Reasons & Remarks – Butterfly Effect

The quality of life for those with spinal cord injuries today was made possible by the tireless efforts of earlier pioneers

Shortly after breaking my neck during a 1991 parachuting accident with the Navy SEALs, I was admitted to the San Diego Department of Veterans Affairs Healthcare System’s spinal-cord injury and disease (SCI/D) center.

Like any new patient, I was wondering why this happened to me, what did the future look like and what’s up with those butterflies?! For months, I lay in my bed staring at these hand-painted Rhopaloceras on the ceiling and wondered why — of all the things to paint on the ceiling of a hospital full of veterans, why butterflies?

I asked my nurses if the butterflies symbolized something, but none of them had an answer. I asked the same question of the SCI/D psychologist, but she, too, was unaware of their purpose or origin. Then, the hospital’s chaplain came to my bed and asked me why I had so many questions about the butterflies.

A few years later, I was admitted to the same SCI/D center, and it wasn’t long before those butterflies started bothering me — again. But this time I got an answer, albeit somewhat vague. The hospital’s director came to my bedside and told me the butterflies were a project of an artist who, with the help of other patients, painted the butterflies on the ceiling tiles. He said the butterflies represented the transformation that patients experience as they go through rehabilitation. I have to admit, it makes for a pretty good metaphor.

Think about it: The physiological life cycle of a butterfly is extraordinary when considering its transformation from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis (pupa) to butterfly. Each of these stages of metamorphosis is akin to the stages of our rehabilitation. The only difference is that butterflies don’t need to deal with hospital food and snoring roommates.
Nonetheless, after we’re considered rehabilitated and the so-called transformation is complete, we’re released into the wild. And yet, the metaphor of the butterfly remains applicable even after we’re discharged.

Here in North America, the most understood butterfly is the monarch. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, and they’re the only species to migrate such a vast distance. Since the life expectancy of a typical adult monarch is measured in just weeks and the thousands of miles traveled during a two-way migration is measured in months, it can take up to five generations of butterflies to make the round-trip. Each generation has only a small window of time to cover a great distance and fulfill its part in an astonishing journey.

So, you’re probably wondering why I think this phenomenon relates to us? Well, it’s not just the fact that they like to migrate south during the winter months for the warmer weather. The monarchs know it’s about the survival of their own species. The monarch migration tells us a story about how playing our part really matters and how we ought to pursue a meaningful journey that continues beyond our lifetime. I guess you can say this is the monarchs’ way of paying it forward. For them, it comes naturally. It’s in their DNA.

But unlike the monarchs, humans can make a choice. We can simply live in the present and enjoy the accomplishments of previous generations, or we can take actions toward outcomes that go beyond ourselves. This can only be achieved by having a shared vision and a commitment from others to work toward a destination — whatever that destination may be.

We’ve come a long way since that first generation of veterans with spinal-cord injuries came home after World War II. They initiated our great migration. And over the past 75-plus years, every subsequent generation has resisted its own version of status quo, which is why we enjoy the quality of life that we have today.

We can’t allow the work of those past generations to be in vain, so continuing their collective effort is paramount. Like the story of the monarchs, every generation has only a small window of time to cover a great distance, and we must all fulfill our part in this astonishing journey.

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