After SCI: Live Your Life Without Limits

Q&A With Bert Burns

Bert BurnsAthlete, rehabilitation professional, business owner, motivational speaker, family man: Bert Burns has been all these things since incurring a spinal cord injury (SCI) in a car accident in his 20s. After graduating from the University of Florida, Bert worked at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta and became a wheelchair racer with multiple world records and a 1992 Paralympics gold medal. In 1996, Bert founded UroMed, one of the nation’s largest catheter supply companies. Now married with twins, Bert also travels as part of the Life After Spinal Cord Injury motivational speaking program. Here, he answers some of the questions he most frequently encounters.

Q: How’d you get your first date after your injury? How’d you meet girls?

Bert Burns: I went through three phases —

  1. Girls I knew before I was injured, whom I had dated or met before.
  2. Healthcare professionals who understood spinal cord injuries (SCI), so I didn’t have to explain everything to them.
  3. Then, I moved on to the rest of the population.

When you’re in a wheelchair, you stand out. You can take that as a positive or a negative, but girls will notice you. Some girls don’t want to talk to you simply because you’re in a chair, but some don’t because you’re bald or fat or have blue eyes. Don’t look at the chair as a limit to who you can date. If you come up to bat enough times, you’ll eventually get a hit!

Q: I would love to play wheelchair sports, but equipment is so expensive. How do I find someone to help me?

Burns: Use the Internet. Look up sports you like, and try to find a national organization for it. Their Web site may offer state or local connections to get started. Or hook up with the recreational therapists at a local rehab center. They can direct you to sports programs in your area. Once you get involved, almost all of the athletes have old equipment, and they’re happy to share or sell older gear.

Q: How did you go back to school and get around campus?

Burns: After my injury, I knew I had to get an education. It was hard enough to find a job while walking. Wheeling around, I needed all the options I could get. Fortunately, after your injury, division rehab services or vocational services will pay for school if you are on disability. They will cover tuition, books and any additional modifications because of your injury.

Getting around campus, I just had to push around. Every school has a disabled services department, and they will work closely with you to schedule your classes. They’ll even move a class location if they need to set up your classes in the same building or area for accessibility.

Q: What should I do for a career? There are so many things I can’t do now.

Burns: After graduating with a degree in therapeutic recreation, I wanted to work with folks with SCI. Most people at SCI hospitals saw my wheelchair as an advantage for that kind of role, so I used that to my favor. But let’s say you’re a builder. You’ll have a tough time after your injury going back to do that. If that’s the case, go back to college or technical school. Find a different career that plays on your interests, but uses different skills. For example, if you were a builder, you could become a plan designer.

Q: Were you married before you were hurt?

Burns: No, I wasn’t. I dated a lot of people after my injury before I met my wife, Joy. She was a beautiful girl living in Kansas City who I met through work. We dated long distance for awhile, since I lived in Atlanta. She’d fly here, or I’d go there. Pretty soon, she moved to Atlanta, and we got married six months later.

Q: How’d you have kids?

Burns: A lot of people think they can’t have children after a spinal cord injury. That may have been the case 29 years ago, but it no longer is. Joy and I tried the old-fashioned way first, and that didn’t work. Then we went through artificial insemination — no luck. So then we tried in vitro, and that did. We now have two beautiful children!

Q: What’s it like being a dad and raising kids from a wheelchair?

Burns: I had three things set up in my home that made it a lot easier and more accessible for me to be an involved parent:

  • Accessible sleep areas: When our twins were newborns, they slept in a Pack ‘n Play that we kept in our large walk-in closet. I put boxes in the bottom, with pads and covers on top, so the babies were elevated. That way I could reach them more easily from a wheelchair level.
  • Custom changing table: We made a table that would let me roll up under it so I could reach the babies, pick their legs up and take care of business.
  • Modified cribs: We adapted their cribs by extending the legs so I could roll up under the crib. And we had the doors modified so they would open outward instead of sliding up. I’d open it like a regular door and slide the baby off onto my lap.

Also, when my kids were young, they wore overalls all the time. I could grip overalls enough to pick them up pretty easily. It’s so funny, they probably wore those things for the first two years of their lives!

Q: Are your kids embarrassed because dad is in a wheelchair?

Burns: No, not at all! My kids want to know why other dads don’t have a wheelchair. It’s like a great toy for them. They love riding in my lap, even now that they are 9 years old. It’s really opened up their minds to see all the things their dad can do.

Q: Any last words of advice for new wheelchair users?

Burns: All of us are using a wheelchair now, and a lot of times, it’s not fair. Once you go home from rehab, you have two choices to make. If you go home and say “Life sucks,” it will. Or you can go home and say, “These are the cards I was dealt, and I’m going to make the most of them.” If that’s the choice you make, you’ll be OK. What choice are YOU going to make?