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Being a father can be really hard work. As one of the country's most famous fathers, President Barack Obama, said during his annual Father's Day address back in 2011: "This Father's Day weekend I'd like to spend a couple minutes talking about what is sometimes my hardest, but always my most rewarding job: being a dad."
But for Maryland native Richie Lynch, being a dad has been especially tough. For one thing, it took him and his wife a while to get there.
"We were married, three years or so?" he says with a laugh. "She's going to kill me if I don't get the dates right! Then we decided to have a family. Tried the natural way, but I was told my guys were a little bit too slow. So I had to break out the science." After four rounds of in-vitro fertilization, in the early 2000s, Richie and his wife learned they weren't just due for one child. They were due for three.
When asked what it was like to get the news, Richie says, "after they cleaned me up off the floor, it's all a blur!"
But something else that's challenged 46-year-old Richie Lynch as a father is the fact that he's a C5 quadriplegic; he broke his neck in 1987.
Waking up to changes
He was 21, a college kid, and he and some buddies had been partying at a wedding reception in Maryland. After several cocktails too many, they stumbled upon a swimming pool. Richie dove in... to the shallow end.
"I hit the top of my head, I remember that," he says.
But the collision didn't knock him out — not instantly, anyway.
"I played football for years and you get these things called 'stingers,' when you hit your head too hard and your neck, and you feel a little electricity shoot down to your fingertips maybe sometimes depending on how you get hit," he explains.
Only this time, Richie didn't just feel that electricity shooting down to his fingertips. "This time it was all four limbs," he says.
And that's when he knew, right then and there, "I did something bad." Soon after, Richie Lynch passed out. And when he came to, he was in a bed in Bethesda's Suburban Hospital.
"Tubes were sticking out of everywhere," he recalls. "They were worried about pneumonia."
He wound up fighting pneumonia for several weeks, and when the doctors finally diagnosed his broken neck, they did surgery to stabilize his spinal cord, which, luckily, hadn't been severed all the way through.
"It is only impaired [on] the motor side," he says. "I still have the sensory sides intact."
Richie explains that "as far as the disability is concerned, there's a lot of different levels. There's the Christopher Reeve quadriplegic. He broke his vertebrae higher up in his neck; he was a C2/C3."
Appreciating what you have
As a C5, Richie has a bit more ability. Granted, he is impaired in all four limbs. From his mid-chest down he lacks voluntary muscle control. His triceps don't really function, which limits his reach. And his hands don't open and close voluntarily. But he can propel himself in a wheelchair. And that, he says, has come in mighty handy, as he's dashed around raising his 12-year-old triplets: Brendan, Hailey and Nicole.
And through it all, Richie says, they've always accepted him just as he is.
"From their point of view, Dad's always been in a chair, so to them it's just Dad's in a chair," he says. "And when they were younger I was a jungle gym, so they would crawl all over the place, get their fingers in my wheels, I was basically stuck!"
Something else that's been weirdly special about him, the chair, and his children, Richie says, has to do with height and speed.
"I'm a little more accessible to them, height-wise," he explains. "And I can't get up and boogie whenever I want to, so they spend a lot of time coming up and chitchatting with me, and talking, and giving me hugs when I don't expect it. So as a dad that can't really go out and throw the ball with my kids or do some of those things, I try and make up for it in other ways."
He also tries to teach his kids some indispensable lessons. Because every now and again they have come up to him and asked, "Dad, do you ever wish you weren't in a chair?"
"And I say, 'Of course!'" Richie explains. "I mean, if I could roll it all over again and do it, I definitely wouldn't be in the chair. I was not headed down the right path when I wasn't in the chair, and being in the chair certainly wakes you up right away and gets you serious about life."
It also gets you serious about how quickly life can change.
"So appreciate what you have now," Richie urges. "Don't take it for granted. I try and remind them what they have, and not to dwell on what they don't have."
And Richie does try to practice what he preaches. Not that he's some sort of Pollyanna. He does acknowledge that certain things are "a pain in the ass."
"Not being in charge of your own personal care," he says "Showers and going to the bathroom and stuff. Yeah, that's a real hassle."
But overall, he says, life is pretty sweet. Thanks to months of rehab at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital, he strengthened whatever mobility he had left.
Thanks to new technology, he can wheel around and work his dream job as a graphic designer, which, he knows, might seem a bit unexpected: "You hear a quad's coming in for a job interview as a job designer, and you're like 'Oh my God, how is he going to do this?'" Richie says with a laugh.
Most of all, though, Richie Lynch can look around at his life, and recognize the preciousness of what he's got.
"Going down the hall in rehab there were guys that were these high quads. And then you're pretty happy that you can scratch your own nose."
And, in his case, pretty happy you can hug your own kids. "Yeah," Richie Lynch says, his face beaming brightly. "It's true."
[Music: "Precious Little Variation" by Eric Shimelonis from Precious Little]
Photos: Lynch Family