A study in courage and determination
If you, my dear reader, are of the faint of heart, if you are the least bit squeamish about medical problems, bodily injuries, bodily functions or body parts, then read on no further. This is to be the story of a terrible injury to a stalwart young man in the prime of his early existence, and his life long struggle to cope with and overcome the most serious body injury and its associated adversities. And then, to carry on for 51 years a compromised day to day life and also to, through it all, call upon an inherited artistic talent to eventually leave behind him a lifetime of creative work of great accomplishment, great beauty and great enjoyment to the many of us who live on beyond him. This is to be the story of what it is like to live day to day as a paraplegic with no control over your body from your mid chest down, to get up and go to work and earn a living every day, to endure the pain and the lack of bodily control. This is to be the story of the life and adversities of Robert Strong Woodward, artist.
You who have read the biography section of this website know already that Robert Strong Woodward was paralyzed from the mid chest down. As a young 21 year old man he was interested in and studied nature, the outdoors, learning the names of all of the trees, plants and shrubs, as well at the planets and stars and movements of all of the heavenly bodies above. It was these interests and loves that enticed him to take a hiking trip up Mount Wilson in California while he and his family lived there. It was a several day hike with overnight sleeping bags, back packs, and yes, for protection, a revolver carried in a chest holster. He went along with three friends.
While I was in the service and was given a furlough of a few days, and without funds to purchase a train ticket to come back to Massachusetts, I hiked up that same mountain alone, along approximately the same old dirt road (on the back side of the mountain) that he had taken to the top, and visited the astronomical observatory there. It was a strenuous and at times rather frightening excursion. At one point I came very close to encountering a rattlesnake up close. A large part of the hike was at night by flashlight, but I did not carry or use a sleeping bag because I did not feel safe sleeping out-of-doors at night alone on that majestic mountain dirt road. I arrived at the top of the mountain at daybreak, visited the observatory, and then took a tour bus over the paved road to go back down to the bottom. This is how I relived, to some extent, his adventure of many years previously.
When Robert returned from his hiking trip he was in an apartment with three of his friends. He left these three making breakfast to go into the adjoining room to remove his hiking clothes and clean up. In removing his sweater, the revolver in its holster became "cocked" and then accidentally discharged. The bullet went into his chest just below the left nipple and did not exit the back of his chest. He was rushed to the nearby hospital where the physicians feared that his life was beyond saving. For days, he laid near death. In those days there were no MRI's, CAT scans or any of the sophisticated diagnostic instruments which are available today. Lives depended primarily upon the diagnostic expertise and experience of the doctor. He was later told that the bullet barely missed his heart, caused his lung to collapse, and then had lodged in his spine severing the spinal cord at about the 4th vertebra. He was told early on that he would never walk again. Weeks later he miraculously had recovered sufficiently to begin therapy which in those days was woefully inadequate. Eventually he was able to get up into a wheelchair and be discharged to the care of his family. His body, however, was devastatingly destroyed. He was completely paralyzed from just below his nipples down the remainder of both sides of his body. There was no feeling of touch to the skin, however, he had pain, sometimes severe, in the lower body and legs. Today this is called "phantom" pain. It is caused by the injury to nerves or to the spinal cord and at times can be severe. He had no control of his bladder, necessitating an indwelling catheter. He had no control of his bowels, necessitating frequent enemas and diapers. Imagine the profound discouragement , the depression, which must have overtaken him at that young age.
As the weeks went by he decided that despite all of his afflictions he wanted to go back east, go to art school in Boston if possible, and eventually move back to Buckland where he still had family. A close friend of his at Bradley University offered to go with him back to Boston, preceded him there to find an apartment and arrange to enter him into the Boston Museum School of Art. They lived together for a short time, less than two months. The friend acted as housekeeper, nurse as well as friend, and wheeled him daily in his wheelchair to the nearby school. But this association was impossible to maintain and the friend, himself then a young man, found it impossible to continue such an association. Young Robert, with the financial help of his family back in Buckland, arranged to return there where he set up a bachelor's apartment in a milk house on the farm of his Uncle Bert Wells. This was to become his first studio, Redgate. At this point in his life he had learned to become his own nurse. He had to wear an indwelling catheter which collected his urine in a bag attached to his leg. He learned to change his own catheters, and to administer his own enemas so that he would have some control over his bowel functions. He began to make illustrated cards for special events to bring in a little money. Then he started painting detailed "illuminations" and bookplates which were immensely popular and sold well.
It was at this time in his life that he came to the attention of a wealthy patron of the arts, Mrs. Ada Moore, the widow of the president of the American Can Company, who had also been in the railroad and banking business. She set up a trust fund for him which allowed him to employ a nurse and a hired man. And thus began his professional art career. He started painting in oil and was soon submitting paintings to large exhibitions and art museums with the encouragement of a rather famous local artist of the day, Gardner Symons.
The nurse's duty included an early morning administration of an enema. In those days (and even in my early days in medical school and as a medical intern) these were dubbed 3-H enemas (high, hot, and a hell of a lot!). These would fill his colon to capacity and then he would have to lie on a bed pan until the colon had eventually completely emptied itself. This usually took several hours. As the years went along apparently his body became use to it, and he accustomed himself to the procedure. In the days in which I knew him, this was a very effective way of controlling his bowel functions. He never had to wear a diaper and to my knowledge never had an "accident."
Somewhere along the line he had been able to remove the indwelling catheter and wore a hard plastic (?bakelite) tube into which he would insert his penis, and to this pipe was attached a smaller tube which ran down to a rubber bag strapped to his lower leg. It was also now the nurse's responsibility to clean this daily and have it ready for him to apply when he was able to get out of bed after the waters had completely emptied from his colon.
After his toiletry had been completed each morning he would shave using a straight razor (like the barbers used to use) and splash on some Old English Lavender aftershave lotion and dress himself. He always wore a suit and necktie, usually with a vest, and always with a color-coordinated silk handkerchief in his jacket pocket. Then he was ready for his day.
He almost constantly suffered from urinary infections and the doctor would frequently order antibiotics, initially sulfur medication, then penicillin, and then later the newer ones which came along as medicine advanced. The reason for the infections was that he was never able to completely empty his bladder. There would be an almost constant dribbling into the bag on his leg. Even though paralyzed and with no feeling below the waist he was conscious of when his bladder was overfull. By placing his elbows down on the arm rests of his wheelchair and lifting this bodily weight off his seat, the bladder would spontaneously empty. This is the way he lived from day to day, from week to week, from month to month, from year to year. And he kept on working, painting daily.
Along with all this were the episodes of severe phantom pain in his frail, atrophied legs. It was pain that no medication seemed to alleviate. Many of his paintings were made while in severe pain. This is mentioned frequently in the diary catalogue of his paintings.
Another real nuisance problem, but one to him which was very distressing, was the uncontrollable shaking of his lower limbs. To somewhat mitigate this, the heels of his shoes were strapped down to the "foot board" of his wheelchair. This security kept his feet from flying off the foot board. Even so, there would often occur a rattling of his entire wheelchair.
And then there were the periods of severe depression. Who, do you think, would not suffer from this "disease" under these conditions. He would often refer to it as "deep dark depression." During my days of working for him, it was not unusual for me to enter the studio and find him at his desk, leaning his elbows on the large blue blotter on his desk, bending forward holding his head in his hands, often not answering my questions and often mentioning that he was having a "deep dark depression."
Then in his later years he developed a stomach problem which caused intermittent gastric bleeding, vomiting of blood and black bowel movements. To my knowledge he never had an Upper G. I. Series or any sort of investigatory study to determine the exact diagnosis. In those days most illnesses were diagnosed by the expertise of the family doctor. His family doctor told me after his death that he knew he had a gastric cancer. This is how the death certificate was signed. The exact cause of his eventual death was apparently internal bleeding from this cancer.
Through all of this, for the most part, he forced himself to get out of bed each morning, go through his nursing routine and then go out to the studio to work at his easel, or possibly to be lifted into his big open Packard to go to some place to paint all day. Then he would come home and after supper go back out to the studio to write to his many friends, or write and arrange business matters, such as mailing sepia prints of paintings to prospective buyers or arranging exhibitions all over the country. During the entire World War II he wrote each evening to a soldier overseas. I remember him writing to one such soldier who was eventually killed in action in the air war over Germany. He failed to return from a flight.
There were occasional days when his pain was so severe that he would remain in bed all day. But these were few and far between.
I remember very few times during the years I worked for him, when he failed to proceed with his plans for the day. He would go shopping in Greenfield, being pushed from behind in his chair. In those days there were no sloped sidewalks. We would simply pull back on the top of his chair which lifted up the front wheels, and hop him up over the curbs and keep going. There was a little trick to this, and timing was critical, but all of us who cared for him learned it quickly. If he wanted to go into a store or restaurant with stairs, we carried him up, set him in a chair, and then pushed or dragged the wheelchair up afterward. On our Boston trips to take paintings to the Vose Galleries, we often went into Ye Old Oyster House (with the sawdust on the floor) or up the stairs to Durgin-Park. (famous for its Indian Pudding) for lunch or dinner. One way or the other, he would go into every store, restaurant, garage, movie theater or whatever. And he never seemed embarrassed in any way by any of this. One time I carried him up four flights of stairs. He was a large man. He would have stood over 6 feet if he had been able to stand. But his body below the waist and especially his lower extremities were wasted and atrophied which decreased his weight significantly.
It is a testament to his courage, his perseverance, his tolerance of pain and illnesses that he was capable of carrying on a fairly normal life and work schedule. His output of artistic creations, his oil paintings, chalk drawings and sketches was tremendous. You must agree to the fact of this if you have reviewed the alphabetic galleries on this website where many, but certainly not all, have been catalogued and depicted.
His life is an inspiration to all of us who knew him and, hopefully now, from my story above, to all of you who now know about him.