After the Fall

UPDATED 11/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

"On Sunday, Sept. 17, 1989, at 11:30 A.M., I had an accident that turned my life upside down." This is how actor Art Metrano sets the scene in his one-man play, Twice Blessed, currently running at the Hollywood Playhouse in Los Angeles. He calls it the most challenging role of his career. With good reason: It is the story of Metrano's own journey back from a near fatal spinal cord injury when he broke his neck in a fall from a ladder three years ago.

Growing up in Brooklyn, the son of a garment manufacturer and a housewife, Art Metrano wanted to be a football player. He was a star tackle on his high school team and later at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. After landing a part in a college play, though, Metrano became smitten with acting. He didn't get his first big break until 1969, when, at 32, he unveiled "The Amazing Metrano," a comedy-magic act on The Tonight Show. Appearances on TV series led eventually to the role of the frenzied Lieutenant Mauser in Police Academy 2 (1985) and 3 (1986).

Metrano, 55, lives with his wife, Becky, 43, in Beverly Hills. They have three children: Roxanne, 22, Harry 8, and Zoe, 6. He spoke with correspondent Patricia Burstein about the painful rehabilitation of his body, his acting career—and his life.

I HAD JUST FINISHED A FILM SPAIN. MY marriage, after some difficult times, was perfect. We were madly in love again. I was on my way home from a tennis match when I slopped by a house I had renovated and put up for sale. I wanted to make sure everything was in tip-top shape.

I noticed the second-floor balcony was filthy from the Gunite spray from the pool. I got a hose and a ladder and climbed 12 feet up to wash it off. Suddenly the ladder inexplicably jerked out from under me, and then my head hit the ground. I heard a snap in my neck. I started to feel pressure on my chest. My body was shutting down. I called out for help, but my tongue felt like it was stuck in the back of my throat. I tried to move—I couldn't. I had this out-of-body experience that really scared me. I'd see a picture of a guy falling off a ladder, getting up, smiling and walking away. This kept repeating itself. After about 45 minutes a neighbor's dog started to bark. His owner came out, found me and called 911.

Fifteen minutes later the paramedics arrived. One of them put a brace on my neck, and the other asked if I was allergic to anything. I said, "Rap music." I couldn't move, but I figured I must be OK if I was still doing jokes. I don't know what they injected me with, but I passed out on the way to the hospital.

At about 7 P.M. I woke up in the intensive-care unit at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. My wife, Becky, was at my side—as she was during my entire hospital stay. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I heard the doctors telling her there was a strong possibility of my spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair and breathing through a ventilator.

"Not me," I screamed inside my head. "I'll wheel that damn chair onto the Hollywood Freeway and look for a Mack truck the first chance I get." It was the first time I ever thought of suicide.

I had broken three vertebrae in my neck—cervical 1 and 2, just below the brain stem, where the spinal cord controls the respiratory system, and cervical 7, the big bone in the back of the neck, where hand and arm movements are controlled. To keep the fractures in alignment and to promote healing, they numbed my head and installed with screws what looked like a big bird cage. They called it a halo. It felt more like a torture chamber.

Miraculously, on the eighth day my breathing came back, and I was taken off the ventilator. On the 12th day I was moved to the rehabilitation unit. The first day of therapy was the worst. They wheeled me onto a floor that looked like a hallway to hell, and I panicked. I felt as if I was in a Coney Island freak house, and I was part of the show.

The therapist put me facedown on a mat and rotated my legs to stimulate leg movement. All of a sudden I heard someone say, "What happened to you?" I told him I broke my neck, C1, C2 and C7, and he said, "And your legs are moving? What a lucky guy." I was really angry, and I told the therapist to turn me over so I could see who the jerk was who was telling me I was lucky.

I saw this quadriplegic man in his mid-40s. He was in a heavy-duty wheelchair, and the only thing he could do on his own was turn his head. He told me that he had broken his neck, his first two vertebrae, while doing a flip over a pommel horse. At that moment I suddenly stopped feeling so sorry for myself, and this guy became a tremendous inspiration to me.

When I went to rehab, my two youngest kids joined my wife and eldest daughter for daily visits. Still, I was frightened, and always making jokes was the only way I knew how to hide my own pain. I worked the room. "Hey, Rhoda, straighten out your arm! How you gonna pitch in Saturday's game? We're looking for a strike, not a stroke." The humor masked a new empathy I was feeling for everyone in that room.

I was released from the hospital two months to the day after the accident. Two weeks later they finally removed the damn halo, but I knew that for the rest of my life I would be an outpatient.

It is three years since my accident. I can rotate my head now, but I still have radiating pain in my neck and shoulders. Walking is still difficult. I take a drug to control the shaking in my legs and right hand. When it does shake, though, it makes my kids laugh.

Insurance paid 80 percent of my medical costs, but without income—I have done just six guest spots on TV series in the last year—we have had to put our house on the market. The house where I had the accident is now in foreclosure.

Still, I got lucky—I don't know why. I think the real reason for this happening to me was that I could become an advocate for people who are disabled by raising money for Project Support for Spinal Cord Injury. I will always be connected to disabled people with spinal cord injuries.

I dream about carrying Zoe on my shoulders again and someday walking Roxanne down the aisle at her wedding without my crutch. I'd like to go dancing with my wife. But I can't, and for now that's OK. Life is the same but different—I'm different. I almost died. I almost became a quadriplegic forever. God, in his infinite wisdom, has taught me about humility and humanity.

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