And when Pflaumer speaks, it is no longer barely audible in short sentences. Now, the words and ideas spill out of her in an energetic river of enthusiasm.
What turned this awful disease around was a last desperate effort by her neurosurgeon. All treatment had been withdrawn for many months because Pflaumer could not tolerate the side effects and she was fading. But the surgery performed last summer has had a magical effect. Pflaumer is still paralyzed on one side but she gets around quite well with only a cane. Her smile genuinely beams.
“Compared to last year when I graduated high school, now I am a lot stronger and I have a lot more energy,” Pflaumer said. “I used to need my naps but now if we’re too busy, it’s OK. And I’m not going to bed as early. I love to watch ‘Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.’ The stories are tear-jerkers, and we love it.” Just months earlier, she did not have the energy or interest even to watch television.
Pflaumer’s gritty determination to survive and get better has been crucial. “I never doubted that fighting this thing wouldn’t pay off. I would never stop fighting,” Pflaumer said. “I never wanted to give up. Sometimes I felt like I was never going to reach the point where I was going to get better. I’d wake up and I’d get sick, but I wanted to keep going because I had such a great life.”
Aside from Pflaumer’s spunk, she said there are two things that have made the difference in her battle: her family and God. “I get my strength from God, but it doesn’t really matter which church. Catholic, Presbyterian, you learn about God either way,” she said. “He has brought me all this way. I’m His child. I know that He is going to help me. He is here to help His children.”
“My family has meant everything. Not just my close family, but my aunts and grandmas, they’ve all been so encouraging,” Pflaumer said. “They tell me I’m their angel and an inspiration to them. I keep fighting for everyone out there to show them that although it has been a tough battle, in the end it will pay off.”
Little is as frightening for a parent as the mere thought of losing a child. When a child is in pain, the parents are in pain. Pflaumer’s parents, Tom and Terrie, have been fighting for Pflaumer every single moment, and she appreciates it. “Whenever I go to bed, I always say to my parents, ‘Good night, Mom and Dad, I will see you in the morning, no matter what.’ And I don’t go to bed until I hear them say, ‘No matter what, Pflaumer.’ ”
ORANGE: LIVING TO LOVE AND TO BE LOVED
Leo Orange, 53, is the coordinator of disabled students at Oxnard College. He has a family and lives what could be considered a normal life. But Orange has overcome enormous obstacles in his pursuit of a life of purpose. He is a C-5 incomplete quadriplegic, meaning he can move his arms, but the left side of his body has very little range of motion. He can stand and walk a few feet but needs a wheelchair for daily purposes.
At age 29, Orange was diagnosed with testicular cancer. It metastasized throughout his body and invaded his aorta. The cancer was certainly life-threatening, but aggressive treatment put it into remission, and he eventually had a full recovery. When Orange was 33 years old, he went to Europe to celebrate his new life. While in Stockholm, he was in a car accident. His neck was broken, and his life was permanently altered. A young athletic man who had been an all-star quarterback in high school now would never be able to throw a pass to his sons.
Orange made the adjustment to life in a wheelchair more quickly than most. “Three months after leaving the hospital, I went back to college,” Orange said. “I was fortunate to have my girlfriend, Marie, who became my wife. It was her support that helped me in the transition to become independent.”
Still, the sudden loss of mobility would be enough to throw most people into a deep depression. But Orange was determined to stay positive. “The handicap is the environment that a person with a disability lives in,” Orange said. “You become mentally stable, and you view yourself in a positive manner. Then you become independent.”
Orange said his brush with death from cancer put this new challenge into perspective. “Having a previous severe disability where it was life-threatening — being a cancer survivor gave me the coping skills to adapt into being a quadriplegic very quickly.”
A big part of reconnecting with a purposeful life, Orange said, was regaining his sexual identity. “When most individuals acquire a disability, such as I did, many things arise not only to our functional limitations and our mental limitations, but how you see yourself as a man or a woman,” Orange said. “From my perspective and my culture, I was raised to believe that the man was the provider, the man was the protector, the man was the person who was the strong symbol in the family.”
It took Orange a full year to achieve enough movement and independence to regain his sense of virility. Orange had to face his new reality and reconcile his circumstances with his new future. “When a man like me, who at 33 was in a new body, I had to adjust to my ability to provide an income, my ability to have sex, and my ability to change my rituals about how I wanted to make love and be made love to,” Orange said.
Although Orange eschews traditional religion, he said he is a spiritual person. “I’ve always been in search of the truth of who I am as a person instead of in search of a God,” he said. “I believe in reincarnation. I believe in a higher power. I find comfort knowing that maybe this is the next level, that I come back. My spirituality keeps me grounded in the here and now. It is a blessing to wake up and breathe and be productive.”
Orange added, “I hate to think that we just fall into the earth and rot.”
Natale: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE PREACHER
If you see Kevin Natale, poured into his wheelchair and able to move only one arm, his neck and head, you might make the mistake of dismissing his enormous potential. Natale is about to be a movie star. A feature-length documentary about his life, his struggles and his victories called “Thy Will Be Done” is currently a darling of the film festival circuit.
Natale had the bad luck to be living next door to a violently disturbed young man. As Natale tells it, one day young Natale was playing baseball in his yard with his stepfather. The ball sailed out of his yard and struck a tire of the neighbor’s car just as he was climbing in. An argument escalated into a physical altercation between the neighbor, Bryan Adams, and Natale’s stepfather. Nine months later, after stewing over the incident, Adams, who Natale said had his own mental issues, was set on evening the score.
“He decided to buy a gun and chase me down in my home. The bullet struck me in my spinal cord and paralyzed me from the chest down,” Natale said. “I’ve been in a wheelchair ever since.” Adams is now serving a life sentence at Folsom prison as a result of the shooting.
Natale was all of 14 years old on January 12, 1994, the day he became a C-5, C-6 quadriplegic. His path through adolescence, never an easy journey for an able-bodied person, was rocky and dangerous. At 15, Natale said, he started to use marijuana and alcohol and hung out with a like-minded crowd.
“I was in physical pain and emotional pain. The drugs definitely helped at first,” Natale said. “They are supposed to make you forget about the problems that you are dealing with. They definitely did the job.”
For a while, Natale was able to maintain his relationships and move through school despite the drug use. But that could not last because his friends were becoming involved with harder drugs. “Getting into meth at about the age of 21, I just went downhill real quick,” Natale said. “One person after the other was dropping real quick, either by overdosing or ending up in jail.”
Natale said he hit the wall as his life spun out of control. “I thought, ‘This is not the type of life that I want to lead,’ Natale said. “ ‘This is not the kind of person that I want to be. This is not the direction that I thought my life would be going in.’ ” So he decided to get clean and stay clean.
“It is so hard to get out,” Natale said. “I had to use drugs just to function in life. You can go to meetings and do a lot of reading, but until that obsession is lifted, it is going to be hard for you. Now, my desire to stay clean and not use is more than my desire to use drugs.” Natale, who is nearly 30 years old, has been clean and sober for four and a half years.
Natale earned his A.A. degree at Ventura College and is now closing in on completion of the addictive disorders studies program at Oxnard College. He intends to become a drug and alcohol counselor and also to pursue religious studies at Biola University in Thousand Oaks, where he lives right now with a roommate.
“My relationship with God has been the key aspect of my recovery,” Natale said. God, along with his family, that is. “I had a tremendous support system when I got clean.”
Natale has big dreams for the future. “My ultimate goal would be to open a Christian-based recovery ranch with land, animals and crops.” He said he believes that God is on his team. “The desires of your heart a lot of times are the desires of His heart. He wants us to get the things we want and, if it is good stuff, I think He will bless us with that.”
Now that Natale has his educational and professional plans well on track, his gaze is wandering to the more social side of life. “At this point in my life, I’m looking for a relationship,” Natale said. “It is something that is heavy on my heart right now. But I am concentrating on day-by-day things and making my life as complete as I can.”