Written by April Richie, mother of Team Navy/Coast Guard member Michael Bell.
At about 10:30 p.m. on a cold November evening in 2007, I received a phone call that changed my life.
My son, Mike, was in the hospital, a nurse told me, and he had experienced bleeding in his brain. Even now, more than three years later, I find it difficult to describe the shock I felt upon hearing that news. It was unreal.
At the time, Mike – a U.S. Coast Guard electrician’s mate 3rd class – was stationed in Detroit, Mich., nearly 600 miles away from his hometown of Union, Mo. But I didn’t think twice – not even about the pajamas I was wearing – before jumping in the car and driving through the night to be at his side.
Then 22, Mike was extremely fit and active; he had not struggled with chronic health problems as a child. Prior to joining the Coast Guard, he was a varsity wrestler, a lifeguard and an active cycler. Just a few weeks before that fateful day, he had been asked to serve as his unit’s health and wellness coordinator.
In short, Mike was the last person you’d expect to suffer a stroke in his early 20s. But, as I have since learned, unexpected illness can strike at any time.
The following months of rehabilitation were grueling. After his stroke, Mike had to relearn how to walk, talk and do many other daily activities so easily taken for granted. Without the support of our amazing family members, who took turns watching over Mike and cheering him on, I’m not sure where we’d be.
Today, Mike and I find ourselves in Colorado Springs, Colo., attending the Warrior Games. For the second year in a row, he will compete against wounded warriors from all branches of service – athletes who, like Mike, have surpassed expectations.
I can remember when, in the early months of his recovery, Mike’s physical therapist was thrilled to learn that Mike had regained his ability to climb stairs. At the Games, Mike will compete in a 30-kilometer cycling road race.
For Mike, the true value of the Warrior Games is not the opportunity to earn a gold medal; he has never been a fierce competitor. Instead, the Games are a safe haven, a place where he needn’t feel self-conscious about his condition. Here, he is among friends – people who have been in his shoes and require no explanation.
Now retired from the Coast Guard, Mike also is eager to once again represent his service during the games. And, perhaps, to serve as an inspiration to other wounded, ill and injured Coast Guardsmen.
Though he has made tremendous strides during the past few years, Mike still faces a long road to recovery. To other parents or caregivers of wounded warriors, I urge you to remain patient. Progress, however great or small, will come. And don’t be afraid to speak out. Help is available – you just sometimes have to chase it.
Michael Bell is enrolled in Navy Safe Harbor, the Navy and Coast Guard’s wounded warrior support program. Through proactive leadership, Safe Harbor provides a lifetime of individually tailored assistance designed to optimize the success of enrollees’ recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration activities.