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New normal: Retired UNM dean recounts his recovery and determination to heal in memoir

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Eight years ago, Jim Linnell of Albuquerque had a terrible accident while on a family vacation in Mexico. Linnell fell off a porch and into a hole, suffering an injury to his spinal cord that rendered him a quadraplegic, though as it developed, not permanently.

His memoir “Take It Lying Down, Finding My Feet After a Spinal Cord Injury” explains his two years of recovery and his determination to heal – physically and emotionally – supported by the power of love and dedication of his wife, Jennifer, son Matt, stepsons Hadrian and Jason, and the medical professionals in his rehabilitation.

The 78-year-old Linnell insists he could not have made the recovery by himself. “Nobody does this alone,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s a blessing – I feel that way about myself,” Linnell said. “I can imagine many turns in the road of giving up or of the recovery not working out as well as it did, or that I would not be back to normal.”

Indeed, today his new normal is dealing with spasms, aches and pains, moving around with a walker (and a special walker with pneumatic tires for walking along a nearby South Valley ditch), having a specially adapted van so he can, by himself, place the walker inside and drive.

Despite those issues, as well as occasional lapses into whining, Linnell said, “I feel so connected to life, and I don’t want to leave.”

The accident happened six months before his planned retirement. He was chairman of the University of New Mexico’s Theatre and Dance Department and had been dean of the College of Fine Arts. He returned to teach in a wheelchair, and at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, he retired in a wheelchair.

Jim Linnell

A year after the accident, his health improved, shifting from wheelchair to walker. He sometimes works out with a cane, and sometimes without, though wobbly. He does Pilates once a week, receives acupuncture intermittently and uses an elliptical device at home.

“How do I operate differently now? A point of comparison is time. There is the time it takes me to do things that once were quick,” Linnell writes in the memoir. Simple things such as typing on the computer, putting a check in an envelope, paying for coffee in a cafe, stashing his wallet, then handling the hot coffee cup.

The book is more than a well-told medical story of survival and recovery.

Linnell reflects on growing up in a small Maine town, his relations with his parents, his studying at the protest-stormy University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s.

The book is even more than a personal history. It’s an exploration of human mortality he references in plays from the ancient Greeks to Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.”

Len Jenkin writes in the book’s foreword that Linnell’s suffering is always with him, “yet, despite whatever pain he may be in, whatever hopelessness invades his mind, his sense of humor never leaves him.”

These days, Linnell, who is also a poet and playwright, is writing another book. It’s called ‘Stool Pigeons: Idioms Confess Their Stories.”

“It’s a novel driven by a series of characters whose lives are told in episodes headlined by idioms,” he said.