DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Life goes up and down for David Aldrich, a quadriplegic living in Palm Beach County, Fla.
Lately it’s been down. Aldrich, 55, is broke.
In 2002, Aldrich toppled from his yacht near Peanut Island with a bone-crunching thud. It left him immobile and blind. In the hospital, clicking his tongue once for yes and twice for no, he told doctors to pull the plug. Arrangements were made.
Then he changed his mind. He decided to try living this new way. Aldrich’s struggle reached the public’s attention when the Sun Sentinel and National Geographic documented his trips to China for stem cell treatments. He has since regained muscle and vision.
But treatments and care came at a steep cost, and now he risks losing the trappings of independence he worked fiercely to maintain.
“I’m faced with the prospect of having to go into a facility,” he said recently at his Delray Beach home.
His desire to be home, to play with his dog, is what helped keep him alive. It’s what motivated him to exercise even when the payoff seemed meager (after 11 years, he finally has the strength to sit up on his own).
“I can’t get out of bed. I can’t go for a walk. I can’t put my arms around a girl,” he told a Sun Sentinel reporter in 2003 when the wounds were still fresh.
Being home gives him dignity, he said.
He still can’t do those things, but he has made great strides, emotionally and physically.
“My time with David was exceptional,” said Norma Anderson, 55, who has been Aldrich’s home-care nurse since 2003. She was his sidekick at the gym, where she strapped his arms to weight machines.
“He would push himself,” she said.
Parts of Aldrich’s story remain unexplained.
The first mystery is his fall. Aldrich was a successful yacht salesman. On Memorial Day 2002, he stepped away from his friends to check the line on his boat’s anchor. He remembers nothing but guesses he slipped.
Minutes later, friends pulled him out of shallow water.
“I think it put the most strain on my parents,” said Aldrich’s sister, Karen Powell, 64, a nurse practitioner in Pennsylvania. “For the first year that he was in the hospital they were with him every day.”
The second mystery is Aldrich’s restored eyesight. Before two trips to China, in 2006 and again in 2008, Aldrich could only see light and dark. Now he can read enlarged icons on his desktop computer.
Doctors in China gave him experimental stem cell therapies in which neutral cells are injected into body parts to regrow damaged tissue. The operations were expensive, potentially dangerous and controversial in the United States.
Aldrich credits stem cells for helping him to read for the first time in five years in a Tsingtao hospital. The doctors “couldn’t believe it,” he said.
“Stem cells are miraculous things, but you can’t inject them one day and walk the next,” he said. “They’re a catalyst to recover what you lost and get you on the road to recovery.”
His arms still don’t move much. For that Aldrich still requires a home aide to wash him and to put dog treats in his mouth to give to his Shetland sheepdog, Skipper.
Friends, who rallied around him after the accident, have mostly drifted away. His father died two years ago, and his mother is frail and lives in Massachusetts. Last week, half of Aldrich’s face became paralyzed inexplicably. He thinks it’s financial stress. The oppressive thought of a nursing home looms.
“I don’t think I could bear it,” Aldrich said, “not being able to have my dog and have my home.”