Bob Bell was lying in a St. Cloud hospital, unable to move his arms or his legs. It was 1989. He was 19 years old, just a couple of months into his freshman year at St. John's University, and he couldn't move.
Bell didn't know what else to say, so he looked up at the doctors and nurses and said the words that seemed scripted from a melodrama: "Will I ever walk again?"
The answer was merciless: "Son, you are a quadriplegic."
It took a while to sink in. Bell asked whether he'd still be able to go home to Florida for Thanksgiving, and was told he'd be lucky to get out of the hospital for the holidays. Though he was devastated, the safest response seemed to be sarcasm.
"Merry Christmas, everyone," Bell said.
As Bell wrote about those days, "It appears the script writers for the ABC After-School Special were on strike."
Humor was one of the ways Bell would deal with his life-changing injury, but he also mixed in sadness, anger, self-pity, doubt and finally, triumph.
Bell was paralyzed when an acquaintance at school was roughhousing and put him in a full-Nelson wrestling hold. Bell heard three "pops," and knew something was wrong. "Call 911," he said.
At the time, Bell was admittedly a less-than-stellar student, a bit of a wise guy who was known to smoke and drink alcohol and sneak into his girlfriend's room. In fact, he was close to getting expelled when the accident happened.
Eric Schubert was the resident adviser for the floor at St. John's when the accident happened. "He was the wild child from hell," said Schubert, who remains a close friend. "He's been through fires I can only imagine. I've just been amazed and inspired by him at every point."
During his rehabilitation, Bell sat alone in an Atlanta garden for many hours, "contemplating if I wanted to live life like this. I thought about killing myself, and the ways I might do that. But you can't ask that question in isolation; you also have to ask, 'how am I going to live my life?' "
Full throttle, it turns out.
Bell began by setting goals. The first was to go back and finish college. Then came decades of remarkable successes that included law school, working on Wall Street and carousing across the globe, all on two wheels and a heart full of attitude.
Bell now teaches finance and accounting at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University in Collegeville. Those are the official course names, anyway, but he also manages to sneak in a little philosophy gleaned from his life.
"As a professor, I like to help young people to think about their lives and what kind of legacy they want to leave behind," said Bell. "You don't have to break your neck to do that. I love my job, and I love having an impact on the students."
Now Bell has written a book to teach the rest of us. "Un Moving Four Ward, Tales and Tips for Keeping Perspective Despite Life's Challenges" (North Star Press), is an honest, funny, self-deprecating look at being disabled.
The accident, which took just seconds, caused Bell to grow up quickly. In fact, while he lay in the dorm waiting for the ambulance, he recognized how serious it was and made a quick assessment of what was needed: "I forgive you," he said to the student who injured him.
He would repeat that phrase the next day in the hospital, then he asked the acquaintance for a favor. "Never apologize to me again."
"My mom said that I became the man at 19 that she thought I would at 40," he said of his sudden maturity.
Along the journey, which has taken Bell from China to Central America to Zimbabwe, there have been times of humility (explosive diarrhea on the floor of a Mongolian bathroom, being mistaken for a beggar, trying to date), fear (almost dying in the days after the accident and almost falling into alligator-infested waters while kayaking) and success (closing deals as a Wall Street lawyer and almost falling into alligator-infested waters).
Bell was helped along the way by a lot of tough love from friends and his mother, Judy, or as he affectionately calls her, "The Juder."
It was The Juder who set the tone early on. He was still in the hospital on Christmas, and people had decorated his room. But Bell was feeling sorry for himself and was in no mood to celebrate. His mother reminded him that people had traveled a long way and sacrificed to make his Christmas, and the least he could do was hold in his anger for one day.
"Because even when you are spending Christmas on a ventilator, it's not all about you," Bell said.
In the early months after the accident, Bell pondered questions few other 19-year-olds do. "Who do I want to be? How do I want my friends and family to see me? What kind of difference do I want to make with my life?"
The thing that has kept him going, and mostly sane, is Bell's ability "to keep perspective. Somebody's always got it worse. If somebody told you that you wouldn't have challenges in life, kick them in the teeth. You will have challenges. No one's life is going to be perfect, so how are you going to handle that?"
Bell's book is part memoir, but he hopes it will reach anyone struggling with life — cancer, a divorce, depression — so he provides tips for everything from surviving long stays in the hospital, to traveling abroad while disabled.
But perhaps his best tip is how self-pity works against you.
"Your family and friends love you," he said. "But they will love you less and drift away from you if you are miserable. They will love you even more if you handle your problem with humility and grace."
Schubert said Bell has done just that. "I admire his desire, his determination and his humor," Bell said. "He could have packed it in. He didn't. I'm proud of the guy."
Bell's book is available at bobbellbooks.com, Amazon and other online outlets.