In April of 2000, Jared Dunten dove into the Rio Grande While on a camping trip with a friend. Sixteen years later, he opens up about that day, his hopes for curing paralysis, and how never giving up has helped him create a life no one could have imagined.
Q | Tell us about your background.
A | It was kind of unconventional. My parents grew up in the Houston area, and in 1977 or 1978, they moved to Lake Travis, just outside of Austin. My dad used to work for Houston Lighting and Power and my mom worked for NASA as a librarian. They told the family that we were going to move to Lake Travis and start a cactus nursery. As you can imagine, everyone was like, ‘What?’ They really loved going up to the desert. They really appreciated the landscape and loved the way the plants looked, so it became a hobby […] and they wanted to do that full time. They got to the point where they were looking at the jobs they had and [realized], ‘This is not what we’re passionate about. It’s not who we are and not what we want to do.’ They packed me up and the three of us headed west. They started a shop in Bee Caves, which is about 15 minutes from where I live now, and have run a cactus and succulent nursery for 30 to 35 years.
I grew up just outside of Austin and went to school in Lake Travis until ninth grade. After ninth grade, I went to St. Michaels and had a great time. After I graduated from St. Michaels, I went to Texas A&M and was in the Corps for about three semesters, but it just wasn’t for me, so I got out and joined a fraternity. Both experiences were great and I met a lot of wonderful people.
Over the summer I interned with GSD&M right after my freshman year in college on the account services side, but realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do long term. As I changed my major from business to English and I got more interested in writing, I was able to get another internship on the creative side at GSD&M. I worked my way up and was hired as a writer for GSD&M, which is what I still do today.
Q | How has your ‘unconventional’ upbringing shaped who you are today?
A | We would go on a lot of buying trips out to Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California, different areas in Texas and out west. That was kind of different and a little strange. During that time, I was exposed to a lot of nature. We did a lot of camping, went on really beautiful road trips and spent time outdoors. I developed a deep and wonderful appreciation for nature—the natural beauty and the severity of it.
Q | Can you talk about how you sustained your injury?
A | A buddy and I were on a camping trip in the Chisos Mountains in the left section out in Big Bend, where we had been camping for a couple of days. The plan was to go over into Mexico there in Bosques, and we were going to stay the night and get up to go to Mass the next morning. Before we had done that, we pop all our gear and stuff off and we’re having enchiladas and we headed down to the hot springs there right next to the Rio Grande. While I was doing that, I grabbed a bar of soap and dove into an area that I thought was deep, but it was a bad move on my part because I didn’t check before. There’s all kinds of little pools and stuff in the Rio Grande. I hit a sand bar and don’t really remember much after that. I was in the river for a couple of hours, but thankfully my buddy saw me dive in and fished me out after I didn’t come up for a while. He basically stood in the river and held me above water while he was screaming for help. Luckily, while we were headed down to the Rio Grande, we met some other campers there at the place we were staying and they heard him screaming for help. I was in the river for a couple of hours though until, finally, they came and he told them what was going on. I don’t remember any of this really. It’s just kind of stories I’ve been told. The two girls went to the park ranger, who then got a boat and came down the Rio, got me, took me on a stretcher and transported me from there to an ambulance to Alpine.
The doctors at Alpine weren’t going to be able to do anything there because, at that point, I was paralyzed. I was taken in an ambulance to Lubbock, where they did the decompression on my spinal cord at C4 and C5, where I had my injury. I was in an ICU there in Lubbock for about a month and a half.
Q | What happened then?
A | During that time, I developed a really bad case of pneumonia because I had taken so much of the water and, as they were trying to treat my lungs, I was put on a stryker bed. They used a special bed that you swing back and forth to keep the fluids moving in your lungs so it doesn’t settle in and doesn’t make the pneumonia worse. At that point, because this bed shifts back and forth, I developed a pressure sore that is like an ulcer in the lower part of my back. Now I have this wound and I’ve got pneumonia and on a ventilator. The doctors did a lot of suction of my lungs and that was really painful. That’s really what I remember the most. The doctor who was there said they had never seen anything like this or quite this bad because I had taken in so much of the dirty water and that kind of stuff. Throughout this, I was pretty out of it.
I don’t really remember a lot and whatI do remember is pretty dreamy. Real dream-like memory of that whole experience, but maybe dream-like is not the right description because it was pretty terrible.
The doctors had talked about paralysis, but I had no idea about paralysis and spinal cord injury. I knew nothing—I was naïve: I thought I’d be going to rehab, work really hard for six months, and it’d be like what you see in movies, where I’d get on parallel bars, learn how to walk again and all that kind of stuff. Thought that was really what it was going to be like. The thing was, I was in the ICU for so long, just up and down, while the doctors were trying to keep my fever down. I think there was some concern that, if I stayed there, I may not make it. In fact, one of the nurses had told my parents that it was very important that they get me out of there because it wasn’t going well.
Q | What was your first clear memory after the accident?
A | Probably my first very clear memory was when I finally got rolled outside. I remember the giant blue sky. It was really windy and cool at the time. That was pretty amazing. It was a big deal for me. As I was being transported into the plane to go to TIRR, I still couldn’t talk or anything at this point.
I was on a ventilator, still pretty messed up, so they took me to the plane and I flew and then I’m not sure which airport I flew into in Houston, and then from there they took me in an ambulance to TIRR. The whole thing was really scary because during the transport, I had an Ambu bag. It’s basically a bag that hooks to the TRAC and the ventilator, and someone literally is breathing for you. They squeeze their hand so you can breathe. That was scary as hell and pretty weird. You’re just staring at this person that’s squishing this bag and saving my life. My life is in your hands, literally.
Q | What was your mindset during rehabilitation at TIRR Memorial Hermann?
A | I got off the vent and I was able to go to more stuff at the gym and start doing more conventional rehab. I had Dr. Kenneth Parsons and he was great. It was a really good experience for a really bad time and a really bad situation. I was 25 then, so I was pretty pissed off the whole time. At this age now, 42, you realize that these people are coming to you to help at the hardest time in your life. I can see that now, but at the time, I don’t know that I would have said that. Now I have a better understanding of things.
Q | How did your accident affect your career at GSD&M?
A | I have nothing but wonderful things to say about the company and group of people. They were really incredible—they always stood by my side, helped me, and continued to work with me in terms of my availability and what I can realistically do on any given day.
I was at TIRR when one of the partners at GSD&M called my mom and said, ‘Look, about Jared. Don’t worry about the job. We’ll figure it out and we’ll figure out how he’ll continue to work. Don’t worry about where he’s going to live and how that’s going to work because we’re going to build him a house.’ They built a studio-type house for me on my parents’ property, so I was able to stay and work there. My parents took care of me after I got home from TIRR and my father continues to help me today. After I got married and had kids, we just kept adding onto the house and kept expanding.
Q | How is your life now different from before you had the accident?
A | I was very active before the accident. I ran, lifted weights, played team sports all my life and continued on the tennis team where I worked here in Austin. Tennis, soccer, camping and hiking, that sort of stuff. I think going from that pretty high activity level to the prospect of zero activity or the idea of not being able to do anything like that was pretty tough. It was also the fear of not knowing. I was doing well as far as my career went and things were really just starting to take off in some respects when I had my accident. It was going from career minded, driven, ambitious to thinking all that’s gone and everything is gone. I’m going to have to end up depending on people for the rest of my life on a very patient level, not just the normal ‘we all need stuff’ kind of stuff. Literally, to brush my teeth or get something to eat. I think that was probably the toughest thing. I think the mental part was the toughest.
Q | At what point did you have that ‘aha’ moment when you realized you could still have a good life?
A | It’s a gradual process. I think it sounds better if you have that moment. It would be nice to think I had that epiphany but the reality is it’s still hard today. I still deal with a lot of the same issues today that I think my advice to anyone who’s dealing with something like this is stay busy, try to do things that occupy your mind. That was one of the big things my grandmother told me when I was there—just keep your mind active and don’t give up. That was kind of the mantra there at TIRR. The beneficial slogan was to never give up, and that’s the same today. At the end of the day, when I’ve gone to visit people in the hospital and they’re in similar situations, that’s what I leave them with: ‘You know how fast your life changed, but I don’t know why it couldn’t change back or change in a positive way just as quickly.’ You’re always kind of looking behind the bend or over the hill to figure out what’s going to happen next, but you just don’t know. I just try to stay positive and just keep going, keep breathing. Sometimes it’s one minute at a time, sometimes it’s an hour, sometimes it’s a day, sometimes it’s a month. You just focus on what you can take in at that moment.
Q | What inspired your passion for art? How does it fit into your life now?
A | I think there was still something missing or lacking in my life. I had always been into art as a little kid. I was drawing in elementary and middle school. I liked art and would be a little involved, but I really just lacked the focus and I didn’t see it necessarily as a career.
I think that’s how I found peace with being a copywriter. I was able to be creative, have a career and continue that, so once I started painting and my mom told me about what the Lichtenstein Mouth and Foot Painting Artists organization was doing, I was like, ‘Sure, what the hell, I’ll give it a try.’ Right at first it was very basic. It was literally just trying to figure out how to do things. I started off doing watercolor on paper and just drawing, being frustrated, a little maddening and just keep going from there, but I ultimately loved it.
It was the thing that I got to do to make something. The work I did at the agency was cool, but it was just that there were a lot of people involved. Let’s say you make a 30-second television spot. It’s not just you and one other person. You’re talking about hundreds of people being involved. I loved the fact that when it came to painting, when it came to the artwork in that sense, it was sink or swim for me. This painting either will be great or not or it’s going to be what it is, but it’s going to be because I did it or I achieved something or I failed. I like that part of it.
There was an independence that painting gave me. To some degree, I still have a lot of people who help me and I have to, especially now that I’m dealing with bigger canvases. Being involved with painting, starting to paint, and getting any kind of attention or recognition for it was basically to build a platform to talk about spinal cord injury and the need for it to be solved. How do we fix this? If we can send a person to the moon, we can certainly cure paralysis.
I will paint myself out of a wheelchair. That was literally how I thought this would work. Anytime I get a chance to say, ‘Look, this is something we, as mankind, can fix, change and finally overcome.’ I still believe that.
Q | What is your hope for curing paralysis?
A | I think it’s something that’s still very real and a goal that can happen. That was part of the painting. Any time I have a chance I tell someone, ‘Look, we have to heal, we have to fix this.’ Sure, a wheelchair gets me from point A to point B and my life’s wonderful, but I still wanted it to be known that being in a wheelchair, being paralyzed, still sucks. We can fix it—I know we can. I don’t know how, but I know we can and I know there have been a lot of strides made. A lot of things that have been done to make things better and I’ve noticed that all along from a medical research standpoint.
It seems like there’s a lot of good stuff on the horizon. It’s one of those things that I just want to keep pushing. When I started, that was when Christopher Reeve was alive too, and I knew he was a very vocal advocate for the research and so I really just kind
of thought that’s what I have to do if I want to beat it, be as vocal and as visual as I can about the need to change it.
He always had an analogy that I liked. He compared it a lot to the transcontinental railroad. The medical science is going to start on one side and I’m going to start with the physical rehab that I can do on the other and God willing we’ll meet in the middle and fix this.
I liked that and it made sense to me. That’s why today I’m still trying to continue to stay healthy and just every day hope that I wake up not paralyzed or that I’m going to read some headline that we cured it or something like that. It’s kind of the whole idea in this paint myself out of the wheelchair.
Q | How do you balance writing and painting?
A | The two complement each other really well. It’s very much different sides of your brain that you use for painting and writing, but it’s cool and I’d like to figure out how to incorporate them into my own thing.
Continuing to work has been a really great experience because sometimes you have to step away from the canvas, stop obsessing over one thing and go obsess over another. When you’ve done something a hundred times, sometimes you need to take a step back and look at something that’s a shape or a color and I think that’s been really good. In terms of professional life and time, […] that’s a balance we’re all trying to figure out, whether you’re paralyzed or not. That happy balance of a professional life and personal life is a constant challenge and like those old carnival spinning plates, trying to keep all that stuff going.
Q | Tell us about TIRR Memorial Hermann commissioning your artwork.
A | Susan Thomas looked through the site and some work that I had done, and they had kind of gravitated toward the orchids, which I really liked, too. I enjoyed painting the orchids, because there’s something that seems very simple about them, yet the more you stare and study them, the more complicated they become. I kind of thought that was an analogy to the injury and the accident. It’s like, ‘We can fix this and you’ll be fine, but it’s more complicated than that.’ It’s difficult, but I think from a broad view they can still be beautiful.
I chose white ones because there’s kind of symmetry that’s similar to a vertebra, particularly in one of them.
The C5 has more of a linear structure to it and there’s more of a pattern that’s like a spinal column. You see the cord running through it and it’s all back together and then at the end of it there’s one that has yet to open. That’s the future, as you’re leaving the hospital you don’t know what it’s going to bring and it has yet to open.
The other kind of orchid is more painterly from a style standpoint. You see the strokes, the stem that the orchids are coming off of is definitely fractured and it goes in different directions, and the whole thing, even from a composition standpoint, is a little more hectic and everywhere. There are blooms that are open and blooms that are not, and that’s a little bit of the life one has when you’re rolled into a hospital like that. Everything at that point is up in the air and fractured, and there’s disarray, and then hopefully you get out of there and things are a little more in line again and have a little more structure and are starting to look more like a life.
Q | What do you want your legacy to be? What wisdom do you want to impart to others?
A | Just don’t quit. Never give up and keep trying to make life better. I think that’s a big part of why we’re all here.
It’s to leave something good behind. I don’t know if it’s inspiration or hope. I think both can be tricky, bad and good, but I think I want people to not give up and to not think that we can’t make a difference and, in a weird way, make the world better than you left it.
Let’s cure paralysis. That’s my drop-the-gauntlet to everyone that’s working on and around it. Don’t give up, don’t tell patients you’re never going to walk again. It really all starts with people believing it can be done. I hope that the stuff I do inspires people who are doing research and doing the medical side of it to keep pushing and not give up and not think to the heart that we can’t do it. Know that I think once everyone is on the same page that there is a possibility and it is real and to follow this, and I don’t mean in 10 or 20 or 30 years, I mean now. There’s some urgency to it, I hope that gets it done. I hope that there’s a cure, I feel like I can be a part of it and that I made a difference.
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Today's #VeteranOfTheDay is Army Veteran Les Payne. Les was born July 12, 1941 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He received a degree from University of Connecticut in 1964 and went on to serve in the Vietnam War during a tour with the Army. After his time in the military, Les joined Newsday in 1969. Les was part of the Newsday reporting team that created a 33-part series tracking heroin from growth in Turkey to being sold in America. "The Heroin Trail" won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Les was a founding member and former president of the National Association of Black Journalists. He retired in 2006, spending nearly four decades at Newsday and setting the standard for excellent journalism. Les died Monday night at his home in Harlem. We honor his service.
Today's #VeteranOfTheDay is @USArmy Veteran Les Payne. Les was a founder and former president of @NABJ, @PulitzerPrizes winner, and long time reporter for @Newsday.