"I had two choices: I was either going to terminate my life while I still had the ability, or I was going to live life the way I wanted to live it."











"Water negates the effects of gravity, but a wheelchair underweater is useless!"









Read about Professor Radtke's research



















Richard Radtke is professor of biological oceanography at the University of Hawaii's School of Ocean & Earth Science & Technology. An authority in fish biology and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Diplomacy Fellow, he is the first handicapped scientist to accomplish research in Antarctica, for which he was awarded a U. S. Presidential Commendation. He is the recipient of The Robert Clopton Award, the university's highest honor for community service, and this year was invited to the White House, where he received national recognition as an outstanding mentor for youth.

Radtke and his wife, Judith, have two children, David, a teenager, and Ocean, who is eight. Contact Professor Radtke by e-mail: radtke@hawaii.edu


Summer/Fall 2001

Turning Point:
Making Ice Cubes from Glaciers

At 26, Richard Radtke was off to adventure on prestigious post-doctoral research. Two years later he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

by Professor Richard Radtke

It's been 30 years since I played football at Wabash, but I still remember how I used to "psyche up" for the game. I'd sit in the locker room by myself, mentally preparing for the ensuing battle. Staring down at my shoelaces, I'd launch a succession of hidden emotions. Thoughts exploded of circumstances, perceived or contrived, that were not fair in my world. Tears would well up in my eyes, and all of the sudden I was the judge, ready to hand out justice.

Then the locker room door would burst open and I was ready to rectify those injustices (I played defensive end, a perfect position from which to administer justice). The unfairness of life needed to be exonerated, and the player on the opposite side of the line was the cause of all my misery. I knew, in my heart, the opposing quarterback or running back was the culprit of agony. Sometimes justice was served; sometimes more insult was bestowed.

That was when I was 20 years old. Older now, I realize all too acutely that life isn't a football game where the another person-or life itself-can be forced to compensate for injustices, real or imagined. I've come to realize that it's not what happens, but what I do, that makes the difference. It's not been an easy lesson to learn.

Growing up on a small farm in Indiana, I always desired to see what lay beyond the back forty. I devoured encyclopedia images of the great white south and dreamed of being an adventurer in Antarctica. All that seemed possible as I matured. I was blessed with intelligence and a curious mind and the capabilities of applying what I had been bestowed with, and I graduated from Wabash in 1974. At the age of 26, I finished my Ph.D. in marine science and I was feeling pretty full of myself. I had been accepted for a prestigious post-doc in Canada, and I was going off to adventure.

Two years later, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the bottom pretty much dropped out of my world. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, I was proud of my physical strength, pleased to carry sofa beds up stairs and help people move into their apartments. I couldn't imagine my life without that strength and ability.

But I didn't have much time to anticipate the changes taking place in my body. In the majority of people with MS, the disease progresses slowly and is not extremely dehabilitating. However, in five percent of the population it advances rapidly, and can even be deadly. I am in that five percent, and my MS rocked forth in a hard and heavy fashion. Three years after I was diagnosed, I was in a wheelchair; three years after that I became a quadriplegic, unable to move from the neck down.
During the first couple of years, I examined my life and its tenuous future. I had been given books that depicted life with MS as one dependent on others, curtailing life's most rewarding activities. They were horror books that shook my very being.

One long night I came to an important conclusion. I had two choices: I was either going to terminate my life while I still had the ability, or I was going to live life the way I wanted to live.

I chose the latter. It's been tough.

Yet it's had moments when I've to tackle the quarterback and hurl the injustices for a loss to keep my life moving forward.

I started with my dreams of working in the Antarctic. Those dreams were ripped from my heart when I was told I had MS. To live life as I wanted, though, I needed to get my dreams back. I wrote a scientific proposal to the National Science Foundation and, after external review, NSF notified me that my proposal had been accepted on merit. I was ecstatic!

The next step was more difficult. When one applies to the National Science Foundation, disability is not a part of the decision process. Yet due to its remote location, researchers in Antarctica are required to pass a lengthy physical similar to the military physical. I did not pass.

However strange this may sound, I had my health in my favor. After being diagnosed with MS I'd worked diligently to maintain and improve my health. A vegetarian diet and a regime of physical therapy had left me with no medical problems (except my lack of mobility). Under no circumstances did I pose a medical problem.

My request for an exemption was denied on the grounds that I posed a fire risk. I was crestfallen. To have gotten so close without seeing Antarctica was more than I could accept. Instead of throwing in the towel, I became more persistent. I sent letters explaining my plight out to anyone I thought could help-even the President.
Persistence paid off. My senator, who had lost an arm in World War II, furthered my dream to accomplish research in Antarctica. After meetings between the senator and NSF I was allowed to pursue my research!

The trip to Antarctica was arduous, at best; still, I accomplished my research on Antarctic fish. I was able to touch fish that, as a boy in Indiana, I'd dreamed of studying, and I became a part of the South Pole drama I'd read about. I learned I could still live my life the way I wanted.

I wanted more. Arctic adventures posed different problems. My present research involves migratory fish in the high Arctic. To accomplish the research I had to travel through the U.S. airbase at Thule, Greenland. But the Air Force deemed it too dangerous for me to travel to the Arctic.

I tried every avenue-writing, calling, e-mail-but to no avail. Even friends who were retired generals could not help. I was defeated.

To my astonishment and quarterback sacking delight I received an e- mail from a bed and breakfast type place in the area of Greenland where I wished to work. It told of how groups had occasionally chartered a small twin-engined Otter plane from Canada and landed on a little gravel patch in a small Eskimo village. It bypassed the airbase! I was soon on my way; Indiana Radtke off to adventure.

The next year I filed the first lawsuit of my life-against the U.S. Air Force. We settled and I was allowed on the base. I'm writing this article in a small Eskimo village, watching glaciers and snow in August.

Being a field biologist in a wheelchair is not easy, especially with the number of times you hear "you can't do that", or "of course, we're worried about liability and that you would pose a danger to yourself and others." But working through those obstacles has allowed me to study giant catfish in the Mekong River, coelacanths in Indonesia, sturgeon in China, salmonids in Alaska, Canada, and Norway, mahi mahi in Spain and the Philippines; and, funded by the National Geographic Society, to scuba dive with giant clams in the tropical Pacific.

Just so that I don't leave the wrong impression, I'm not one of these people who is terminally euphoric. I don't have a constant production of endorphins that leave me in a state of eternal bliss. At the end of the week I'm totally exhausted and ready to quit. I'm tired of the constant haranguing of administrators and constant roadblocks thrown in my way because I have a disability-the thinly veiled assumptions that I should be in a nursing home quietly resting while the rest of the world goes by. I don't always wear a smile on my face.

There are many mornings when I don't want my attendant to pull me from my bed to feed me my breakfast, but it's still a choice. I really believe that I have choices. That's the one thing I do believe in.

When I'm tired (MS leaves you exhausted), I keep working, because if I stopped every time I was tired, I wouldn't get anything done. Still, at the end of a week, all things considered, I like my life. I'm doing what I want to do, where I want to do it, with the people that I want to do it with. I work outdoors and in inaccessible places, and I have fun.

I have been in a wheelchair since 1984, a quadriplegic for almost 14 years. Now, at age 48, all my movement of going to different places, movement in taking care of myself, and even my bodily functions has to be addressed by someone else. Without the strength and mobility I took such pride in, I once thought I'd be unable to contribute to society and would only be a taker or receiver. I have come to realize that my contributions can come in other than physical forms. I have taken on my new charge with a vengeance.

So now, besides being a practicing scientist and teacher, I support youth with disabilities in their exploration of careers in math, science, engineering, and technology. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, my colleagues and I organize science camps and clubs. I have a dolphin interaction program, which makes it possible for youth with disabilities to interact in an environment and with animals in ways they never thought was possible.

I have found that it is essential for me to never lose sight of the community-at-large. Public service and the search for new challenges have made it possible for me to continue my life.

It's been three decades since I last sacked a quarterback at Wabash, but the inner strength and clarity of will and purpose I felt as a player are still mine, even moreso. Perhaps they are the uncommon gifts of my physical disability.

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