Tim Lambright: Breaking out of Solitary Confinement
By Anna Werner
Photos by Jim Bonner
“The last thing I remembered was pulling up to the starting line. Then I woke up in the hospital and wasn’t able to move.”
Tim Lambright entered solitary confinement at age 33. All of his material possessions and things he identified himself with socially and professionally had been stripped away. Life as he knew it had changed forever. Tim did not enter this solitary confinement by choice, nor was he forced to go as a consequence of illegal activity. After a motorcycle accident left him with quadriplegia, moving to an assisted living home was the only option Tim had. “I jokingly referred to it as solitary confinement because it felt like living in a jail cell,” he said.
“He wasn’t texting or calling as much, and he was going through something really huge in his life,” she said.
After graduating from Miami of Ohio, Tim was offered his “dream job” and moved to Chicago. After what he referred to as a “quarter life crisis”, Tim moved to San Diego at age 23. At the time, he did not know that a greater crisis was just around the corner.
At age 26, Tim moved to Phoenix, Arizona. He stayed busy at his job, working as a business entrepreneur, but still made time for his dogs, photography and racing motorcycles.
In March 2012, a friend talked Tim into competing in a motorcycle race in Flagstaff, Arizona. The night before the race, Tim and his friend rode the 25-mile course and worked on his bike, adjusting the suspension.
“The next morning when I went to race, something inside of me was screaming ‘this is a bad idea,’” Tim said. “The last thing I remembered was pulling up to the starting line. Then I woke up in the hospital and wasn’t able to move.”
During a rough area in the race, Tim shot off the course going 40 miles per hour. He was forced over the handlebars and flew head first into a tree shattering his C5 vertebrae. The two riders behind Tim, coincidentally an EMT and a safety rider hired to monitor the course, helped stabilize him and called for help.
“I don’t remember anything about the accident or going to the hospital,” Tim said. “The first thing I remember was some time after my neck surgery, waking up and not knowing quite where I was, but having the feeling that I couldn’t sense my body.”
Tim spent three weeks in the ICU at the Flagstaff Medical Center before being transferred to the Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix. His parents temporarily moved into Tim’s condo in Phoenix to be close to him.
“When I was in the hospital, everything had been stripped away from me, not by choice,” he said. “All of the things that I generally identified myself with were gone. Ironically, I was left with this profound sense of peace at first, because I didn’t have to worry about anything.”
“All of the things that I generally identified myself with were gone.”
While in the hospital, Tim connected with Loren Worthington, who put him in contact with Don Price at Abillity360. Price met with Tim and provided him direction and information.
“He was there every step of the way with the resources Ability360 offers to connect me to the right people,” Tim said. “He reached beyond the normal limitations and barriers of someone with a spinal cord injury to help me.”
After two months in acute rehab, Tim was discharged from the hospital. Unlike most spinal cord patients who transition home, Tim did not have relatives in the area with whom he could live.
“My only option to go live with family would have been to move back to Indiana,” Tim said. “But it would have separated me from the parts of my world I had left, which were my friends and the relationships with people that I had.”
Tim’s options were limited: either go to a group home or move to an assisted living nursing home. In May, his parents helped him find an assisted living home that would take him, and he moved in.
“When I left the hospital, it became less like a dream and more real,” Tim said. “It was really hard to accept at that point that that’s where my life had brought me. In the hospital, I was full of hope, joy and gratitude. But the transition when I moved out was difficult.”
Life in a Nursing Home
In denial of his new life, Tim refused to even furnish his room in the assisted living home. When he first moved in, his wheelchair, bed and two camping chairs were all that he had.
“When I got to the assisted living, I felt like I had lost hope,” Tim said. “There wasn’t a light at the end of my tunnel. I got the sense that this was my new life, and it was so far from the active, social life that I had led before. It was really a difficult thing to embrace. I was fighting the daily challenges of not being able to do really simple things for myself. I had no control over anything in my world.”
Though family and friends came to visit Tim, he spent the majority of his days alone. He avoided interacting with others because he felt insecure, like he did not fit in. People stared, he said, not only because he was in a power chair, but he was also decades younger than anyone else in the home.
“It’s a strange place to live in your early thirties when your neighbors are 80 to 100 years old,” he said. “It was very difficult psychologically to be surrounded by elderly people. Someone would pass away weekly.”
During the first few months in assisted living, Tim fell into a deep depression, what he refers to as his “dark time.” He was in a lot of pain, and felt as if he had no control over anything in his world. He said his sense of satisfaction with life was almost nonexistent.
“I remember lying in bed crying one night, just not wanting to be alone or in pain anymore,” Tim said. “I realized that even if I did want to kill myself, I didn’t have the capacity to do it. I couldn’t hold a knife. Even if I had a gun, I wouldn’t have been able to pull the trigger, and I couldn’t open a pill bottle. All the things that one might think of as a way to commit suicide, I couldn’t even do, which was even more infuriating. I was trapped in this existence that lacked anything meaningful.”
In October, Tim’s sister Tina Lambright moved from Michigan to be with him. Before the accident, Tina said that she and Tim were close and would talk almost every other day, but after the accident, he was distant.
“He wasn’t texting or calling as much, and he was going through something really huge in his life,” she said.
Tina said she knew if she wanted to still have a relationship with Tim, she needed to be close to him. She dropped everything and moved into his condo in Phoenix.
“It wasn’t that I needed to be there just to help him as much as it selfishly was to have one of my best friends back again,” she said. “I missed my friend, and I wanted to be close to him again.”
With Tina’s help, Tim was able to bring his dogs to the assisted living home. She said she immediately saw a difference in Tim once the dogs were back in his life. Tim said his dogs, Mina and Juno, are family, and having them back in his life motivated him to get out of the darkness.
“When my dogs moved in, I realized I wasn’t the pack leader anymore,” he said. “Our relationship dynamic had really changed. I knew that if I wanted to reestablish our relationship then I needed to be a bigger part of their lives.”
When Mina and Juno first moved back in with Tim, he could not feed or walk them, but soon thought of creative ways to overcome those obstacles. He would take the dogs out to the dining hall at dinnertime so the other residents could interact with them.
“Not only did they help me from a therapeutic stand point, but they really brightened the lives of a lot of people in the community,” he said.
Tim said walking his dogs around the parking lot of the assisted living home was the first of his hobbies he was able to do again. At first, Tim found it difficult to walk them on their leashes, but he soon trained them to follow him freely. Their short daily walks soon grew to four-mile trips down the canal.
“Being inside all the time was really debilitating,” he said. “Walking them [my dogs] became the only independence I had where I would leave the assisted living home; it was my freedom.”
Moving Toward Independence
Tim said his friend and business partner Jason also brought brightness to his life. Jason would encourage and challenge Tim to move forward, even at his darkest times.
“He would come and just sit with me,” Tim said. “The first night in assisted living I felt angry; part of me wanted to be alone, but part of me wanted someone there. Jason sat in a camping chair in my room for four hours while I sat in my chair and cried.”
One evening while visiting Tim, Jason suggested they start a business project together, establishing an outpatient drug and alcohol recovery center. Tim said working on the new company was a catalyst in integrating back into the community – it gave him foundation. In finding ways to help others, he found a new purpose and motivation to move forward.
“It didn’t matter whether or not I could succeed,” he said. “It didn’t matter whether I could do all the things I needed to do. What was important was that I just try. It was a huge turning point from languishing in boredom to reengaging in life.”
Tim voluntarily helped create Springboard Recovery with Jason, and the treatment center opened in November 2014 – the same month Tim received an eviction notice from the assisted living home.
Tim had previously made plans to move in March, giving himself enough time to find a suitable place to live. His caregiver, Esmeralda Sanchez, was pregnant at the time and would be taking maternity leave in December. Since the assisted living home had failed to find a replacement for Esmeralda, there was no one that could provide care for Tim’s injury, and he was considered a liability.
Over the next month, Tina called and visited around 50 apartment complexes, but found nothing that would fit Tim’s needs. Most apartments required modifications that would have cost him over $10,000, and he did not have enough time to apply for financial aid.
Just when finding a home seemed impossible, Tina suggested trying a newly-built apartment complex in Tempe. Tim knew he could not afford to live in the apartments, but Tina went to the leasing office anyway. The manager of the leasing office, whose best friend was a quadriplegic, understood Tim’s situation and connected him to the owners and developers of the complex. They agreed to make all of the modifications to an apartment to make it accessible for Tim, free of charge! In mid-January 2015, Tim Lambright moved out of the assisted living home and into an apartment of his own.
“My entire emotional state and psychological state have totally changed since I moved out,” he said. “Things are harder than they were when I was in assisted living, because I could push a pager button and someone would be there in a matter of minutes, and now I don’t have that luxury.”
Sanchez still works as Tim’s caregiver and comes every morning and night to help him. She said she admires Tim a lot and considers him a close friend.
“When Tim moved out of the assisted living home, it was pretty amazing,” Sanchez said. “He was a whole different person. For once in a long time he felt like he was free. Being in his own place gave him some of the independence that he needed.”
Even three years after the accident, Tim said his life is still full of many firsts. He has to think differently about everything.
“My life is a lot more challenging on the day-to-day basis than it ever was before,” He said. “It takes two to three hours for me to get up and get out the door with a caregiver, but I’ve found ways to make it work for me. I find the little perks in the experience.”
Tim now works for Springboard Recovery mostly from home by using his laptop and phone and goes to the office once or twice a week. He said that he has been able to use his creative energy to piece the company together, which has given him an even greater sense of accomplishment.
“It’s like a Swiss watch with different gears,” he said. “There are different pieces and somehow they all fit together to work. That’s how I picture a business opportunity and how I picture my transition to being independent. There are all of these little pieces, and I slowly have to work through them to make them fit together.”
Tim said he was probably more aggressive in making the transition than most people. He said he reframed the way he looked at things that seemed impossible and opened his eyes to new opportunities.
“Everywhere you turn you’re faced with challenges,” he said. “The trick is to find a way to navigate around or over the obstacles. It’s like running a marathon. The first couple miles are always tough, and then you get into a groove. Around mile 20, you hit a wall where your legs turn to concrete and your will can start to diminish, but to not complete it would just be insane. You just ran 20 miles; you’re almost there. You can’t give up.”
Tim visits the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Complex regularly and says that interacting with and meeting new people there encourages him.
“Getting to see other guys like me that have families is reassuring,” he said. “ I don’t need to know how it’s going to work out, but that engagement in the community, seeing how to do things or just finding hope that something is possible really was critical for me.”
Tim said he now has a new normal. His view on life has shifted. His accident made him slow down and focus on what really matters.
“It’s made his life fuller and helped him to be a more understanding and gentle person,” Tina said. “His measure of success has broadened and deepened.”
Tim said that through it all, he is thankful for what he has been through because it has taught him so much about himself and about life.
“The greater beauty and irony of the whole thing is that I can honestly say I am a happier, more peaceful man today than I was before my accident.”
“The greater beauty and irony of the whole thing is that I can honestly say I am a happier, more peaceful man today than I was before my accident. Even though I had all the trappings of life before – all the things that someone would think that they would want in their early thirties as far as a career and lifestyle – I can look back and though I don’t have all those things today, I have a lot more joy in my heart and in my life.”
Student Intern, ASU
Anna Werner is a junior at Barrett the Honors College at Arizona State University and served as the marketing intern at Ability360 last summer. She is studying journalism and is passionate about fitness, writing and traveling.