Coping with Paralysis 'If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame'
Part 2: 'We Can Be of Use to Other Wheelchair Users'
SPIEGEL: Go ahead.
Pozzo di Borgo: I think that we disabled people shouldn't be the only ones who are friendly. In fact, all people are dependent on one another. We all need each other. If the non-disabled were also friendlier, both to us and to each other, the world would be a more pleasant place. Kindness is good for everyone.
SPIEGEL: You were 42 when you broke your spine in a paragliding accident. How do you think you would have coped with it if you had had the accident at Samuel's age?
Pozzo di Borgo: For a young man like Samuel, it's a great deal more difficult to come to terms with such a blow, much more difficult than for me. I had already led a first, great life, an active, successful life in the business world as a champagne industry executive, for 20 years. At 42, it's certainly easier to come to terms with a second and totally different life than at 23. I was certainly more fortunate than Samuel. It's better to get into the disabled business at a more mature age. On the other hand, he now has a higher life expectancy than I do. The younger you are when you have the accident, the better the body adjusts to it. I'm not worried about him.
SPIEGEL: Do you agree, Mr. Koch, that Philippe was more fortunate?
Koch: Of course, age does make a difference. But I don't think that you can say which of us is happier or unhappier now. Calamities can't be categorized. It always depends on how the individual deals with it. For some people, being separated from their parents can be much more painful than paralysis is for others.
SPIEGEL: You had just moved away from your parents and started living an independent life. Then you had to return home because you needed care. Of all unfavorable moments, was it the most unfavorable?
Koch: It's true that I was full of motivation and just about to get my life going when all that was suddenly cut short. Although it's never a good time for something like this, it was and still is a pretty bitter experience. On the other hand, I had also spent 20 years having a really great childhood and youth, and I'm thankful for the wonderful time I was able to have.
Samuel Koch's father Christoph is sitting on a chair two meters away, listening to the conversation and observing Samuel, including the posture of his head and his facial expressions. Occasionally he gets up and holds a water bottle with a straw in front of his son's chin, so that he can drink. Later on, he massages Samuel's neck muscles. Pozzo di Borgo proves to be an avid coffee drinker, as he had told us before the interview. He drinks his coffee through a straw.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, millions of Germans witnessed your accident on live television. And Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, more than eight million Germans and more than 20 million people in France watched the film version of your story. You are both among the most prominent paralytics in Germany. Is this a blessing or a curse?
Pozzo di Borgo: More of a blessing. Perhaps, because of our celebrity, we can be of use to other wheelchair users, and perhaps even for the non-disabled. I have nothing against being the clown of the system. It's okay. I've always been convinced that we have a responsibility, no matter what state of health we're in.
Koch: For me it's both. I already feel uncomfortable when I'm sitting alone in my room, in my wheelchair, and can't move. And I really feel this sense of discomfort when I go outside and other people are looking at me. It's even worse when cameras are pointed at me. But as Philippe said: If this publicity does some good or is somehow productive, it helps you cope a little with the senselessness of this sort of accident, if only because it has led to something meaningful in other respects.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, do you feel uncomfortable when you're lying in your wheelchair and others are looking at you?
Pozzo di Borgo: I was 42 when I got into this thing. You acquire a certain maturity after a while. I really don't care what people think about me. It's like this: Our society places a great deal of value on things like youth and performance, and being athletic and full of energy. That's why many people have trouble coping with the fact that we've been slowed down so much and that we have so little ability to react. People are afraid of us. The only thing we can do is to seduce them, with our smiles and with our humor. Once we've made the connection, we're home free. Touch us!
SPIEGEL: How do you make that connection?
Pozzo di Borgo: Whenever a woman approaches me, I ask her to give me a hug. I ask men to shake my hand. It's a way to reassure people, because they're afraid of their own weakness.
SPIEGEL: Do you also feel that people are awkward around you?
Koch: Yes, of course. I try to react the way Philippe does. I just say: "Kisses are welcome." Or something like that.
SPIEGEL: What sorts of awkwardness do you observe when people try to interact with you?
Koch: The classic one is the outstretched hand hanging in front of my face. The hand just sits there and sits there, until the other person starts to blush in embarrassment, because he realizes that I can't return the handshake.
Pozzo di Borgo: In Paris, I occasionally fall out of my wheelchair. Then I say to people: Would you please put me back in my wheelchair? But no one touches me. We usually have to wait for the fire department to arrive. But that's part of what I call my "job."
Koch: Some people talk to me as if I weren't just physically but also mentally disabled. They bend down to my level and ask, carefully articulating every word: "C-a-n y-o-u u-n-d-e-r-s-t-a-n-d t-h-e w-o-r-d-s t-h-a-t a-r-e c-o-m-i-n-g o-u-t o-f m-y m-o-u-t-h?" Then I say: Of course I can. What's wrong with you? Why are you talking like that? It certainly happens that people associate mental disability with a wheelchair. But I can't say that I was better able to make the distinction when I could still walk.
SPIEGEL: What about you, when you could still walk?
Pozzo di Borgo: I was so successful, so fast and so driven that I didn't even notice other people. I didn't see that there are people who live in a different rhythm. In a sense, I needed the blow to my head to be able to stop, and to understand what's really going on.
SPIEGEL: Jokes keep popping up in the books you've both written. You have almost a humoristic take on your situation. Do you have a favorite joke about paralytics?
Pozzo di Borgo: Do you know where to find a paralytic?
Pozzo di Borgo: Back where you left him.
Koch: Yeah, that's a good one.
SPIEGEL: Are the disabled the only ones who can crack disabled jokes?
- Part 1: 'If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame'
- Part 2: 'We Can Be of Use to Other Wheelchair Users'
- Part 3: 'I'm Constantly Afraid I Will Be Left Alone in a Corner'
- Part 4: 'Women Aren't Afraid of Fragility'