Life Lessons from a Patient about the Choices We make

Published on
June 9, 2010

Last week, my oldest daughter graduated from high school and began her journey as a young adult. As a proud parent and the commencement speaker, I shared some life lessons with the class of 2010. Here is some of what I said:

Mr. Ronnie Quinn is about my age but twice my size and looks like Michael Oher, the professional football player from the movie "The Blind Side."

Despite high fever and his blood teeming with bacteria, he was sitting up in his hospital bed with the sheets pulled up to his thighs. Looking me in the eye, he greeted me with a smile.

Without much difficulty, I discovered that an intravenous line we had placed in his chest was causing his infection. What I couldn't figure out was why he had a smile.

With my stethoscope, I listened to his heart and lungs. And then, as I pulled the bed sheets from his thighs to examine his feet, I discovered, he had no legs. Just two stumps, healed long ago.

Curious, I asked him what had happened.

"I was near a gas station at 5:15 in the evening, filling up my 1979 Chevy, getting ready to go to work as a dishwasher at Cracker Barrel," he said. "That's when a man who was doped and drunk rammed into me, crushing my legs."

He was in a pool of blood when the ambulance arrived. They took him to the Regional Medical Center, where his legs were amputated. "It happened weeks before my 19th birthday."

I told him I was sorry.

"Don't feel sorry for me, Doc," he said. "I haven't looked back but two or three times." What happened next made a big impression on me.

Mr. Quinn joined a friend and learned how to be a locksmith. "I would wrap my tool box around my neck, hop on my truck with my wheelchair, and unlock homes and cars -- at any time of day or night," he explained. In 1997, he and his friend won the local small-business award.

His story reminds me of an important lesson in life: the relationship between situations, choices and attitude.

In life we are put into situations: good and bad.

Mr. Quinn, through no fault of his own, was put in a bad situation. Both his legs were amputated and he lived in the projects. He could have easily chosen a life of drugs and alcohol -- but instead he chose to find a vocation where he could earn an income and provide a service.

Every moment of our lives we are put in situations, and we have to make choices. As young adults, you have to make some life-altering choices. I like to call them the 4 Cs.

First choice is college. Because you have completed high school, something that only 70 percent of your peers in Shelby County have chosen to do, you have the opportunity to select a college.

Soon, you will have to make the second big choice -- career. Some of you will go onto graduate school and some, like Mr. Quinn, will learn a trade.

The third choice is companion.

And then the fourth important choice in your young adult life is city. Where will you call home -- Memphis, Los Angeles, Shanghai?

From Mr. Quinn I learned another lesson: to succeed in our choices we have to work hard and have a good attitude.

He could have easily justified staying home, blaming his crushed legs. Yet he decided to work, and his warm respectful smile opened new doors for him.

Having a good attitude is a small choice that has big rewards. Attitude is not like the weather, especially Memphis weather, which changes by the hour.

Attitude is something that is under our control. Good attitude is a choice and it takes effort.

I tell my daughter, your success and happiness will be determined by your attitude -- not how smart or rich you are.

Yet the whole process of situation, choices and attitude is not linear but a cycle. A good choice -- like the friends one chooses, leads to good situations -- less likely to be exposed to drugs and alcohol, which then will lead to better grades and greater success.

It's like the saying "you reap what you sow."

So graduates, as you leave the nest remember your choices will help create your situations.

After the four big choices of your young adult life, you will transition to middle age and then the Cs will change to children and checkbook. And soon you may be proud parents sitting in the audience. And the great circle of life will continue like in the movie "The Lion King."

This article originally appeared in the Commercial Appeal