Boyd was the last person you'd expect to turn all serious, but that day he left the jokes at the door. Pulling a chair up to Nick's bed, he steadied himself and then did for his friend what only a best friend would do. He offered to kill him.
The proposition was not altogether unreasonable. A few weeks before, Nick Chisholm had been a vigorous 27-year-old, a fearsome rugby player who pumped iron three times a week and on weekends tamed mountains with his Diamondback Zetec bike. Now he lay in a hospital bed, submerged inside a body he no longer controlled. And yet he knew this body was his, for it never stopped screaming at him to attend to it. An unsoothed calf spasm felt like a spear wound; an unscratchable itch like a spider gnawing his flesh. He longed to cry out—but his voice was gone, too. All that remained was the terror.
They call it locked-in syndrome. The phrase conveys a certain mechanical accuracy, but a nearer description might be "hell." It's usually brought on by a stroke when the neural isthmus connecting the brain to the body is catastrophically blocked, leaving the body unresponsive but all cognitive faculties intact. For a long time the doctors didn't know Nick was even conscious. No hope of recovery, he heard them say. Better if he'd died. And perhaps this was true. In many respects he was dead already, his consciousness orphaned. Pinching out that spark might even be an act of mercy.
"If I were in your place, I know you'd offer to do the same for me," Boyd murmured, quietly so the nurses wouldn't hear. He wanted to look at the floor, but then he would miss Nick's signal. Eyes up for yes, down for no. This was Nick's only way to communicate now, using the one part of his body he could still control. As the seconds ticked by, the air in the room seemed to congeal. Only the goldfish flickered, as light as leaves, in the tank by Nick's bed. Boyd waited, holding his breath.
That's how it started, with the downward tug of an eye muscle. What followed may be the most grueling fitness regimen ever undertaken, the story of a man who buffed up from nothing in defiance of medical expertise—and, frankly, any reasonable estimation of the hardship a man can endure.
The secret of that endurance is what I've flown halfway around the world to discover. Nick's psychologist had warned me to expect an enigma. A man who has spent the past 10 years locked in isn't likely to think like the rest of us. And by all accounts, Nick wasn't entirely normal to begin with. A "type T" personality, his shrink said. A thrill seeker. The kind of guy whose active lifestyle entailed sustaining concussions on a fairly regular basis. ("If you're adventurous, it happens," Nick's older brother Aaron told me with a shrug.)
When I finally arrive at Nick's house in Dunedin, New Zealand, I find him pondering a pair of tinfoil barbs patrolling the depths of his half-ton fish tank. Nick's eyes are wide and green, his face lean and wolfish. The cap he wears conceals a 3-inch Mohawk, and his sideburns are carved into horizontal stripes. When he looks at me, his gaze seems to flex, and I can feel the burn of power trapped within.
The extent of his powerlessness soon becomes obvious. He can't talk, first of all. He can't shout, shrug, cough, spit, stretch, sigh, or wink. The endless humble adjustments that make our days tolerable are mostly impossible for him. He can't wrinkle his nose, massage his chin, flip a light switch, or throw off a blanket. He wakes to the disobedience of his limbs, and at night submits to the caprice of eyelids that refuse to settle.
To communicate he uses "the board," a sheet of hard, clear plastic across which the alphabet is laid out in a grid. As it's held before him, he directs his gaze like a pointer to pick out letters and form sentences. The sentences are terse, like telegrams sent from a faraway continent. Small talk isn't worth the calorie expenditure. And all of this assumes a willing audience. If no one's in his room, he's flat out of luck.
We've all seen enough setbacks in our lives to know what powerlessness feels like. The crushing rage and frustration we feel when implacable forces curtail our will. It could be a setback as trivial as a bus pulling away seconds before we reach the station, or as devastating as a loved one's terminal illness. For Nick, powerlessness is a persistent condition.
And yet Nick does not seem to regard his body as the enemy. On the contrary, he eats immaculately and claims a body-mass index rivaling that of most Olympic athletes. For most of us, the gym is at best a chore, something we plan to do three times a week and end up doing maybe once. But Nick goes every chance he gets. Physically he is strong. He might not be able to rub his chin, but strap any midsize vehicle to his back and he could probably lift it.
The paradox seems beyond explanation—certainly not with Nick's terse sentences. I'm wondering how to broach it when my eye is arrested by a curious painting of a piranha high on the wall of Nick's living room. The piranha, Nick says, dates to 1997 and his first AA meeting. When the group leader asked everyone to identify a higher power, his fellow drunks glanced involuntarily upward. Nick's eyes fell instead to his own T-shirt, which happened to carry an image of this very pissed-off-looking fish. That'll do, thought Nick, never one to get hung up on abstractions. Something about the creature's toothy scowl succinctly captured the two qualities he most valued: grit and aggression. It's been years since he's had a drink, but the so-called higher power endures.
Huh, I think, when he finishes spelling all this out. I suppose that sort of explains something about him.
Then Nick fixes me with a peculiar gleam and signals again for the board.
Gradually the words cohere. Nick stares at me, green eyes blazing. Do I understand?
Anger is a gift.
It was a Saturday afternoon in Dunedin, July 2000. The Demons were leading the Pirates in the second half. Rugby had always been Nick's passion. Where else could a guy standing 5'9" and weighing just 180 have the chance to take out a guy who was 80 pounds heavier? This was the kind of challenge Nick appreciated.
He'd just snagged the ball from the hooker and flicked it to the wing when he began feeling dizzy, wobbled off the field, and was rushed to the hospital. For 3 days the doctors watched him. They thought it was just another concussion, a common enough injury among rugby players. But something wasn't right. One morning Nick was trying to shave and found that he couldn't quite reach his face with the razor. Even then no one guessed what was happening. He had suffered a series of strokes, probably triggered by a clot in his vertebral artery—pinched when he twisted to pass the ball to the wing. The next stroke hit his brain stem like an ax. They rushed him to the ICU, but by then it was too late.
To Nick, the days that followed had the feeling of a nightmare: the muttering of doctors, the sound of loved ones wailing, of Boyd smacking his head against the wall. Nick couldn't see or even think clearly, but he could feel well enough. Stripped of neurological control, his muscles bucked in wild agony. When his internal temperature gauge stopped working, they dropped him into a tub of ice and blasted him with giant fans. When his lungs stopped working, they bored a hole in his throat and fit the hole with a tube connected to a breathing machine. During the operation the anesthetic wore off, but that was just a single lesson in human suffering. What came later was an entire curriculum.
Grant Gillett, M.D., D.Phil., was the neurosurgeon on call when Nick's big stroke occurred. His memory of the days and weeks that followed remain sharp—particularly the moment when he realized that behind the seemingly blank facade Nick was fully cognizant, and screaming for help. Luckily, Dr. Gillett had seen locked-in cases before, so he knew to look for that subtle tension around the eyes that might otherwise have gone undiagnosed—perhaps, as in some documented cases, for years.
There were those who said recovery was impossible. After all, nothing is more mortal than a human brain cell. Sustain an injury almost anywhere else, and your body tries desperately to repair it. But repair to damaged brain tissue faces significant limits. "Some people say it's the cost of having a highly complex information-control system," Dr. Gillett says. In other words, the brain takes so long to develop and grows so singularly intricate in form and function that a traumatic injury to it can't be patched up like ordinary tissue--any more than a broken tree limb can be re-attached with a two-by-four.
All the same, Dr. Gillett has learned not to underestimate the human body's ability to heal, especially when the injured person's spirit is driving the process. Even if there are distinct limitations to how much the brain can repair itself, he says, no one seems to quite agree on where those limits are or to what degree they can be circumvented.
"Who knows what Nick is capable of?" Dr. Gillett asks me. "What limits most of these people is two things: the targets that are held out in front of them, and a kind of fatalism that tells them to accept what they've got. But that's just not part of Nick's nature."
Nick had this much going for him: Somehow he knew that at a certain point, breakthroughs become possible only when you start disbelieving people. Or put it this way: If no one thinks you're crazy, then whatever you're doing isn't that radical, and the payoff won't be either. The fact is, real progress occurs only on those frontiers where likely outcomes are contested. You might not think so, but even in a world swamped by data and teams of experts for every occasion, such frontiers still exist in abundance. And as long as they do, so does the opportunity for reward.
The fight began at ISIS, a rehab facility just outside Dunedin. It was here that Nick realized he hadn't been dreaming for the previous 6 weeks. Housed in a low, one-story building surrounded by parking lots, ISIS shares its grounds with a psychiatric hospital with a high-security wing for the criminally insane. Inside, the floors are thinly carpeted, the dingy atmosphere gripped by a professional ethic of grim purposefulness that keeps the lives of the residents grinding forward.
Now a nurse lets us in through the key-coded door. Nick leads the way in his wheelchair, followed by Boyd, who has taken the day off to hang out with his old pal. Around the corner Nick stops before an open doorway. He looks at me, and then back through the door. The room is empty except for a steel table and a hose. The walls are tiled, the floor canted toward a drain in the middle.
"The shower room," I say. Nick gives a little nod, bouncing his green eyes up to say yes, and then holds my gaze to express a few silent paragraphs more. The bulky nurses with their bad breath and meaty fingers hoisting him up and dropping him onto the hard table. Their stupid banter as they hose him down like a dirty plate. The cold spray impacting his sensitized skin, the drops leaking into his trachea vent and guttering into his lungs.
Nick turns away with a gesture that seems to say,Yeah, that was the least of it. Across the hall is his old room: Four beds divided by blue curtains. Hospital plastic and cold tile. No privacy, and at the same time too much. For the first 4 months he couldn't even use a call bell, so if his leg fell asleep, he could only lie there and listen to the rising symphony of pain. Movement was limited. His body tightened, hands clenched, jaw bit down with pulverizing force. His arms ratcheted inward, as if trying to stuff him through a small dark hole at the center of his chest.
He saw the seriousness of his condition in the eyes of others before he could see it for himself. They knew he was fully conscious, in theory at least. But he still couldn't talk or move, so it was easy to dismiss him as inert. His primary caretaker, Richard, wouldn't even use the letter board. Richard was just the sort of big, meaty bloke Nick used to take down at a gallop. Now Nick was helpless. He dreamed of hurling Richard head over heels through a window, or crushing him by sheer force of will alone. But invariably his will broke against the barrier of his immobility, and then he was the one to be crushed.
Now he nods toward something on the floor. No, on the baseboard. Lights. Yes, these are the light fixtures Boyd pulled the bulbs from so Nick could sleep at night. And when the staff members kept replacing the bulbs, Boyd ripped out the wiring
Nick and Boyd seem to have a million stories like this. The time Boyd strapped Nick to the front of his motorbike and took him burning across the hospital lawn. (Picture a herd of angry nurses in hot pursuit.) Or the time a gob of smeg from Nick's trach blew onto a sandwich Boyd was eating, and like a champion, Boyd feigning not to see it, affecting puzzlement at the unusual flavor. There was little Boyd wouldn't do for a laugh. Casually guzzling from Nick's protein feed, for instance, or attaching muscle-toning electrodes to his face and cranking the voltage.
This was a kind of boy humor he borrowed from their childhood to cheer Nick in his direst hour. The two friends had grown up together on nearby farms. In those days the primary form of entertainment was sledding around a cattle paddock in half of a drench barrel roped to the back of a three-wheeler. They got into a lot of trouble, but then they were never the types to hide from life. And after the stroke, Boyd, unlike so many others, never tried to hide from Nick. You might even say that in the end, the man who originally offered to kill Nick was the one who did the most to keep him alive.
As we make our way toward the exit, Nick remembers something else. "I love when you pushed me over to see the wild people," he spells out, blinking up at Boyd.
Boyd looks blank for a second. Then he remembers: It was a hot day in March, and he'd sneaked Nick into a wheelchair for a covert visit to the criminally-insane wing. The wing was enclosed by an exercise yard bordered on two sides by a high fence concealed by bushes. As Boyd maneuvered Nick through a gap in the bushes, they encountered a strange sight: The guards were soaking a prisoner with a high-powered hose as the man cavorted around the yard, tearing his clothes off and screaming at the top of his lungs, "I'm lovin' it! I'm fuckin' lovin' it!"
As Boyd reenacts the scene, Nick tips back his head and howls with laughter. Somehow it perfectly captures the mad hilarity of it all—the strange brightness at those extremes of misfortune when not even grit and aggression can help and the only defense is pure spirit.
The story of Nick's early attempts to reclaim his body is told in the medical logbooks he kept from those days. At the start, his regimen was nothing you would recognize as a conventional workout. There were no bumping barbells or TVs hung over treadmills. No biceps or abs machines. There are muscles that come before biceps—the diaphragm, for one. After 2 months on a respirator, Nick's had turned to flab. Now when he tried to breathe unassisted, it felt like someone had dropped a 200-pound barbell across his chest.
This was his first real workout: breathing. No longer than 2 hours at a time at first. To stay occupied, he'd watch the oxygen meter. If it dropped below 70 percent, he'd have to try harder. The alternative was suffocation.
Other muscles followed. Muscles we tend not to think about. The trunk muscles that keep us sitting upright. The jaw muscles that keep our mouth from dropping open. The neck muscles that hold up our skull. The tongue.
It was weeks before he could even think about trying to stand. Weeks more before he could support himself with a walker to undertake a staggering trek down the hall. The problem: Tight leg muscles prevented him from lifting his feet, so his toes kept scraping the floor. "His toes were just bleeding," a physiotherapist who was there remembers. "But he wasn't going to give up. I remember walking back down the corridor and seeing every footstep marked by a little puddle of blood."
Gradually the workouts became more ambitious. Despite his damaged nervous system, the muscles responded. This is the miracle of muscle. Ask and it answers, bulking up when you tax it, adapting to meet demand.
After 22 months in hospitals, Nick had grown strong enough that the medical team agreed to release him. Right away he joined a gym. There the staff tried to teach him the secret of weightlifting, which is fairly simple: You can always endure a little more than you think you can. But by this point, Nick had figured that out for himself.
Nick's gym is located on Moray Place in downtown Dunedin, about six blocks from the hospital. His first time here he could bench just 40 pounds; within a month he'd quadrupled that number. Like an artillery range, the gym absorbed anything Nick could throw at it.
Now he lies on the bench, green eyes tilted upward, Mohawk mashed against the red cushion. Signaling for the board, he tells his assistant, Rowan, that he can probably take on more weight if she shifts his feet for better leverage. He cannot move them himself. He's still learning to control smaller muscle groups. (Physically, he's like an infant. He can move big muscle groups but has no fine motor control, which is why he can laugh but not talk.) For this reason, his feet need to be restrained when he lifts. Basically, everything flexes at once, so exercising a small muscle group requires restraining all the others. That explains the straps across his thighs, and the grimacing trainer trying to hold Nick's feet down, as well as why Nick's dream of walking unassisted remains as yet unrealized.
Now Rowan moves the pin to the bottom of the stack, but Nick still looks unsatisfied. "Do you want to go 99? Okay, I've got 3," Rowan says, liberating a spare 3-kilo ingot from an adjacent machine. "Do you want another 2.5 on that?"
At last Nick grips the bar, gives an orcish snarl, and propels the full force of his 185- pound body directly into the iron—224 pounds of it. Phil Chaney, Nick's good friend and the owner of the gym, calls this "the switch," the mental mechanism that allows you to step outside your civilized self and decisively engage your most primitive forces. It's sort of a wolfman moment. The laughing Nick disappears. A vein pops on his temple to feed his glowering eye. The weights come down, and rise again. You can see in his face the exact moment the whinging no of the muscles transforms into a ravenous yes.
The set ends and Nick lies there heaving. Rowan uncurls Nick's fingers from the bar and hauls open his arms, which still tend to crumple inward. A splash of water would probably taste good right now, but Nick can't swallow liquids without aspirating. Rowan lifts his shirt, pops the cap on his abdominal stent, and mainlines 300 milliliters of double chocolate protein shake into his stomach. Soon he's ready for drop sets.
"This one's going to hurt," Nick spells out, with a piranha grin.
Then the words come back to me—Anger is a gift—and finally I start to get it. The gym is not, at first, a way to buff up, or to look good, or even to stay healthy. It is a way of experiencing power in its rawest form. Iron against muscle. Resistance yielding to brute persuasion. There's a simple equation at work here. Power is the capacity to exert your will. Too often we assume that the power we have in life is fixed and limited, and instead of building our power to match our will, we degrade our will to conform to our perceived lack of power. If Nick had chosen this route, he'd have been dead years ago.
And it's interesting to think about why he didn't. Courage certainly has something to do with it. But despite the hardships he's faced, it would be foolish not to acknowledge Nick's one clear motivation. Put it this way: There are no wheelchairs in his dreams. Never once has he lost sight of the man he was, the man he retains the potential to be. Today, an image of that majestic potential is forever hovering before him.
And in this way the question sneaks up and suddenly demands attention: What if we could know, as clearly as he does, that we have the capacity to become king? That we are entitled to whatever in life we have audacity to claim? Who then wouldn't reach for the crown? Who among us would hesitate?
Five hours north of Dunedin, the same question returns as I follow Nick into a single-prop Cessna parked on a grassy runway. Not even Boyd has the stones for this caper. "This is crazy," I hear a voice say as the ground peels away. At 2,000 feet, we rise through the cloud cover, the altimeter slowly gaining on the summit of Aoraki, New Zealand's tallest mountain. I keep looking at Nick for some signal of misgiving, but his green eyes are steady and focused. Now as we climb past 14,000 feet, someone fits him with an oxygen mask, and the mighty Pacific appears over the spine of the Southern Alps.
It's something he's wanted to do for a while. His last attempt, shortly after busting out of ISIS, was aborted when the winds blew too strong. But today the weather is calm and clear, perfect for plummeting earthward at 230 miles an hour.
Finally we clear 15,000 feet and the Plexiglas hatch ratchets open. Wearing a big, grinning jump instructor on his back, Nick scoots toward the door. He doesn't look back. He doesn't hesitate. He gives a wee kick of his legs and thrusts forward into the wind.