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Paralyzed from the neck down, he has much to be thankful for

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    Paralyzed from the neck down, he has much to be thankful for

    Paralyzed from the neck down, he has much to be thankful for
    At first, Bill Freole asked God, "Why me?" Now he says he knows the answer.
    Journal Staff Writer

    William A. Feole doesn't really know how the accident happened. It was after midnight, in the early morning hours that Friday after Thanksgiving in 1983. But he knows he had been out drinking with two friends, and he knows the car rolled
    over -- once or twice -- and landed upright. He thinks he hydroplaned.

    Right after the accident, he reached up with his left hand to turn off the headlights, and he reached up with his right hand to cut the ignition.

    That was the last control he had over his hands.

    The injuries to his spinal cord that night left him paralyzed from the neck down.

    He remembers lying on a stretcher from 2 a.m. until at least 7 a.m. before an ambulance could transport him to a hospital equipped to handle spinal-cord injuries. He knows now that the more pressure put on the spinal cord, the more extensive and permanent the damage, and he'll always wonder whether better care might have made a difference.

    Some of Feole's first questions after the accident were to God:

    "Why me? Why didn't you heal me? What good am I as a cripple? If you really love me like you say you do, why are you letting me stay like this?"

    He has answers to those questions now.

    And in a letter to The Providence Journal a week before Thanksgiving, he wrote that he has a better quality of life today than he had before the accident.

    "Little did I know He had better plans for me and a purpose for everything," Feole says.

    "YOU MIGHT SAY before the accident my life was superficial," Feole said this week at the Zambarano Memorial Hospital unit of the Eleanor Slater Hospital, in Burrillville, where he has lived since April 5, 1988.

    Feole had worked seven years at Electric Boat making submarines. He liked playing softball. He had been on his high school swim team. An Eagle Scout at 14, he loved to camp and was a counselor for three years at Camp Yawgoog in Hopkinton.

    "I say superficial now because I've learned that it's the heart, soul and spirit that matter most," he says. "That's where the real fulfillment is, and I didn't have that."

    His relationships -- with some of the same people from before the accident and with new friends -- are more fulfilling now, he says.

    "To mom, dad, brother, sister and her family, to the best of your ability, with love and without reservation, you did everything a family could and should do to give me as meaningful a life as I could possibly have," he wrote in his Thanksgiving letter.

    Nineteen years ago, Bill Feole spent the holiday with his family, as usual. After the meal, he told his mother he was heading home.

    Jeannette Feole urged him not to go.

    There was a terrible rainstorm that night, and all she could think of was a premonition she had three months earlier that Bill was going to be hurt somehow.
    Jeannette Feole couldn't sleep that night.

    "I was still up when the phone rang," she says.

    Jeannette and Louis Feole, who are now 81 and 84, drove through that awful rainstorm to Kent County Memorial Hospital the night of Bill's accident.

    Because of the storm, Jeannette recalls, they couldn't get a helicopter to fly him to Boston that night.

    Jeannette says her son had a hard life -- even before the accident. He had major surgery at age 16 to correct the curving spine that scoliosis left him with.

    Doctors inserted a 12-inch steel rod along his spinal cord. They put him in a plaster cast that covered him from his shoulders to below his hips.

    At camp that summer, he wore a metal brace.

    Ten years later, after Bill's car accident, his parents sold their home in Cranston and moved into Bill's ranch house, in Warwick. His dad, other relatives and friends built an addition that Bill could easily access in his wheelchair.

    Louis Feole built a ramp so his son could get into the house from the back entrance and a deck where he could sit and look at the backyard. He installed a lift at the front door.

    And he raged.

    "I have to admit, I've been an angry person for a number of years because I could not accept what happened to him," Louis says. "And maybe still to this day. But I've learned to control myself now. If you made a remark that I didn't like, my anger would rise, but now I've calmed down quite a bit, but there's that little bit left. I guess it's something I'll never accept. To this day, I pray every day that they can find a cure for the spinal cord."

    Jeannette Feole dealt with the accident in a different way.

    "I have the sorrow," she says. "I don't have the anger."

    Louis and Jeannette learned from doctors and nurses how to care for their son. Louis helped him in and out of his wheelchair. Jeannette bathed him. They hired personal-care attendants to help, but they were his primary caregivers.

    But the once-active 27-year-old struggled. His basic activities were watching TV and staring out the sliding-glass doors.

    "I felt worthless and helpless," Bill Feole says. "I didn't think there was anything else life had to offer. When my body was taken away, I thought my life was over."

    His mother had arthritis, and Bill clearly remembers the morning she came into his room stooped over from the pain. He told her to go back to her room, and he'd stay in bed that day. But she said no.

    As she bathed her son, he told her, "Ma, you're not going to be able to keep doing this," he says. "And I know it broke her heart."

    But she agreed.

    And so, 4 1/2 years after his accident, he moved into Zambarano.

    "To my caretakers, especially those at the Eleanor Slater Hospital/Zambarano Unit in Pascoag, R.I., for 14 1/2 years you have continuously provided outstanding care, encouragement and support to me as well," he wrote in his Thanksgiving letter.

    Moving day was April 5, 1988, when Bill Feole was 31. He had three roommates, but he pretty much kept to himself for about a year.

    "I wasn't ready to venture downstairs to participate in activities," he says.
    Even now, Zambarano social worker Jeanne Duquette and teacher Nancy Coletta remember how much Bill stayed in bed at first.

    "Little by little, I found my way," Feole says.

    Duquette gave him a lot of space, but she also gave him some advice that stays with him to this day.

    "I was the one receiving the care, and I needed to reverse the roles from observer to participant," he recalls her saying.

    Until then, he had just been letting things happen to him.

    "Well, it's my life, and I had to decide if I was going to live my life or, I
    guess, let others live it for me, which really can't be done," he says.

    While still at home, he had taken a course offered by the Community College of Rhode Island that was televised. Without telling him first, his mother enrolled Feole in his first class. She bought him a VCR so he could tape the lessons, and she bought him a typewriter.

    At Zambarano, Duquette suggested Feole go back to school.

    He received a human services degree from CCRI in 1993, graduating with highest honors.

    "He's always got goals and then he's achieving them and moving on," Coletta says.

    "To my friends with disabilities at Zam and beyond, through your friendship and determination to live an improved quality of life, you have encouraged me to do the same," he wrote.

    Two residents who were on Zambarano's welcoming committee when he arrived -- Frank Beasley, whom residents call "the mayor," and Terry Medbery, who died two years ago -- helped him make the transition.

    Watching Beasley and Medbery riding around Zambarano in their wheelchairs -- "smiling all the time" -- reached him on a subconscious level, Feole says.
    He watched them advocate strongly for people with disabilities and for Zambarano.

    "Most of all, I thank God, who continues to bless me through all of you and those who shall become a part of my life. Lord, each day You provide for my needs and make Your presence known through the human angels who pray for me and reach out to me and others in need. Thank You, God," he wrote.

    BILL FEOLE HAS written the story of his life, and he's hoping to self-publish the 288-page book because he doesn't want some book editor to butcher his autobiography. But more than that, he doesn't want someone else making money off his book.

    He plans to use the profits to create his own nonprofit organization that will help people in need -- maybe with food baskets, poetry and other workshops and a lecture series .

    He writes poetry, including the book From the Heart that he self-published in 1996.

    Coletta remembers the younger Feole dictating his term papers to her to type. But no more.

    "Now he types himself, faster than me," she says. He uses a plastic straw-like tube that he holds in his mouth to tap away at the computer keys.

    His first CCRI professor, John Worsley, set him on a path of public speaking when he asked Feole to speak at the New England Organization of Human Services Education conference.

    He speaks to CCD classes from Our Lady of Good Help Catholic church in Mapleville. And he speaks to high school students -- about drinking and driving and choices, all through the story of his life.

    He tells students he was shy in high school. He kept to himself. And some friends he made were because of the adolescent pressure to fit in.

    "I told them I used to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana," he says. "And I told them that everybody's vulnerable. . . . I learned that I don't need alcohol and marijuana to be happy."

    He tells them to make choices for themselves, not somebody else.

    "And if they think it can't happen to them, I tell them it can because I used to say that," he says.

    Now he knows the answers to those questions of why.

    "I was lost, and I probably ignored His call and although He did not cause the accident -- it was caused by negative energy in the world that influences us to make poor choices -- God used the accident to bring me to a better place," he says. "The purpose of our trials is to teach us what we need to build endurance and perseverance, which leads to hope."

    He tells his audiences that if he were standing in front of them with the same message, it wouldn't have the same effect as when he's "sitting here in a crippled body in a wheelchair."

    For many years, Thanksgiving was a difficult day for Feole -- knowing that the anniversary of his accident was approaching.

    But just being at the table with his family is enough now.

    When asked what she's thankful for on this day, his mother says, "Me, I could just sit and cry -- to look at my children and my son."

    And her husband says, "I'm thankful that I still have all my family together, and we will all be together this Thanksgiving. That includes my granddaughters and their husbands and my two great grandsons."

    Feole's in a place now where he can offer words of wisdom to others on Thanksgiving.

    "Be thankful for what you have," he says. "Focus on your relationship with God and nurturing your heart, soul and spirit and everything else will fall into place. We have to learn, grow and help each other along this journey called life."

    Reporter Kate Bramson can be reached by e-mail at

    I know what you have much to be thankful for. I also try to appreciate what I have and try to think about positive sides.
    But One thing I hate is that you were saying you were a bad guy, used to smoke marijuana, ignored God's call........
    Accident was accident, not punishment from the God because you didn't follow him.
    I know some people believe that disabled people got a punishment from the God.
    Because of people like you, some people have fault idea about disability.

    Let's say someone tie all of your body and make you stay on a chair for your whole life because you are bad guy, smoke marijuana, don't follow his order.
    Can you still appreciate to that person?
    Please don't sell your disability to tell people how much you become a better person or to teach them. You are not that good person yet. You just cannot do it.