Alex’s Story
©1999 by Michale Gabriel

Originally published in
Chicken Soup to Inspire the Body and Soul
edited by Diana von Welanetz and Dan Millman, Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

“Willie! Wait for me!” cried five-year-old Alex, busily maneuvering his bicycle across a busy street in Anchorage. He was trying to keep up with his older brother. He never saw the car until it was too late. The impact sent his bicycle flying. Moments later, Alex was being raced to the hospital in an ambulance.

For the next 30 days his family hovered at his bedside while doctors assessed the extent of the damage. The prognosis was not good. Alex would be permanently paralyzed from the neck down. It was called a C2 fracture – the same fracture that actor Christopher Reeves would suffer from just a few months later.

Alex would be in need of around the clock care the rest of his life. He would need complicated surgeries and to learn how to breathe using a ventilator. And he needed to be in a hospital that specialized in pediatric trauma cases. The decision was made to move him to Children’s Hospital in Seattle.

He had been at Children’s Hospital for ten days undergoing a series of tests, and procedures when Jacki, one of the child life specialists, asked if I would work with him. As founder and director of the Storytelling Residency Program at Children’s, I was often referred patients by the hospital staff.

She told me that although Alex could nod his head ‘yes or “no,” his face showed no effect and the only expression he registered was in his eyes. A breathing tube was inserted into his trachea. She cautioned me to have no expectations.

Before the accident, Alex was an effusive, talkative child, ready to comment on everything both in English and his native Spanish. He was one of seven siblings and the youngest of two boys. Now he was frightened, confused and hesitant to speak in this new way. His Latino parents tried to unsuccessfully coax phrases and sentences out of him. He would only speak when spoken to and used only single words to express his thoughts and feelings. No complete sentences.

Jacki explained that a singer’s visit to his room earlier in the day had produced no response even though, according to his mother, he was familiar with the songs.

When I entered Alex’s room, I was greeted by his mother. She led me to the bedside of her son. Staring up at me was a beautiful child with raven black hair and penetrating black eyes, framed by thick dark lashes. He was hurting and afraid. The only sound in the room was the bellowing rhythm of the ventilator, which on command filled Alex’s lungs with life-giving air through the tube in his trachea.

“Alex,” I said softly. “Would you like me to tell you a story?”

He said nothing. He just nodded his head, which was the only part of his body he could now move.

“This is an old, old story about a man who sold caps. It’s called Caps for Sale. And it goes something like this…”

I told him the folktale about a peddler who fell asleep under a tree with his hats on his head. When he woke up, his hats were gone. He found them on the heads of monkeys seated in the branches above him. The story is filled with the sounds of monkeys and repetitive dialogue such as “You monkeys you! Give me back my hats!” To illustrate the story I used actions ranging from the peddler stacking the hats on his head to him shaking his fists and stamping his feet at the mischievous monkeys.

I watched Alex’s eyes follow my fingers when I pointed into space at the imaginary tree. Twice during the story, I say his mouth move to form a word during a refrain. Good, I thought, he is making a connection.

After the story was over, I asked Alex if he would like to hear another. He nodded his head, “yes.” My intuition said to choose something that would be very familiar and that could actively engage him.

“Alex, I think you might know this one. It’s called The Three Bears. Do you know it?” He nodded “Yes.”

“Good! Once upon a time there were three bears….”

I came to the line, “One day the Mama Bear was making some… ” I stopped. I watched Alex’s mouth open. He whispered, almost inaudibly, “soup.”

Taking my cue from him I answered, “Yes that’s right Alex, soup! But that soup was too…”and I waited.

Sure enough, he whispered, “Hot!”

I continued, “And so the papa bear and the mama bear.” But I went no further. The story had already wrapped itself around him and Alex was ready to take control. Using the tube in his trachea, he began to fill his lungs with the oxygen he needed to support what he wanted to say. With his lips slowly and painstakingly forming every word, Alex said “The Paaapa Bear (inhale) and the Maaama Bear (inhale) and the Baaaby Bear (inhale) went for waaalk (inhale) in the woods.”

We witnessed the miracle: The first full sentences he had spoken since the accident. And it was a story had brought him back. He continued telling The Three Bears as the tears flowed freely down his grateful mother’s face.

I went into Alex’s room every day after that and told him folk, fairy and literary tales. He retold those stories to everyone else, much to their delight. He did not allow hospital staff to poke, prod or change a dressing without hearing a story first. I noticed the staff never complained about this process. They became like little children as he enchanted them with his gift of telling. Afterward he would insist that they retell the stories he had told them to someone else.

One of those stories was The Little Old Lady Who Wasn’t Afraid of Anything. Alex changed the heroine’s words to “I ain’t afraid of nothing.” He repeated those words every time his healing process offered him new challenges.

One day just before Christmas, I was rushing out of the hospital to attend a Celtic music concert. I was feeling stressed and in search of the holiday spirit. A friend was waiting at the performance hall with tickets.

As I was making my way down the corridor toward the waiting elevator, Alex’s sister flagged me down and said, “Oh Michale, Alex has had such a bad day. Can you tell him a story?” I looked at my watch and made some quick calculations. If I could keep my story to 5 minutes I would arrive one minute before curtain. So I went into Alex’s room, told him a quick story and was heading out the door when he said excitedly, “Michale, I want to tell you a story!”

“You do?” I answered.

“Yes,” he said beaming, “From inside of my head.”

I looked at his radiant face. In it I saw a gift, waiting to be given. I realized there would always be another concert. But there would never be another moment like this one. I released the concert, trusting my friend would understand. I sat down next to Alex, took a deep breath and opened my heart to the moment.

He started his story in a time-honored tradition. “Once upon a time,” he began. Suddenly I heard the words write this story down. I stopped Alex mid-sentence, slipped out of the room and grabbed a notepad off the nurse’s station. I saw several nurses, a doctor and a physical therapist standing nearby. I heard the words again. Invite them. I did and they invited others. Within minutes (good news travels fast at Children’s) nine people – doctors, nurses, therapists, aides and orderlies – surrounded Alex’s bed, gently calling forth his story through their enthusiastic listening. I wrote down every word.

The more we responded to Alex, the more richly detailed the story became. As I looked around the room, I could see that he had successfully transported all of us to that place where time stands still and miracles are created. I didn’t have to travel to a concert hall to be filled with the holiday spirit. It had come to me in the form of a five-year-old boy expressing his gift.

When Alex finished, we broke out in a thunderous applause. He rolled his eyes as a way of deflecting our unabashed adoration but he clearly loved the attention.

I turned the notepad toward him and began flipping the pages. “Alex, look at this. These are your words. You are a writer.”

“I am?” he replied, his expressive face turning into a question mark.

“Yes, Alex look at this. You are a storyteller.”

“I am?” A huge grin was making its way across his face.

“Yes, you are. Alex, I’m going to put your story on computer. We’ll print it out and it will be your first book. We will now call you, Alex Guerreo, author and storyteller.”

“Really?” he asked incredulously. He had to repeat the words “author” and “storyteller” so that they could sink in.

“Alex,” I added, leaning forward so that it looked like I was peering into the top of his head.

“What, Michale?”

“Alex,” I replied, leaning even closer.

“What?” he asked quizzically.

“Alex,” I sang a third time, because we always did things in cycles of three,

“What, Michale?” he demanded.

“Alex, I see hundreds of more stories inside your head.”

He immediately rolled his eyes skyward attempting to see what I saw. “Michale, are you sure?” he replied.

“I’m sure sweetheart, I’m sure.”

After that, whenever anyone walked into Alex’s room, he would say, “I’m going to tell you a story from inside of my head. Write it down.” Soon his original stories lined the walls of his room.

Alex would often ask me to act out his stories as he directed my every move. “More expression! More expression, Michale!” he shouted as I galloped about his room, whinnying like a horse or snorting like a pig. He loved being in control of another person in this antiseptic setting, where so much was beyond his control.

It was through the power of storytelling that he also began to create meaning out of his accident. One day he said to his mother, “Mommy, along time ago, when I was inside of your tummy, I was happy. Why was I born?” The answers to that question reside deep inside. As he is ready, he will communicate them through metaphors and stories.

Alex left Children’s hospital two months later using his head to expertly maneuver his electric wheelchair, decorated with Alaska Husky puppet armrests. Dozens of cheering medical staff and volunteers lined the halls, giving voice to their love for him and their commitment to his healing.

Alex had discovered something very important during his rehabilitation. He was not bound by the body that held him captive. Through his imagination, love and the power of story, he could travel anywhere in the universe and back again. And so, I discovered, can we.