A Life Turned Upside Down: Gordon Palmer Takes the Path Less Traveled
by Mark Udry
Gordon Harris Palmer
Senior Attorney, State of Florida, Unemployment Appeals Commission
Vice President, Florida Disabled Outdoors Association
Associate in Arts, Palm Beach Junior College, 1982
Bachelor of Business Administration, Florida Atlantic University, 1985
Juris Doctorate, Florida State University, College of Law, 1988
May 29, 1977
That date is profoundly significant in the life of Gordon Harris Palmer. He can recall it as easily as his birth date. That day marks both the end of one way of life and the beginning of another.
Palmer had been 18 years old for all of eight weeks. He was tall, strong, well-built, with shoulder-length blond hair, popular with girls. It was Memorial Day weekend; high school graduation was coming up. To celebrate, Palmer and a friend drove down to Miami to catch a Fleetwood Mac concert. While he was there, Palmer ran into an ex-girlfriend, and after the show the three went bar-hopping. Palmer’s friend, who had driven the two down to Miami, said he was too tired and asked Palmer to drive them back.
The car was a two-seat MG Midget convertible – a car so small you don’t get in it as much as you put it on. There were no seat belts, no roll bar, no airbags. Bleary-eyed and fuzzy-minded, Palmer got on I-95 and started driving home to Lake Clarke Shores near West Palm Beach, over an hour away.
They never made it back.
“I remember getting in the car and driving on the interstate in Miami,” said Palmer. “The next thing I know, I’m lying in a hospital bed. I passed out at the wheel, went straight through a curve into the median and the car flipped.”
The crash turned the car into a tangled confetti of metal, plastic and rubber. Both teens were ejected from the Midget; Palmer’s friend miraculously only suffered a dislocated shoulder and an injured knee along with some cuts and scrapes.
Palmer had damaged his spinal cord at the C4-5 level and was paralyzed from the chest down.
“It was every parent’s worse nightmare come to life,” said Palmer. “The hospital staff was telling them I might not make it and that they should start making final arrangements.”
Palmer spent eight weeks in a Ft. Lauderdale intensive care unit, six of those on a respirator to help him breathe. He was then transferred to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where he stayed the next six months rehabbing from his injury.
The transition from being an active, independent teenager was difficult for him. Palmer’s free time had been spent surfing, water-skiing, swimming and skateboarding. The kid who, in his words, “felt invincible,” who at 17 had backpacked alone across Europe for five weeks, now needed round-the-clock care just to stay alive.
“When you’re in rehab there’s a lot of peer support. We all encouraged each other because that’s the only way you had any hope of getting better,” said Palmer. “But after I got home…we had a house on the lake, and I would sit for hours, looking out at the water where I used to water ski. I thought about killing myself many times but did not want to put my family and friends through that. To say my life had changed was a severe understatement. However, I also knew I had to do something with my life and keep my butt out of a nursing home.”
Both of Palmer’s parents – Buddy, an electrical contractor and business owner, and Eloise, an elementary school teacher – were college graduates and stressed the importance of higher education to their four children. Palmer set his sights on a college degree.
In January of 1979, Palmer enrolled in two classes at Palm Beach Junior College. His friends and family held fundraising events to purchase a van for him to travel back and forth to campus to attend classes, with his mom, dad, his younger brother, Donald, or friends at the wheel.
“PBJC was a good place for me to go for a college education and get adjusted to my new life in a wheelchair,” said Palmer. “Even back in those days, the campus was fairly accessible, and that was in the days before the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). The disabled student services department was helpful with paying student note-takers and having rooms available for taking tests and other services. The only problem I really had was, since I didn’t have full use of my arms or hands, I had to wait for someone to open a door for me.”
Palmer graduated from the College with an A.A. degree in May of 1982, but the triumph was short-lived. Eloise Palmer had developed colon cancer the year before, and chemotherapy and radiation failed to beat back the disease; she died in September 1982.
It was in his junior year at Florida Atlantic University that Palmer began thinking about how he was going to support himself and maintain any semblance of independence. After graduating from FAU in 1985, Palmer attended law school at Florida State University.
“I chose FSU because it had an independent living facility for students with disabilities,” Palmer said. “It also took me out of my comfort zone because all my family and friends were living in south Florida. I figured a career as a lawyer would provide me a decent income for me to pay for my life as a quadriplegic. There’s a lot of out-of-pocket expenses associated with my disability, and I knew I’d have to fend for myself – there was no way I was going to end up in a nursing home.”
Palmer received his law degree in August 1988, passed the bar exam and was hired as an attorney with the State of Florida Unemployment Appeals Commission the following year, where he has worked for almost 23 years. He listens to recordings of unemployment hearings, reads over the state’s hearing officer’s decisions, and with the help of voice-to-text dictation software, writes case summaries with his recommendations for settling the arbitration, with a group of three commissioners rendering a final verdict.
“Administrative law sounds dry and boring, but this job works out well for me because I can work fairly independently and the hours are flexible. Generally, it takes me about three hours to get ready for work. I have someone I pay to help me – get me out of bed, get me dressed, take me to work,” said Palmer. “And I’m really happy with the work that I do. And listening to these hearings, you hear all kinds of stories about why people are unemployed – some of them are really incredible.”
Palmer is a volunteer on the Florida Disabled Outdoor Association board of directors and its current vice president. He is actively involved in the FDOA program SportsAbility, which promotes events throughout the year where participants with disabilities play sports, go fishing, kayaking or canoeing, and enjoy other outdoor activities. He also is involved with the North Florida Spinal Cord Injury Association, a support group for people who have sustained life-altering spinal injuries.
“I realize that I’m very fortunate and blessed to be where I am,” he said. “I’ve shared my story about my accident thousands of times. If just one person listens and doesn’t make the mistake I made – then I know I’ve given something back.”