Welcome to the Conversations on Healing podcast, where host Shay Beider speaks with renowned healthcare leaders, practitioners, and thought leaders to explore the world of wellness, the incredible powers of self-care, and what it truly means to heal today. Join us on this journey to become more whole healed and connected.
Shay Beider: Hello everyone, and thanks for joining me on The Conversations on Healing podcast. I’m host Shay Beider, and today I have the beautiful opportunity to share an insightful conversation with Robert Paylor. While competing for the Collegiate Rugby National Championship, Robert suffered a spinal cord injury and found himself face down in the turf, unable to move anything below his neck. His doctor told him he would never walk or move his hands for the rest of his life. Through choosing to redefine his life purpose and reshape his identity, Robert found ways to transform his trauma into hope, and his since gone on to help others to find inspiration in his story. I’m really excited to invite you to listen to Robert’s story and the tools he continues to use to overcome personal challenges and support others in identifying and conquering the things in life that paralyze them. In the episode, Robert shares the details of that day that changed his life forever and how he’s learned the importance of perspective and maintaining a positive mindset. He offers insight about the support he received and how it impacted his outlook. He also talks about the important role his healthcare team played in helping him to navigate his healing journey and the value of a holistic whole systems approach that they took. I am really honored and delighted to share this conversation with you. Robert truly has a beautiful, unique and refreshing outlook on life, and there’s so much to learn from this conversation. So let’s get started.
Robert, I’m delighted to welcome you to the Conversations on Healing podcast. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Robert Paylor: Well, thank you for having me. I’m so excited to be here.
Yeah, I have to share with you, you and I had spoken previously and in my heart I was just thinking, oh, I am so delighted that we’re going to get to do this podcast together because the impression I was really left with is what a beautiful soul you have, your essence, whatever name we give to that, I feel like the essence of who you are has a lot to contribute and share in the world, and I can’t wait for our listeners to get to hear more about not only who you are and what you’re choosing to do, but really that essential part of you. I guess there’s something very deep inside of you that I would love for our listenes to get to enjoy as much as I did on first impression.
Thank you so much. You’re already making me blush at the beginning of the interview, so I appreciate it.
Okay, good. Well, it’s well deserved.
I feel like you and I had talked about this might be a good place to start the conversation, so I want to start with you had a pivotal life event, a life-changing experience that did alter the course of your life and moved it in a very different direction. And so in your own words, I want to give you an opportunity to share that story with everyone that’s listening.
Yeah, it’s critical. I mean, talk about just beautiful soul, excited to speak and share. This is all from that day. My life really hinged at that moment and coming up to this day, which was May 6th, 2017, I was a rugby player. I was an athlete. That was my passion. That was my purpose in my life growing up. I was always an athlete, but I didn’t even know what the sport of rugby was until I probably got into high school. It’s such a niche sport over here in America and eventually worked my way into high school over at Jesuit High School in Sacramento, which has one of the most successful rugby programs in America at the high school level that has more national championships than any other program. So obviously there’s quite a culture with it at the school and at the time I was playing football and basketball and my teammates on football, I had a lot of carry over to rugby and they’re saying, Robert, you got to try this sport.
It’s fun. We’re very competitive at it. Everybody’s playing. It’s not like just the starters having a great time, but everybody’s having a great time. So I was convinced. I went out and I tried it. I got MVP my first year playing. I was captaining the team. I went on to compete for two teams that went runner up for the best in the nation and eventually got my shoulder tapped to go play for UC Berkeley, which has more national champions than any collegiate rugby program in America. We’re at 33 total right now. And just to give some context to the audience of the success of the Cal Rugby program and what it meant for me to be competing in this game as a starter in a national championship, I think the only team that has more wins in terms of championships than the Cal rugby team at any level, any sport is the Harlem Globe Trotters and their games are rigged.
So we’re doing all right and we’re waking up just feeling those butterflies in my stomach where it’s this mixture of nerves and excitement too. You’re ready to go. You’re ready to compete and being in that locker room with my teammates and it’s kind of that low murmur of chatter going on and that intensity, you can really feel it in the room. And very early on in this game, I was competing in a mall, which for those who don’t know the language of rugby, is one of the bigger guys. We grouped together in a single unit and then we push to advance the ball. The defense’s job is to come straight in and stop us from pushing forward. It’s very much the boiler room and it’s where the big guys thrive, and I was a big guy six five, and at the time I was about 240, 245 pounds. I was on that field to move people, just moving people that don’t want to move, and we’re five meters out from scoring this thing. I mean, I’m practically drilling here on the field thinking, let’s go Robert Drive this thing in. And as I’m doing that, the opposing players, they start making these illegal moves and the referee wasn’t calling anything. So immediately three players entering from the side of the all things you’re not allowed to do, but the ref’s not calling it, and they’re number eight, he binds me in a headlock. He’s kind of got my chin pinned down to my chest. Now, normally in rugby, this is an automatic yellow or a red card. You do that and you’re immediately suspended from the game or kicked out of the game altogether, but the ref doesn’t call it. And in my mind I’m thinking there’s a lot of things going wrong in this mall, but I’m not just going to stand up and throw my arms out to the side and look at the ref and say, Hey, are you going to call this thing?
I’m just going to keep moving forward. And that’s what I do. I keep my shoulder level down, I keep my legs pumping. As I do that, another player comes in and he chops me down by my legs. I start falling down. I’m trying to get my head back up, but I’m pinned into this arm lock. He’s kind of improved his mind torquing my head towards the ground. And I just remember I closed my eyes, I grit my teeth, I made impact with the ground, and then it was just poof, got awful crunch in my neck and immediately disconnected from my entire body. I can’t move anything. I can’t feel anything completely conscious and aware of what was going on in my mind, but totally disconnected from my body, and terror just washed over me and overtook my mind. I knew that I had broken my neck.
I had seen stories of things like this happening before with other athletes and getting those updates years later. And these poor souls a lot of times just don’t have a lot of physical progression. It’s the nature of these injuries. It’s chronic, it’s catastrophic, and I start questioning all my goals and I’m thinking, am I ever going to be able to play rugby again? This is the thing that made me feel most alive. I’m thinking, am I ever going to be able to go back to school? Am I going to be able to just see my friends, graduate, walk, all these things. I’m thinking more importantly, am I even going to feed myself ever again? I mean, I was just facing the dirt in terror, trying to just breathe, which was difficult at the time. And eventually I get transported over to the hospital. He take a series of medical imaging.
My doctor comes back, he tells me the worst thing that I could have heard, and he says, Robert, your injury is bad, really bad. And the reality is you’ll never walk again. You’ll never move your hands, and we’re going to do our best. So one day you can do something like pick up a piece of pizza and bring it to your face. If you can just feed yourself, you beat all the odds. And he also recommends spinal fusion surgery. He explains to me that this surgery is potentially life-threatening for me. The surgery was performed, the esophagus over to be able to operate on the spinal cord. A lot of important real estate right here. I mean, if things get a little bit off, things can get bad really quick. And at that time, my body was already in pretty rough shape. I had a fever around 103 degrees, kind of spiked up to 105 at one point. My body was in shock. I didn’t know what to do. And he told me before I went into this surgery that I could make some phone calls. So the first phone call I made was to my religious advisor. I was asking for prayers, I was asking for advice. I’m a man of faith. It’s very important to me. And in this situation, I needed God with me through this journey. So he gave me this piece of advice. It’s just carried me ever since. And he gave me a lot of power and what should have been a completely powerless situation. And he said, Robert, throughout this journey, there’s going to be a lot of things that you just can’t control. But the one thing you’ll always have control over is your mindset. So your positivity, your ambition, your willingness to wake up every day and fight this challenge is up to you. This injury can’t take that away from you. And that gave me a lot of what I needed because in this moment, I mean I didn’t have a lot. I didn’t have the odds on my side. I didn’t have these signs of progression, movement or feelings showing up at my body. I didn’t have some doctors saying that everything was going to be okay, but I did have my mindset. I had that choice to absorb everything that just happened to me and respond in a way that made me better to not let my emotions or my circumstances control my outcomes, but allow my response to control my outcomes. So that’s what I gripped onto, and that gave me more courage to go into the surgery. So I said my prayers and I said goodbye to my family. I got rolled into that operating room and that concluded May 6th, 2017, the most life-changing day of my life.
And I would imagine from that point forward, Robert, that all of your primary relationships were very deeply impacted by this injury and by this enormous change in your life. And you obviously already mentioned that relationship with this religious leader who is important to you and as a person of faith, someone you could turn to, and how important in that pivotal moment, what was said to you, how much value held? I’m curious what you learned and experienced through some of your other primary relationships while you were in the very early stages of this injury.
Yeah, everything was deepened mostly in positive ways, in some bad ways as well. I’ll say some negative ways. Number one would be my family. That was probably the hardest moment of these last six years was the first time I saw my parents, which was just moments after my injury. They were there at the game and I always tried to be so strong for them. I always tried to make them proud. And I remember laying there on that turf completely broken. I mean, just as weak as I could possibly be, physically, mentally, emotionally. And I was just crying when they came over. And the only thing I could say was just, I love you more than anything in the world. That’s all I could get through my tears. And I’ll never forget, of course, they said, we love you too. And they didn’t say everything’s going to be okay, because it is not okay. My life was just completely changed. But they said, we will always be here for you. We will never leave your side. And it rang so true and they’ve really helped through in that commitment. My mom slept on a chair by my bedside every single night for two months. It was two months she just slept in that chair and she was someone to talk to, and she scratched my nose when it did. She brought my tears when I cried. My brother, who was my little brother, another person I always tried to be strong for, I wanted to be a role model for him. I remember being in that hospital bed on the day of my injury, and my brother actually wasn’t at the game. He had to go take an SAT that day. So he of course got the news right when he got out of his test. He came down with some extended family members. And when he was about to come into that room, I told my mom, when he comes in here, he is not allowed to cry. I can’t handle that negative emotion right now. I’m just trying to keep it together. It was a tall ask because we were very close. We didn’t grow up in a neighborhood with a bunch of kids and stuff where you’d come back from school, do your homework and start playing. It was me and him. So we did everything together and we weren’t the kind of brothers who would, I’d have my headlock knock on the top of his head or anything like that. We were really close. And he came into that room and I couldn’t really look at him. And we haven’t talked about this moment since, but he was probably the strongest person in the room on that day because he didn’t show emotion.
And he even held my phone in front of me as I FaceTimed my best friends before I went into surgery, not knowing if I was going to make it out of there or not. And I mean, since then he has stepped up in so many different ways to support me throughout this injury that’s just a kind of depth of a relationship that you really can’t achieve throughout hardship, throughout adversity. And I’m so grateful for the ways that they stepped up and this stems over to my rugby team and how they put together my entire schedule on a spreadsheet when I returned back to Cal and they would sign up for these classes to help me navigate around Cal’s campus for the listeners and the audience. The hills of Berkeley are a lot. It’s kind of like San Francisco. I mean, they make movies about these hills and being in a wheelchair, I needed help.
So they would help me do that. And I wouldn’t have graduated without my rugby teammates and just even strangers with the global rugby community giving me their love, giving me their support, my relationships were deepened in so many ways. And I did mention that there was some negative impact to things as well. And there have been times when I returned back to college especially, and people were going to parties or doing things and there’s stairs to get into the house and they’d say, oh, sorry, you can’t be a part of this, but I’ll see you later. And that hurt. And those are the people who I didn’t spend as much of my time with after my injury. But then there was those other friends who said, if Robert can’t do it, I can’t do it. And I always really appreciated that. So people just stepped up in so many different ways for me, I’m so grateful and I really wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for those people.
Yeah, lots of important primary relationships, and I do hope you have an opportunity to talk to your brother directly about that moment at some point because I also bet he has a lot of tears in there that would like to be expressed around. He must have felt so much in that moment, but as you wished was able to stay strong for you and sort of what a way to exhibit brotherly love. So, very deep connection between the two of you. I also want to have an opportunity, Robert, to go into the whole medical experience of this because like you said, the first words you heard from a doctor after this injury felt very damning. Like, this is it. This is how it’s going to be. And that was, I know from what you shared with me, an extremely hard way to have to experience that first moment. But I also know you had other moments that were different, that were much more positive. So I wanted to give you a chance to talk about your medical experience too and what worked and what also was not helpful to you during this ordeal.
Yeah, yeah. First I do, because you said I did have some positive moments and caregivers and whatnot on my corner. And one thing that I want to mention really quick is the difference between false hope and false hopelessness, which is so critical for this kind of bedside manner approach that I received early on. That first doctor when he gave me that really horrific news, he wasn’t a bad person and this wasn’t news that he wanted to deliver. He was duty bound to give me an honest prognosis. And that was the reality of my situation at the time. 99 times out of a hundred, he probably would’ve been right, but I think the risk that he ran in trying not to give me false hope through those words that he shared with me, is he could have given me false hopelessness, which is just as dangerous, probably even worse than giving someone false hope. I think. Because think if I were to have taken his words as fact and just thought, there’s really no point in me even trying to heal through this injury, I might as well just accept what happened to me, which is that everything I’ve known in my entire life is gone and it’s never coming back. And I certainly wouldn’t be here today in the capacity that I am. I don’t know if I even would’ve made it through the medical issues that ensued like pneumonia without an ability to cough or not being able to swallow even for about three weeks. I mean, I was really fighting for my life and I needed hope. I needed some kind of realistic hope, so I got that encouragement from others, but eventually I made my way over to a place called Craig Hospital just outside of Denver, Colorado with specializes in spinal cord injuries and traumatic brain injuries.
And, their approach was just perfect in terms of that bedside manner. They said, Robert, yes, what happened to you is terrible. It’s catastrophic and it is chronic, but we don’t know where you’re going to progress from here. You might walk out of these doors one day and you very well might not, but the one thing that we’re going to guarantee you is we will give you everything that modern science and medicine has to optimize your recovery. You have the full strength, support and belief of our team. And this approach was perfect because it wasn’t false hope. They weren’t saying that everything was going to be okay, and it wasn’t false hopelessness. They weren’t saying that everything was doom and gloom and that I didn’t have a chance. They didn’t know, which of course is correct, but they gave me their support and it was really realistic.
We always hoped for the best, but we prepared for the worst and used everything that I had at the given moment to have as much independence as I possibly could return back to my life and doing the things that I wanted to achieve and the things that I loved to do. So that was an immensely positive experience, and that really carried over medically to where I showed up to every rehab session, which at the time, my full schedule was probably about eight to nine hours a day with physical therapy, occupational therapy, even recreational therapy, doing things that I used to enjoy doing in new and adaptive ways, educational settings, learning about the ins and outs of a spinal cord injury, which are much more extensive than just the inability to move than just paralysis or inability to feel. These are things that I needed to learn and I deal with in my day-to-day life and will deal with for the rest of my life that they really put a lot of stress on internalizing and support groups.
I’m meeting with a therapist talking through the trauma of this injury and getting through that mentally. Of course, what happened to me was an incredible identity crisis, was once a very, very strong physically kind of guy and walk into a room and people sort of turn heads, wow, this is kind of a presence, a physical presence coming into the room. And just a few months later found myself where I’m looking into the mirror and I can see the ridges in my sternum and I’m looking at my body and it’s virtually unrecognizable. I needed to work through that with someone.
They really approached this injury from a more holistic sense, and it served me very well to give some spoilers to the audience. My upper body has made a really tremendous recovery, almost a full recovery, and I can get up into my walker. I can walk about 400 yards now is my best. So a far cry from being lucky to be able to pick up a piece of pizza or to be able to feed myself. And not only that, but I live with great purpose in my life and I’ve been able to embrace this new identity that I have a story to share, a selfless purpose, to be able to help others get through their challenges. So the second hospital, they just had a wonderful approach and they carried over in so many ways into my life.
What a great example for other medical providers that are listening to hear what was so effective in that communication and what a difference it makes between, like you said, there’s a place other than false hope or false hopelessness. And it sounds like they found that place just perfectly.
I want to touch on, you’ve mentioned this idea that you had to sort of redefine or recreate not only your life purpose, but even your identity. And I want to talk about both how you were able to recreate both of those things and that the process behind it, and also what do you think allowed you to do that? Because some people might not find the internal courage to decide to redefine themselves so fully and recreate a direction for their life and redefine the life purpose. So I’m interested in both what you did and why you think you were able to do it.
It was quite a process. I mean, I would say it’s something that took years, maybe four years before I could really shift that identity and embrace it and be proud of it, to be grateful for it. It’s something that took time. And I think with any immense change in life that happens to anybody, I think it’s good to come in with the expectation that it’s going to take time to not expect any quick fixes or to just hear that one thing and it just changes everything. It’s consistency and it’s maintaining that hope for something in the future, but realizing that it does take time. So when we have our bad days to just treat it as a bad day and to have a more long-term picture. So I think that’s something that’s good for me to state initially. But I think going into that why I think it has a lot to do with just understanding that my life has meaning and everybody’s life has meaning. So it’s worth fighting for, and it’s worth not just trying to achieve survival, but really trying to flourish and really being able to wake up every day and be grateful for that day to embrace it and to appreciate to use it for good. My faith gave me a lot of that, I’ll say kind of a belief in something bigger than just the immediate challenges that I was going through and understanding that my life had meaning. And I think what really helped me to transform my into looking into the mirror and seeing one of weakness to seeing one of strength now is rooting my purpose in selfless endeavors. And really this has all changed through speaking and through sharing my story on social media and mediums like this, and now for my career, which is public speaking to help others overcome their adversities through the tools that have helped me with mine.
And very early on, one of my best friend’s mom had set up a GoFundMe page to help pay for the expenses of my rehabilitation. As you can imagine, breaking your neck is not a financially smart decision. The bills are immense and insurance doesn’t cover a lot of stuff. We needed help. So I received a lot just amazing financial contributions that have just changed my trajectory, really wouldn’t be here where I’m today without that assistance. But it was those messages of support and encouragement as I continued to share updates of my progress and my rehabilitation that started showing me this injury actually gave me something. My injury took so much away from my life, but it gave me this very powerful gift, which is this story to share and these tools that I had to learn to then share with others that are handling their own unique adversities.
And it kind of stemmed from that to moving over into speaking where I can share my story to an audience and these principles, and they’re laughing, they’re crying, there’s a standing ovation, and here I am thinking I might be like, I feel so strong. I feel so fulfilled. Strength is always something that was very, very important to me. Of course, on the rugby field, more is a physical capacity to be mentally tough, a disciplined person. And this injury kind of changed the way I had to interpret that. But going through what I’ve been through these last six years, I feel very confident that I can take on a lot more. And my perspective has shifted on challenges to not view them as negatives, but to view a lot of them as opportunities and a chance to achieve great success. There isn’t great success without great adversity, and that changed a lot for me. So I think understanding that it takes time, I think understanding that our lives have meaning and then trying to root that new identity and that new purpose in a selfless endeavor really puts us on a wonderful path to embracing what happens to us and to be stronger for it.
Yeah, that’s great. Very well described and defined. You really hit all the key points there for you that I think will be relatable to others that are hearing your story. I want to touch as well, Robert, on this idea of forgiveness because in going through an experience like this, anyone is going to have to reckon with, do I forgive, do I not forgive? What does forgiveness even mean? There’s got to be a reckoning. And, I understand you have not had any communication since the injury with the person who had your head in a headlock. And so I want to explore with you how you have come to think about even this concept of forgiveness and where you are with it currently.
Yeah, this was one of the most significant healing journeys that I needed to go through. And it began almost right away in the moment of my injury, it was pretty unclear exactly how the events of this play had unfolded. These malls have massive bodies. It was all very quick, hard to see things. I was just in the heat of the moment in this rugby game trying to score, and some events happened, the mall collapsed, which is very common from malls to collapse. And something happened that led to my injury. And the game footage really didn’t really tell much either. So anyways, in the following days, this evidence started to produce itself through sideline footage or just bystanders holding up a phone that what happened to me was blatantly illegal. There was a bind that was put around my neck. Yes, there were other penalties that ensued within that mall, but this was the critical one that led to me breaking my neck if I would’ve just fallen and been able to keep my head up. So, if I would’ve just sort of slid on my chest, I would’ve been completely fine. I mean, I’ve been in hundreds of malls, probably more than a thousand malls in my rugby playing career. About half of these collapse. And every single time everybody just gets up and you keep on playing. But there was something that happened in this that made the outcomes quite different. And it was clearly this binder on my neck, and I was sitting here in this hospital room, can’t move anything, can’t feel anything. I have pneumonia, I can’t swallow. Death was with me in that room just waiting for me to quit. And all of these things I was going through was because of someone else’s actions. I didn’t make any regrettable decisions. I was trying to make the most out of my life and through athletic pursuits, and I just had a rage within me that I can’t even describe. I mean, I wanted this guy to hurt. I was hurting.
And like you mentioned, he’s never reached out to me and he is never said he’s sorry. And my faith also helped me guide through this as well, to always choose forgiveness. It was kind of like one of those W.W.J.D., “what would Jesus do” types moments, to be completely honest from the beginning, but just also a realization that I didn’t want to live my life with hate. And I’ve encountered some people that said, Robert, if something like that happened to me, I would use that fire to kind of fuel me, sort of like I’m going to show him type thing. And honestly, I think if you stand too close to the fire for too long, you’re going to get burned, and nobody should live with hate in their heart their entire life. So through these kind of faith principles, but also just what I believe was most important for me, I chose to forgive this person.
And people would come up and ask me, Robert, what do you think about this guy? What’s your take? And I would say, I forgive him and I wish him well, but I still failed that hate within me. Those negative emotions didn’t just vanish because I said once that I forgive this person and I wish him well. It was another one of those journeys, a process, something that I had to be patient with and consistent with. So I never missed a beat. Whenever anybody would ask me, what do I think about this person? Whenever anything about him came up in conversation, I would always stick to how I forgive him and how I do wish him well, regardless of how I was feeling or regardless of how I wanted to lash out. And as time went on and I continued to say those words, that hatred slowly went down, the animosity slowly vanished to where here I am today completely freed from all those negative attachments because I chose forgiveness because I just chose to focus on what I could control and to move on. So forgiveness is, I think one of the few generalities that just always applies in life because it’s not for just relieving guilt from the person who did wrong, it’s about removing those negative attachments from the person who has done wrong too. And I didn’t make the saying, but I’ve heard it before, that choosing not to forgive someone is drinking poison and expecting it to hurt them. I think all these things are very true. It’s so important if someone does this wrong or in these moments where we might need to forgive ourselves about something or probably most applicably, those situations that we can’t control in life that just hold us back. There’s moments where we feel like the universe is just against us. We always have to choose forgiveness. We have to be able to let these things go because forward is where we’re moving and looking back behind our shoulder is just not going to help from that kind of negative perspective of harboring hatred, stuff like that. Important to just move on and important to continue to say those words when they’re most difficult.
And it’ll be interesting if you ever do have an opportunity to communicate with him directly and to speak to one another, which obviously that’s a choice too. You get to decide that as well, should he want to communicate with you. But I would imagine there’s a very interesting opportunity for both of you in that, because my hunch would be there’s a lot of pain inside of him around what happened, and it’s probably part of why he’s not been able to reach out to you.
Yeah. Yeah. It very well probably is a part of it. It’s kind of interesting. I heard a lot of different perspectives, some legal perspectives, right.
Yeah, there’s that too.
Yeah, which is of course very unfortunate. And others like that tough to come to grips with it, sort of like denial, things like that. Whatever it is. I do hope it happens because gone through my healing process on that, and I really hope he does too, because I do forgive him, and I know he didn’t try to break my neck. He didn’t want this, but I do think it’s an important thing to own up to and to reconcile.
Absolutely. Yeah. After the accident, there were different things that people said or did that were beneficial or maybe not so not helpful. And I think it’s a very good opportunity for our listeners to hear when a big hard life event happens, which can look a lot of different ways. In your case, it was having an injury that created some paralysis in your body that was very significant at first and has gotten thank goodness much, much, much better over time. But it could be a cancer diagnosis, it could be a car accident, it could be a death of a child, it could be so many things, but it’s a huge, enormous life-changing event that’s undeniable and hard, very hard in the moment, but something that you have a choice of how you’re going to get through it. And sometimes when those moments happen, people say things that help. Like that team in Denver said some things that really helped. And sometimes people say things that really hurt. You gave an example of that false hopelessness. So I would love for you to share some other examples of what was said or done that was either clearly positive and helpful to you or that you would identify as in general, that wouldn’t be a good thing to say or do.
Yeah. Yeah. Inclusivity has always been such a positive for me. I’m an active person at heart. I want to be in the action. I want to be a part of everything, but of course I have some physical obstacles now to making that happen. There has to be, things need to be more tailored to my needs to be able to be a part of things that can be big stuff like being able to do internships and whatnot in the beginning of my injury and have a career that can be small things like you’re just at a backyard barbecue and want to play some cornhole or something like that. And those actions of inclusivity have always helped me a lot, especially from that identity perspective, to not see myself as an outsider kind of dwelling on the things that I can’t do, but really appreciating the abilities that I do have and those moments that I can share with others.
So every act of inclusivity has been such a positive for me. And also I think it just doesn’t have to be a lot to be an inclusive person or to help someone going through a big change, but just presence really meant a lot to me. And that could be the wonderful things that my friends and teammates and others did to travel out to Denver to come see me when I was doing my rehab. And that can be just a FaceTime call on a weekend when I had a lot of free time. And that always really meant a lot to me. And we don’t need to talk about my injury and we don’t need to talk about how things have changed, but just have a conversation as friends or as family members, that always helped me a lot. And while I was going through much at that time to still appreciate every day and to realize that I got the gift of life today, and that’s such a gift. No matter what I was going through, I was always so lucky to have the gift of life and just that steadfast support, just presence was always really helpful to me as well. So I think that’s something important to focus on those moments where you don’t talk about the Andrea or the life change, but just to treat it as another day that you’re grateful for. That always helped me.
And I want to talk about the pivot you’ve made in your life at this stage. You’ve decided, you’ve redefined your whole career, you’ve determined that you’re now working as an international speaker, you’ve booked a number of events doing that, and I’m sure we’ll continue to book many, many more. And my guess also is that there’s something arising deep within you that’s motivating you to want to speak, right? Because public speaking is about a voice. It’s about communicating something important. And along with that, I know you’re also working on your first book. Your working title on that is Paralyzed to Powerful. And what’s underneath that? What’s motivating you to write this book to do public speaking? Tell us more about that.
Yeah, it has a lot to do with what we discussed previously about building a new identity because I lost my purpose when I had my injury, my purpose was rooted in athletics, it was rooted around those physical pursuits that had completely changed, and I needed something new. I remember the first speech that I gave, it was in a Cal class and a sports management class. I had got it into the business school over there. And professor’s also a very close friend of mine who had supported me through that application process and putting together a formidable application. And eventually I made my way back to Cal and we got some coffee and he’s like, okay, Robert, you’re like ate to me for the support is I really want you to come and speak to my class because your challenges are very visible. People look at me and they see a person in a wheelchair. I mean, I have a physical disability that can be seen. It’s very, very apparent. But he said, there’s a lot of students in my class going through much in their lives right now. They’re dealing with the loss of a loved one. There’s people dealing with illnesses. Those challenges can’t be seen. But these tools that have helped you to overcome your challenge, I bet can help them overcome their challenges too. So I, I’d really love for you to share that story and most importantly, share those principles that have helped you through your spinal cord injury from a mental perspective, from an emotional perspective. So, I sat down with my rugby coach, who is the most successful rugby coach in America. I mean, just one of the best in the world. But I was so blessed to have him as my coach and continued as a mentor. He’s also a great speaker with a great interest for my story. So we sat down and we started thinking about what are these principles? How can I really put this into words and relate it to what somebody else is going through? And eventually crafted this message around going from paralyzed to powerful that I have this journey of overcoming physical paralysis, but everybody has a overcoming mental paralysis, emotional paralysis, even spiritual paralysis, just things that stop us from being our best. So I went into this class, and at first I had the whole speech out written out in front of me, of course, and I think it was around 20 minutes at the time, which was very long for my experience at the time. And so I started doing my thing and people are laughing at the jokes and in these really intense moments, there’s people wiping away tears in the end, standing ovation and questions and answers and one-on-one conversations afterwards of people really pouring out their heart and soul of what they were going through and how the speech helped them.
And I remember getting back to my dorm room on that day and just thinking, I want to do this every single day of my life. I mean, how fun, how fulfilling I had gotten back that purpose that I had lost and my cup was overflowing. So I just decided this is what I want to do. And eventually had the opportunity to do it with some corporate audiences, and they said, Robert, you can do this for a career. And I’m like, really? It’s kind of amazing. That’s something that’s so fun, could be called work. So, I feel so lucky to be able to do it. It fills all those desires that I have to know that my life has meaning and that I’m using each one of these days that I’m blessed with for good and to shape a new identity. And I’m so grateful for the opportunity to speak.
A lot of power in that. That’s for sure. As this is the Conversations on Healing podcast, I’d like to hear in your own words about what you have come to understand healing is because you’ve had to address obviously physical healing, but as you’ve identified in this conversation, it’s been much more than that. There was also emotional and psychological and spiritual aspects of this journey to heal, and all of those, it sounds like have been a critical part of your process and practice of redefining how you want to live your life. And so I’d like to hear, if I just pose the question to you of how would you define or describe what healing is? What do you think your answer might be?
Yeah, that’s a wonderful question and something that I’ve pondered for a long time, thinking about healing, and also just thinking about success in my injury because I’m still in a wheelchair and I still deal with a lot of physical challenges brought on by my injury. I deal with atrophy and just everything throughout my day is just a little harder because of my injury. Some things a lot harder. And I mean, there’s a good shot that I’ll go through this injury and my goal on day one was to be able to be wheelchair independent, whether that’s with a walker or crutches or a cane or nothing at all. I just wanted to stand up from this wheelchair and never sit back down and I’m not there yet. And if you look at the statistics, the statistics say that I’ll probably never get there. Does that mean that I wasn’t successful and does that mean that I’m not healed?
I think the answer is absolutely not, because for me, I would define healing as being able to endure everything that happens to us and still be happy, to still be positive, to still be grateful for every day in any challenge that happens to us. There’s always going to be that initial fallout and things that we’ve discussed today, identity shifts, maybe a loss of purpose. I think at that moment when we find that purpose in our lives, when we find that joy in what we have and when we have gratitude for every single day, I think that’s when we’ve healed and it’s something that we have to continue to work on. It’s not a one and done thing, but I’ve experienced that in my life, finding new purpose and finding new joy and finding gratitude. I consider myself healed in that regard, and I consider myself successful about this injury in that regard.
Robert, why do you think it is that gratitude and joy have been so important in this healing journey for you as kind of practices and visceral experiences in your day-to-day?
Yeah, I think it’s because it’s a couple of the things that I can always influence and that I maintain some control over. I don’t think we can control whether we’re happy or sad by flipping a switch, but I do think it’s something that we can influence in the ways that we see the world and the thoughts that we choose to express and give power to. We can influence some control over the words that we say and the conversations that we have and the material that we interact with. And that was something that I could control even in my lowest moments, was choosing to express thoughts of gratitude and not focusing on the things that I have lost or choosing to express the positives that are going on in my life or the things that I was looking forward to and not focusing on the negatives of what I was enduring at the time or the things that I lost in the past. So I think that’s why they’re so important to me because that’s something that I can have influence over.
It’s interesting, something that you said reminded me of the work of a doctor and an author named Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. She’s a New York Times bestselling author, and she’s written a number of books, but she herself has had a chronic health condition for the majority of her life. She wrote a paper that I’ve always loved that talks about the differences between healing and fixing or curing and how they’re not the same thing. And she talks very openly herself about there’s things in her body that aren’t going to be fixed. They are as they are. She lives with a chronic condition. Certain things have gotten better and certain things haven’t, and that fixing really isn’t necessarily going to happen in her body as she describes it at this stage, but that there have been people along the way who helped her to heal and that her healing process has endured throughout her entire life. And sometimes it was in very simple or subtle ways that people treated her. An example might be from your story, from something you’ve shared, that inclusivity, the people who just were like, yeah, you’re part of this, we’re doing it together, where it wasn’t even a second thought. It was just a first thought. Of course, we’re in it together, we’re doing it together, and that’s it. So the ways that sometimes we’re treated can communicate a lot to us about who we are and how we fit into a community, a family, and can help us to heal. And she, I think, has done a wonderful job at, because she is a healthcare provider, she’s an md and went to medical school and she has over her career worked quite a bit with young physicians to help to teach them some of these principles that you’re not always going to be able to fix everything medically and actually that’s not always the point. A lot of times you’re really trying to access something much deeper, like what we’ve talked about in this conversation today around could you maybe support somebody in a direction of finding a sense of hope, in finding a sense of, my life may be different now, but perhaps I can use that. Perhaps that can be fertilizer for something good that’s yet to come and that it’s a process and a practice, and that as clinicians, we have a choice too, not to see that as a negative, but to actually see it’s just another aspect of a healing journey. So, it’s fun to think about that. And so I’m going to thank Rachel Naomi Remen for her life’s work that has helped to make a little bit more of this explicit, I think it’s very valuable to give language to some of it.
Yeah, it is. That’s very eloquently put, and I immensely relate to that, and I think that’s a very holistic approach to a healing process to recognize all parts of a person, and not just those physical aspects, but those really deep intrinsic things now.
I know I think about Robert in my own story. I was one of those people who could have been in that class at UC Berkeley, where you first had that big speaking opportunity where a lot of my injuries in my early life, and I had a number of them. They weren’t the visible kind. They weren’t the kind that when I walked into a room, someone saw them, but nonetheless, my goodness, they were there. They were present in my being and in my system, and I learned a number of things from that. I learned that on the one hand, there was a good fortune that I didn’t always have to reveal my sort of deepest trauma just by walking into a room, because that is a thing. You don’t get to not do that, right? You don’t get to not do that because it’s a different situation and not that that’s bad or good, but I guess I did at some point, I came to understand that it was also nice that I had an opportunity to decide when I was going to disclose certain things or not, and that not everyone had that opportunity, just simply to recognize it not as a good or a bad, but to recognize it. And I think I also came to understand just certain places of privilege inside of myself, very much in the way I’m hearing your understanding, which is that if I was able to go through a process of healing some of the most difficult things that had occurred in my life, than that would essentially give me a basis of understanding and really a development of knowledge and over time wisdom that could be used to support the wellbeing of others. And that really is what motivated me to start a nonprofit organization to now have served thousands of people in the community and the hospital and palliative care and the whole bunch of different settings. But the whole origin and inception of that was my own willingness to deal with my own pain. And it’s ongoing. I don’t want to say it’s like, oh, it’s a one and done, because that would also be ridiculous. It’s a process and it’s probably a lifelong process and journey. But I actually think there are a lot of parallels to what you’ve chosen to do, obviously with a different set of circumstances, a different life, a different background, a different history, family, et cetera. But it seems to me, Robert, you’ve chosen to take your pain and to find ways to work through it and with it and to come to different understandings of what it means to heal, and then to transform that into a new identity and life purpose that can allow you to do really meaningful, as you said, selfless work that will hopefully help inspire thousands, who knows, maybe one day millions of people, right? So what a great gift that would be.
Yeah. Yes, it’s an immense gift, but that’s really beautifully put there, Shay. I really couldn’t have said it any better than myself.
Well, thank you. So as we bring our conversation to an end, I just want to see if there’s anything else that it feels like, ooh, I just want to share that, say that, have an opportunity to speak it. I think your voice is so important, so I just want to extend that invitation to you.
Yeah, thank you. One thing that I do enjoy speaking on that I think would be good to mention in a healing process is to always maintain a really good sense of perspective and to practice perspective, to be active in the perspective that we choose. I really think that perspective is the key to happiness. It’s not always just success and happiness and healing. I don’t think it’s always just about the circumstances that happened to us, but rather the way that we interpret the circumstance or respond to the circumstance and perspective has a lot to do with that. I remember there was a time when I was walking around my house pretty recently doing a rehab session, and it wasn’t a good rehab session, just having a tough time walking, and my mom was helping me out, and she’s standing right behind me and I’m complaining and talking about just how hard it is, and I just stopped and looked back at my mom and I’m like, old Robert Palor would’ve just slapped me across the face if he could. Like, I’m complaining about walking right now. There’s oftentimes that I need to shift my perspective to remember the tough parts that I’ve been through in my life, and to always remember the people who I’ve seen witness or who I’ve witnessed going through really immense challenges who would probably give anything to be in my situation, to realize that there’s millions of people in this world who would rather be in my situation than their own. And to use that to help me overcome what I’m going through. And there’s a saying that I use a lot that gives me a quick perspective shift, and the saying is, compared to what, so I’ll say, I’m really tired right now, but compared to what or, there’s a lot that I’m going through, but compared to what, there’s a lot that I can do, and there’s a lot that I do have now that saying, compared to what, and this whole principle of practicing perspective is not meant to dismiss our challenges, I think it’s very unhealthy if we dismiss our challenges. If we do that, it just ignores it and it’ll never go away. But, what it is meant to do is just put our challenges down in perspective to just help us realize that what we go through is overcomeable and there’s so much that we can achieve. So that’s something kind of my last words of wisdom that I’d like to share, to always to practice perspective through our own experiences, through others’ experiences, to help us always be able to realize those positives that we have in our lives and to be able to just get through our days.
Well, I want to thank you so much, Robert. It’s been an absolute delight to have you on the show, and I see you as such a bright, like I said at the beginning of our conversation, such a bright spirit, such a bright being, and I can just only imagine what your future will behold. I think it will be absolutely gorgeous and magnificent, and I know that your voice and your presence and just your essential nature will have an opportunity to touch so many lives and help so many people so I am very grateful that you’re doing the good work that you’re choosing to do.
Well, thank you so much, Shay. This is an absolute joy for me. I’m just beaming with positivity and really appreciate the opportunity to be here. So thank you so much.
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