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Marianjoy Ignites the Passion to Heal

At 27, Jim and his wife, Linda, were celebrating their second year of marriage and enjoying their three-month-old daughter. He owned a successful construction company and life, in Jim’s words, was going extremely well—that is, until the unthinkable occurred.

At a family picnic, Jim did a somersault into a pool. He hit his head on the bottom, breaking three vertebrae in his neck and sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI). He was initially diagnosed as a quadriplegic, unable to move his arms and legs. “I am fortunate and grateful to be alive,” he says.

Jim was in the ICU for three weeks. “My functional prognosis wasn’t good,” he says. Doctors were blunt in confirming he would never walk again. “In a way, that angered me,” he says, “and in a way, it motivated me to prove them wrong.” Determined to find the best care in order to recover as much as possible, Jim and Linda were relieved to know that Marianjoy had recently opened in the western suburbs, allowing Jim to remain close to his family while working on his recovery.

Although spinal cord injuries can be complex due to the nature and location of the injury, rehabilitation of the injury can greatly enhance opportunities for recovery. An important part of rehabilitation for SCI is to prevent further damage and to avoid other complications by building muscular endurance, flexibility, and bone strength. The multi-disciplinary team works closely with each patient to determine what he or she needs to get back to a quality life—physically and emotionally.

While he worked on his physical recovery, he was anxious about the other responsibilities in his life. Through it all, his family was his driving inspiration and support: “I had something to live for—my wife and our new baby made me even more determined to do the best that I could do.”

Jim spent eight months as an inpatient at Marianjoy and his dedication and hard work led to great strides in his recovery. At the time of his discharge, he was able to move the upper half of his body and complete many tasks on his own. However, he knew he would need to make changes in his life, especially with his career. Knowing that he could no longer be a carpenter, he pursued and earned a college degree and began working as the controller for his relative’s construction supply company.

Jim also found ways to give back. He volunteered as a peer mentor for other SCI patients at Marianjoy and through the National SCI Association. “When I was a patient, there were a couple of other spinal cord injury patients, and it helped to interact with each other,” he explains. “That’s why I enjoy talking to newly injured patients today—because I know it can be helpful to talk to someone who’s been there.”

Jim’s connection with Marianjoy continued to grow, especially when the Marianjoy Scholarship Program was established in 1994. The program awards scholarships for higher education to students with disabilities. Jim was a member of the selection committee and then asked to be coordinator for the program.

“Going to college at the age of 30 and attending classes in a wheelchair was intimidating,” he explains. “With a lot of hard work, I obtained my degree. That’s why I’m so passionate about helping students through our scholarship program. I feel privileged to interact with so many talented students.”

Jim Decker carries the 1996 Olympic Torch in AtlantaJim became such a part of Marianjoy’s identity that—to his surprise—he was chosen to represent the hospital by carrying the torch for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta as it made its way through Chicago. With dozens of friends, coworkers, and family members cheering him on, he says it was one of the proudest moments of his life.

“I look forward to coming here every day,” Jim says of Marianjoy, where he is now Scholarship Program and Volunteer Coordinator. “I feel like this is where I’m meant to be. This is the best place to utilize my experiences. It feels good to be part of the family here and to be accepted for who I am and what I have to give.”

For anyone else facing an injury, Jim advises: “It’s important not to dwell on what you can’t do—focus on what you can do.” Reflecting on his nearly 40-year anniversary here, Jim says: “When I first got injured, it was hard—if not impossible—to see anything positive in the future. But now, looking back, I feel fulfilled in finding a purpose here at Marianjoy. Good things can come out of bad situations.”