Most people have a story to tell and Michael Gilbert tells his concisely and in his own words. When talking about his life experiences, Mr. Gilbert identified four compelling themes: his music, work, physical fitness, and family.
He introduced himself succinctly, "I'm a musician." He reflected on how he developed this primary identity and his musical skills. "As a youngster, my family and I went to church where I learned many styles of gospel music. I also heard a lot of great speakers." He and his friends learned to sing a capella. "In those days, it was all about who could sing best! We weren't interested in any kind of gang stuff. Later on, I learned how to play guitar from my older brother, Sam Lawhorn, who played with the late, great Muddy Waters." Mr. Gilbert plays guitar and harmonica with various musical groups. On February 26, 2010 Mr. Gilbert and other musicians played in a band at the 2010 NUPOC Gala. The band, Cue Balls, was a crowd pleaser at that event.
Music continues to be a major focus in Mr. Gilbert's life. Like his life, his music covers a variety of styles and genres. Whether playing the guitar or harmonica, he enjoys playing with other musicians. "My older brother, Sam, passed on 15 years ago, but what I learned from him stays with me. I continue to play bass guitar, some percussion, and the harmonica. The harmonica is a genius investment. For just $20, you can have a great musical instrument that you can carry in your pocket. How could anyone go wrong with that?"
He has held several jobs and currently works at the Great Lakes Naval Facility. For 20 years, Mr. Gilbert selectively has worked the graveyard shift from about 8:00pm to 4:00am and he sleeps during the day between 10:00am and 3:00pm. He reflected, "Other people might want to go out and party at night, or have trouble sleeping during the day, but I don't have any problem with that."
Mr. Gilbert explained that at the age of 12 years old, he was struck by a drag racer. The accident resulted in amputation of his left leg and put him in a coma for a month. "I was in a coma and on life support. The doctors were doubtful that I'd recover and suggested that my family consider pulling the plug." Mr. Gilbert regained consciousness, but had amnesia about the accident. When he woke up he did not know where he was. He recalls bright lights and hovering medical staff who asked, "Michael, can you hear me?" He remembers feeling confused about what had happened to him. He continued, "Most of all, I could not understand why I was restrained. I had no memory of the accident or the time that had passed. I remember that I was struggling against the restraints and they called in my mother. She was hugging me and calmed me down. She was a nurse for 20 years and she was able to explain everything to me so I understood. She was always able to explain everything so well that it didn't seem so bad."
His leg developed gangrene and had to be amputated. Later, he had a surgical revision of his residual limb, essentially another amputation. "I was a child, so my mother had to make all the decisions for me. It must have been hard for her, but as a nurse, she knew what to do. I did not want to have another operation, but after I came home, she took a leave of absence from her job and took care of me. My mother explained things so no matter how tragic you thought it was, she made it seem like everything would be all right."
And, in spite of a life-changing accident, coma, and leg amputation, everything did turn out all right. Mr. Gilbert explained, "I lost this leg when I was young. Whether I was in a wheelchair, on crutches, or using a prosthesis, my brothers and friends never left me. When I was in a chair, they pushed me…fast! I was always part of the social group. I was never left out and never left on the side. It is different losing a leg when you're 12 compared to when you're 50. At that time, I didn't think about what I used to do that I would not be able to do. As a kid, it was all about what I was going to do! Like, ride a bike and go to the prom. My mindset was being able to go and do things and achieve new activities. It was never about what I won't be able to do. In order to go up, I had to grow up. As a child, I did not have any of the problems that people face when they lose a leg in adulthood. It is hard on them in ways that it wasn't hard on me."
Part of growing up to be a man in south Chicago meant being physically and mentally strong. Mr. Gilbert reflected, "It was tough on a boy between the ages of 14 and 17. I don't mean because of gangs. As a youngster, it was a hard time just to pass through other neighborhoods. Fights developed over things you have no control over, silly stuff, not gang stuff. I started lifting weights in high school."
"When I was about 15 or 16, bullies would run at you, but I actually could not run away. So I had to stand my ground. I got a reputation for standing up to a bully, but it wasn't because I did not want to run. I couldn't run. I had no choice, so I boxed him. Before my accident, my mother had sent me to judo so I had a little self defense. I can remember about 3 big fights from that time. I came out on top and that established a pecking order. There was no problem after that." Mr. Gilbert continues to be strong, fit, and energetic. He is physically active and still lifts weights.
Looking back on his life experience, Mr. Gilbert recollected that music and his family made all the difference in his life. "My life is all about music. Also, I had a very excellent family. I can't imagine never having my family. I was never left out of anything. My family always supported me." Michael Gilbert has volunteered as a Patient Model in Prosthetics at NUPOC for 30 years. NUPOC appreciates Mr. Gilbert for sharing his story and for his many years of contribution.
(Interview and story by R. J. Garrick, PhD)
Become an Educational Model
If you have a physical disability or use a prosthesis or orthosis and would like to volunteer as an Educational Model at NUPOC, please contact Ken Harris.