Degree of Freedom

Jan 13, 1999 at 4:00 am
Among the 540 University of Missouri-St. Louis students receiving diplomas at commencement last Sunday, Jim Wieczorek wasn't hard to spot. He was the only one in a wheelchair. Wieczorek, 41, graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor of arts degree in political science, quite an accomplishment considering that seven years ago he was lying motionless in a hospital bed, brain-damaged and temporarily blind from a bullet to the head.

Christmas Eve 1991. On his way home to St. Charles County, truck driver Wieczorek (whi-zor-ek) stopped to make a phone call at a rest area near Memphis. He was approached by a shadowy figure, a young man with a gun, who demanded his wallet. Jim complied, but the young man pulled the trigger anyway. Jim was found, barely alive, by a worker who had stayed longer than his regular shift. The assailant, who was never caught, made off with $21 and a gold chain ripped from the neck of his wounded prey.

Jim was rushed to a Memphis hospital, and after the ER was done with him he would spend three weeks in critical care. The bullet had nicked his spinal cord, permanently bruising the fourth and fifth vertebrae. For awhile it was touch-and-go. Jim's heart stopped twice, and he had two strokes. Doctors broke the news to his wife, Kerry, by then at Jim's side: The father of their four children would never walk again, and he might have permanent mental impairment.

Today, he walks, with a little bit of assistance. At UM-St. Louis, he has maintained a 3.89 grade-point average, and he's made the dean's list every semester. Jim's name and pedigree are included in the current edition of Who's Who Among Students at College and Universities, and he serves on the university- senate committee for facilities and general services.

How did he pull himself out of the psychological tailspin he was in? With guts and love and determination, he'll tell you.

"Lying there in a hospital bed unable to move from the neck down was a very scary situation, depressing to the max," says Jim. "It's boggling to think that you could go from being so active one day and then, like flipping a switch, your life changes to where you can't do anything. And I remember thinking, 'Boy, this isn't for me. Life has so much to offer. I've got to do something -- no way I'm laying in bed for the rest of my life.'"

Soon after he was transferred to St. John's Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, things began to happen. "I started to move my left side just a little bit," says Jim, his voice clear and keen. "My left index finger was the first to move, and that's still the most responsive part of my body."

At St. John's, the regimen was physical and occupational therapy all day long. "The staff there really took an interest and active role," he notes, "but it was frustrating because you want things to happen fast, faster than was humanly possible. You work one whole day learning to hold a pencil in your hand. Or it might take a week. It helped to start setting small goals while at the same time keep focused on the long term."

Jim believes his condition plateaued about three years ago. "I take eight pills a day now, and I have an IV pump under my skin which gets filled every 45 days at the hospital, and I'll have surgery every four to five years on that, so I have surgery to look forward to the rest of my life, but it doesn't really bother me anymore because I figure it's all to make me better. When you only have so much to go on, a positive attitude really helps. You can't be bitter and dwell on negatives, because in the long run it only hurts you and the ones around you."

One long-term plan involved higher education, a goal Jim had never really considered. He and Kerry had married young and started making babies right away. "By the time I was 26, we had four children," says Jim. "Even if I wanted to go to college, it was out. How would I put groceries on the table as a student?"

Despite the warning from the hospital psychiatric department that test results indicated he would have difficulty retaining new information, Jim enrolled at St. Charles County Community College. Kerry went to nursing school. In the evenings, the family did homework at the kitchen table. With his relatively agile left index finger, Jim typed his papers on a computer given him by former coworkers at ABF Freight System.

Jim earned an associate's degree in three years. He then received a scholarship to the Pierre Laclede Honors College at UM-St. Louis. The 90-mile round-trip commute from his home in New Melle involved a series of rides from family members and fellow students, as well as time on the bus, MetroLink and campus shuttle. The trip took up to two hours each way.

As his name was called by Dean Robert Bliss, the newly minted graduate and his family were overcome with emotion. "The feeling I got was so tremendous," he says. "I'm very proud of everything I've done. All the trials and hardships, the aches and pains I have every morning getting up -- all that's insignificant compared to reaching an accomplishment like this. And as far as I'm concerned, I still have so much more to go. I hope to go to law school in the fall. It's another challenge. Life is like that.