This year’s Wheels UP! Photo Contest first-place winner has literally rebuilt his life from the ground up
From a 50-foot fall down a parking garage exhaust shaft to hanging on gymnastic rings at the original Muscle Beach in Calif., it’s been a long road to recovery for Richard Corbett, this year’s Wheels UP! Photo Contest Winner.
Corbett, 30, remembers January 18, 2010 like it was yesterday. Not because it was Martin Luther King Day but because it was the day that would ultimately start him on the path of rebuilding his life from the ground up.
At the time, Corbett was attending the Savannah College of Art and Design and had big dreams of becoming an artist. That day, he had made plans to meet a friend at the campus gym only to realize that it was closed for the Martin Luther King Day holiday.
Not wanting to miss his workout, Corbett decided to get in a run and made his way around the campus pathways and eventually alongside an underground parking garage.
Corbett’s run nearly cost him his life after he mis-stepped and fell more than 50-feet into an open exhaust vent. The fall caused severe injuries to his feet, legs and arms as well as causing an incomplete L/2 spinal-cord injury.
“I spent a great deal of time in the hospital and although there where tons of broken bones and a spinal-cord injury, there was no internal injury or brain injury,” said Corbett. “I’m very lucky to be alive. I’ve heard of people falling ten-feet and dying. I fell 50-feet onto concrete and somehow lived.”
Corbett went through 13 back-to-back surgeries and went on to rehab at the Shepherd Center not long after. His new daily routine consisted of physical therapy, personal hygiene measures and powerchairs, manual chairs and leg braces to help in his mobility. Despite his progress, Corbett suffered a setback when doctors discovered blood clots forming in his legs.
While that wasn’t the news Corbett was hoping to hear he eventually came to accept the fact that he’d be using a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
“As a low-level incomplete SCI, I could walk around with double crutches and big-clunky braces that went all the way up to my hip,” said Corbett. “It was obnoxious. I hated it. And all I wanted was to get back to school because I loved art and sculpture so much. I just wanted to get back to living.”
Corbett eventually made it back to school, but his time in rehab had put him far behind, leaving him anxious and stressed about a creating a productive future.
“I remember going to a doctor and explaining to him that I was having a hard time focusing, could he give me something to help,” said Corbett. “He prescribed some pretty hardcore medicine that made me feel really good and invincible and I worked really hard to get caught up in class. The program was pretty physical, and I dealt with a great deal of post-injury pain.”
Corbett returned to his doctor asking for more relief.
“Doctors are more than happy to put people on medication and assume the patient knows what’s best,” says Corbett. “Not only did those drugs solve my problems to focus and relieve my physical pain, they unfortunately solved the problem of my emotional pain and trauma that I never dealt with after my injury.”
Corbett starting using the drugs to cope. If he was feeling down, he would take more of the drugs to speed him up. If he was feeling too amped up, he would take the drugs to slow himself back down.
Corbett had fallen into a vicious circle of false hope and security that ultimately lead to him becoming a “full-blown drug addict.” His interest in friends, family and art dwindled until he eventually dropped out of school and settled on a computer sales job.
“Really? Computer sales?” says Corbett. “It [sales] wasn’t my thing but it [the job] really helped me keep using. I wanted to keep using the drugs that made me feel good and “fix all my problems and pain.”
Corbett continued on this path over the next couple of years. His mental and physical health declined while his drug use increased. Corbett even resorted to scoring street drugs to satisfy his addiction.
“My entire lifestyle had changed,” said Corbett. “I barely went to work. I barely showered. I’d lay around in my bed all day with filth all around. I was suicidal. I was so depressed and addicted I had given up on life.”
Corbett suffered a drug induced manic episode and was institutionalized into a mental health facility. It was during this stay in the hospital that Corbett slowly started to regain control of his life.
Corbett was released from the mental health facility where he entered a rehabilitation program and continued putting his life back in order.
“I worked on getting back my life and putting back on the weight I’d lost,” said Corbett. “I made the decision to really focus on my mental and physical health and an interesting byproduct of that was that my legs started to wake up. Some of the nerves started reconnecting after many years. I spent the next few years working to get a good amount of mobility back and found myself walking around my apartment without crutches so that was a powerful motivator to keep fighting.”
While returning to school had always been in the back of his mind, he knew that the rigors of that program were too much for his body physically, so a new plan for his future had to be made.
After many failed business ventures, Corbett discovered the “art” of videography and started recording himself doing everyday activities from his workouts to getting around in his apartment to going to the market and posted them to his Instagram account.
“The response was incredible,” said Corbett. “I got a lot of cool comments from many cool people and I thought if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right and Wheels2Walking was born.”
With the help of a few friends, Corbett started a YouTube page where he now posts weekly self-help videos about life in a wheelchair and living with a spinal-cord injury and on February 28th, posted his first official Wheels2Walking video.
“Within a week it had more than 440,000 views,” said Corbett. “People living with a disability often don’t think they can live a “normal” life and I want to change that. I want to expose others to the difficult topics and help them sort through.”
Corbett’s winning photo exemplifies his rebuilt life and was one of many photos taken in Santa Monica’s original Muscle Beach during a two-week visit to California.
As part of his Wheels UP! Photo Contest first-place win, Corbett will also receive a $1,000 Southwest Airlines e-gift card, courtesy of contest partner, Cure Medical, along with five copies of the November issue.
To learn more about Corbett’s road to recovery, visit his YouTube channel, Wheels2Walking.