7. Dale Spencer – Train Trestle Fall to Inspiring Speaker

Dale Spencer

 Dale slipped and fell from a railroad trestle when he was 20 years old. In a moment his life was dramatically changed. He spent two and a half months in the hospital and had to learn how to live life in a wheelchair. Dale shares his journey and how his positive thinking led him to become a speaker and deliver the important message to Think First .

Dale lives in the western suburbs of Chicago. He is a mortgage broker and a Key-note speaker, in many topics. I asked him about his religious beliefs prior to the interview, to get an idea of how they may have changed.

He was brought up Catholic and went to church every Sunday. As a kid, you don’t realize the full understanding of spirituality and faith. When it came to his injury it really put his faith to the test, as well as his family.

You can listen to the entire interview on the Podcast: Here 

Near-Death Experience

It was December or 1988. Dale was with his friends from Northern Illinois University and it was the end of his first semester, junior year.

He had to take a break from studying and they went to a local party and went on foot. They decided to take a shortcut and had to go on railroad tracks.  A very unsafe place to begin with.

He was a 20-year-old guy, wasn’t too worried, just thought they would be careful.  It was a poorly lit area, about 1 am, they were walking along the tracks, and came upon a railway trestle.

They walked across and were spread apart. Dale slipped on a railroad tie and fell about 4 stories into a river. It was only about a foot deep, and what may have saved him is the fact that he was conscious.


After Effects and Inside the Experience

Dale knew something was wrong. He opened his eyes and tried to process that one moment he was walking along the tracks, the next he was looking up at the trestle partly submerged in freezing cold water.

He jerked his back to move and had a tremendous and very acute and sharp pain going down his vertebrae, his legs were completely numb.

He couldn’t move so he yelled out to his friends. He had no idea how far away they were. He kept screaming and screaming until they were able to follow his voice and find him. He didn’t know if it was 5 minutes or an hour.

They knew not to move him and went to a nearby house and called an ambulance. The ambulance was there within minutes. They asked him some questions and knew he had a serious injury. They didn’t want to cause further damage so they collared his neck, put a flat board underneath him, picked him up slowly, put him in the ambulance and took him to the local hospital.

They couldn’t treat him at the local hospital, so they transferred him by helicopter to, North Western Memorial Hospital, downtown Chicago,  a level one trauma center.

On the way to the hospital, they checked his vitals and they were doing a skin poking test to see where he could feel. At that time, he thought that it was just a shock to his system, he thought he would get the feeling back in his legs.

He had a battery of tests, exams, and x-rays. It was conclusive that he had a spinal cord injury. It was horrific every moment he was awake, but it gave him clarity, exactly what happened to him every step of the process.

Dale believes the whole notion,  that things happen for a reason, and for the last 20 years, he has been talking to high school and middle school students about injury prevention. He takes them through the whole process of everything he went through every step of the way.

He was in the hospital for about 2 1/2 months. He had an operation right away. There are 3 sections of vertebrae that surround the spinal cord. He landed on his feet, and snapped his back forward and that t-12 sliced right into the spinal cord.

There is no cure for a spinal cord injury. The doctors didn’t want to go near it. It took nearly 11 hours for the doctors to remove the smashed vertebrae.  Listen to Dale share the procedure at 09:50.

He was taken to ICU after. He realized how important his familial and friendships were. After he was injured his best friend kind of was vapor, kind of blew him off. He tells his younger audience, “You think this is one of the most horrific things that can happen in a person’s life,  but it isn’t.”  He realized after time it was one of the best things that could have happened in his life.

He knew who supported him, who had his back, it was one of the most important life lessons he ever had.

He still feels guilty, 26 years later, for what he put these people through. He tells his students, that the decision he made caused these people to suffer.

To give back, he teaches them that our decisions have ramifications and consequences. “You have to think first and use your mind to protect your body.” His organization is called, Think First Injury Prevention.

Moving On

Dale went through rehab. The end goal was to become independent. His injury is from the hips down.  He can do everything independently except for the stairs.

He had a physical therapist, to help him build his upper body. He had lost a lot of energy and muscle mass after the injury.

The first time he put his clothes on took about 45 minutes. An occupational therapist helped him to find ways to put on socks, and shoes; now it only takes him a couple of minutes.

He learned new tasks; making a bed, opening a door, getting up a curb and many more tasks that he used to take for granted.

In 1988 the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)  law came into effect. It took some time for all the changes to take effect. Dale had a cell phone, which was a necessity for him. He would call ahead to find out if there was a disabled parking space, and if it was handicap accessible. If it was not, he would request they meet him and help him up the stairs.

Being vehemently independent,  Dale tried to problem solve these things himself to get from point A to point B. Rehab gave him the tools to help him get through these problems.

It took a couple of months to figure out and be able to resolve these situations. Things such as falling out of the wheelchair, happen rehab helped give him the tools to solve these things himself.

I asked Dale if he has always been so positive. He was very humble about taking a compliment and told me that he has always been, the glass is half full guy. In his case, a traumatic experience helped him realize what kind of motivation and perseverance you have inside you.

He tells us he has been put to the test and is still being put to the test. He takes to heart, to mind, learns from the past, but really focus on the journey in front of you.

Positivity can be infectious, Dale said. “I don’t pat myself on the back, I say,  If I can do it you can do it.”

He went through the five stages of grief: Anger, denial, depression, bargaining, and acceptance. Everyone goes through it when they have some type of trauma in their lives.

He had an underlying goal and push forward,  to get back to school, get his degree, get back to his friends and gain meaningful employment. He had moments he felt depressed, but he always kept his eye on the prize, keeping the end goal in mind.

Family and Religion

Dale’s mom wrestled with her faith after the accident. Dale tells me it was his decision, not God’s’ decision. It is easy to blame God or someone else, but Dale is fine with taking the responsibility.

The optimism helped him and others around him, to feel better about the situation and that he was moving on with his life and not obsessing about the injury.

I asked Dale to share more about his Moms’ challenge with faith. He told me there was a time that it was hard to go back to church for a while, we may think, Why would God do this?

Situations like this can also bring us closer to God and have, be stronger with our faith and our resolve, and not only how we can help ourselves but how we can help others. 

Books or Resources

Dale never read self-help books, at 20 years old, when the accident happened. Since he has been a part of, Think First Injury Prevention, it opened his eyes to the concept of paying it forward.

Dale has 60 or 70 self-help books. His morning starts with positive affirmations, he reads every morning. It keeps his mind focused and reading in the morning gives his day a good start.

His top books are: