The biggest inspiration in my life is my brother Michael. He taught me how to be optimistic through adversity. How to relish a challenge. He taught me the value of a mindset shift and the power of a positive attitude.
Michael is disabled as a result of the Vietnam War. Twenty-one feet of his small intestine was either blown out on the battlefield or removed on the operating table. He also had damage to his large intestine, kidneys and other internal organs. Sorry to be so graphic, but I want you to fully appreciate his condition so you can understand the significance of what he overcame.
I remember the first time I saw him after he came home. He was at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, New York. If my mom and dad hadn’t been in the room when I entered, I never would have known it was my own brother lying there. He had gone from 170 pounds of Marine muscle to 88 pounds of skin and bone. At the end of the day, a doctor entered the room, approached my parents and said, “I’m sorry, but it doesn’t look promising at all.” I’ll never forget the look on their faces. The doctor continued, “It would be a miracle for him or anyone to survive such an ordeal.”
As all of this was happening, I remember staring at my brother and wondering if that was going to be the last time I would ever see him. Then I noticed something strange. His hand was slowly rising from his side—he was aware of what was going on. He must have heard the doctor’s prognosis, because he slowly clenched his fist and, to my surprise, his middle finger popped straight out. I remember saying, “That’s no muscle spasm!”
Luckily for that doctor, the raising of the middle finger replaced the words Michael was unable to verbalize. It became his declaration to the entire world that he was not going to give up on his life—that he would do more than survive, he would flourish. Counter to its generally accepted meaning, that extended finger was a symbol of hope and Michael’s personal salute to recovery. It represented his opinion of that doctor’s prognosis, and it was the answer he gave all of the doctors after that every time they told him what he couldn’t do. He found great joy in proving them wrong.
We now refer to this gesture as the “the finger of optimism” (or “up-timism,” as I put it). I knew without a doubt, from the raising of that finger, that the spirit that resided in Michael John Rizzo was still alive. His sense of humor was intact, and he clearly had his wits about him. Somehow, he was going to try and make it.
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One day, a group of doctors told him that because of his unique condition, he would need to adhere to a special lifelong diet consisting primarily of oatmeal, soups, fruit, baby food and juice. I mean, let’s face it; they were talking about someone who had only one foot of small intestine. Every time he swallowed something, he had difficulty retaining it. But my brother looked defiantly at the doctors and said, “No way! You will not tell me what I can and cannot do! I’m going to eat a bowl of pasta and a couple of meatballs, even if I have to sit on the toilet while I do it!”
Another time, he was being reprimanded by a doctor for eating a sandwich. My brother looked at the doctor and said, “The difference between you and me, Doc, is that you keep concentrating on the 21 feet of intestine I lost. And I keep concentrating on the 1 foot I still have. Let’s see what I can do with that.” Then he belched and said, “Now, what’s for dessert?”
Bear in mind that Michael was in a ward filled with young men who were suffering physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. He witnessed bodies being brought in and out for close to a year. Every day, he heard their cries. He felt their pain. At times, it must have been unbearable.
The many long, dark nights in the hospital provided plenty of opportunity for Michael to consider how unlucky and unfair a situation he was in, but I never once heard him utter so much as a “Why me?” He never blamed the war, the Marine Corps or his country. Surrounded by chaos and having to deal with his own plight, he was still able to harness enough energy to shift his focus onto what needed to be done to get himself out of there and what he was going to do once he did. In other words, through training himself to use the power of shifting, Michael literally created his own miracle, even when the odds were dead set against him.
It was this type of attitude that allowed Michael to find and navigate the road to recovery. When he finally was able to speak, the only words he allowed himself were those that served to build his self-esteem. And in time, Michael was able to adapt to his new digestive system. Doctors still don’t know how he does it, but he eats anything he wants and fully enjoys it.
Amazingly, Michael’s confidence was a stabilizing force for those around him. The family fed off his positive attitude, and even in the face of wave after wave of discouraging news, everyone’s spirits rose along with Michael’s health. It’s funny now to think that the most contagious thing at St. Alban’s during that period was Michael’s powerfully positive attitude. “I’m still Mike Rizzo,” he would say, and he would launch into a detailed description of what he was going to do once he was released from the hospital.
I swear there were times when he seemed to relish the challenge. He found great joy in proving the experts wrong. Every diagnosis he foiled put another notch on his victory belt, another step toward his full recovery.
Do you see the mindset he created? Do you understand how his viewpoint and choice of words created an empowering belief system that helped him to feel confident, even in a situation that took his mortality for granted? Can you see how this type of attitude can affect your present and future reality?
Some people say that my brother’s life and the way he lives it today fall nothing short of miraculous. I agree, completely. I believe in miracles. I also believe that when times are tough, especially when the odds are against us, we all have opportunities to perform our own miracles. It’s a matter of how you perceive and meet the challenge. And sometimes, we just need that one finger.
I believe without a doubt that Michael’s greatest weapon in his fight for survival was his steadfast determination to shift away from the negative forces that might consume him toward a positive, healthier mindset. He has an uncanny ability to shift his focus and way of thinking to instantly change how he views a challenging situation. This change in perception always gives him the hope, confidence and courage he needs to move forward. You can definitely say my brother has his shift together.
Another key concept that helped my brother meet the challenge of his recovery is that he never put his happiness on hold. Many of the wounded in that hospital created and held onto the belief that they couldn’t be happy with their current situation, or at best, that they would only begin to enjoy their lives if and when they had a full recovery. Michael took a different stance and worked hard to enjoy himself and find the laughter during the rebuilding process.
I am not by any means trying to insinuate that he did not have his bad days. At times, his situation seemed hopeless. But he knew he couldn’t allow himself to be taken over by negative forces. When he felt he was going down, he would build himself up with words of encouragement. Yes, he knew that his life would never be same. But in spite of that reality, he was able to choose to shift his focus to things that lifted his spirits. He insisted on surrounding himself with people who were optimistic and had a sense of humor.
To Michael, it was never the end of the world; rather it was the beginning of a new one. He viewed his situation as a challenge, not a catastrophe. Even the slightest accomplishment, like getting out of bed to walk to the bathroom without assistance, was a victory. Each victory brought more stability to his foundation of hope. Hope strengthened his conviction to be grateful for what he had. The more grateful he was, the more he tried to accomplish, and before long, he had created his own perpetual cycle, a whirlwind of positive energy that propelled him to achieve far more than anyone would have predicted. His gusto for life was extraordinary and still is.
When Michael was released from the hospital, he weighed 95 pounds. We were all surprised when he declared that he was going to go college and become a history teacher. To be honest, we had our doubts. Not only would his physical condition be an obstacle, but Michael wasn’t exactly a whiz kid in high school. We’re talking about a guy who had no academic or vocational skills at all.
Once again, Michael beat the odds. He graduated college with high honors and received degrees in history, education and administration. After graduating, he landed a job as a history teacher at the same high school he graduated from. After a few years, he was appointed the school’s attendance officer. Not too long after that, he became the assistant principal. He had the respect not only of the faculty, but of the students and parents as well. It was no surprise then when he was offered and accepted the position of principal of the local middle school. And when Michael was seriously contemplating retirement, the powers-that-be asked him to consider taking on the job of assistant superintendent of the entire school district, which of course he did. It was the perfect ending for a wonderful career.
Michael is now retired and traveling the world with his wife Joan. In the summer, he spends much of his time at his beautiful home in upstate New York. During the winter months, he resides in his condominium in Florida. Not bad for someone who was told he would never make it out of the hospital alive. My brother Michael’s experience proves to me that with the right attitude, even with only one foot of intestine, all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other.
Michael’s story is proof that it’s not what happens to us that determines our fate, but rather, what we do about what happens that makes the difference. It’s the choices we make and the actions we take along the way; it’s the thoughts we have, what we focus on and how we frame what we tell ourselves 24/7. It’s about making a rock-solid commitment to enjoy ourselves during the rebuilding process and to dare to find the laughter during the tough times.