As a child, Bob Coombs knew he would one day become famous. He loved performing and singing, and imagined living a vibrant life in New York or Los Angeles, pursuing his artistic dreams. In high school, Bob participated in chorus and drama, and reveled in being on a stage under the spotlights.
Bob loved to challenge his body. He excelled in swim meets. He added impromptu gymnastics stunts to the choreography in Grease during opening night of the show. He enjoyed being physically close to friends – always getting in other people’s space and welcoming others into his own.
After high school graduation, Bob was accepted to Kendall College of Art and Design (Grand Rapids, MI). He wondered if choosing a graphic design program instead of performing arts was the right decision, but after a short time at Kendall, Coombs found his niche inside his photography minor. A couple years into his college career, he switched to a photography major, and began passionately experimenting with technique and style to figure out how he best worked as a photographer.
During Bob’s sophomore year, he met a friend named Steve Chan in a drama class he was enrolled in as an elective. Steve worked at Aerials & Baranis Gymnastics Center. Since the time Bob was a young boy in Taekwondo lessons, he had always enjoyed moving and challenging his body. He loved teaching himself tricks and acrobatics. So when he learned about the gymnastics center through Steve, Bob quickly became a frequent client during open gym time, doing a floor routine followed by practice on the trampoline. After a month of training with the league trampoline and tumbling gymnastics team, the gym owner, Paul Hagan, asked if Bob would be interested in working at the gym. Bob agreed, and started as an employee there in 2008. Bob quickly became a part of the “family” at the gym. He loved the people there and often spent time dining out with them or hanging out away from work.
At first, Bob’s team training involved the repetitive practice of learning how the muscles of the body react to bouncing, jumping, doing flips, and flying through the air. Eventually, after conquering these technical aspects, Bob began learning to jump and do tricks. He found gymnastics to be a fun and exhilarating way to stay in shape.
On April 24, 2009, Bob awoke in the late morning and went to the mall to meet his friend Heather who was in town for the day for lunch. Later, Bob went back to his apartment to get workout clothes before heading to the gym. While he was home, his roommate David invited him to go for a bike ride, but he declined so that he could fit in his gym workout before his shift began.
Bob did his routine hour of tumbling, then went to the outdoor trampoline with his coach, Paul, to enjoy training in the gorgeous spring weather. After his routine warmups, Paul called him over to start training on double backflips. Bob started bouncing, preparing for his trick. His coach was beside him, spotting, prepared with the yellow foam pad that is thrown beneath the gymnast if he is going to crash-land during a trick. Bob counted to three, then flew through the air, completing one full rotation. Then, midway through the trick, he lost his orientation in the air, and fell about ten feet back onto the yellow pad that Paul had thrown in to cushion Bob’s fall.
The weight of Bob’s body came down hard on his neck, and he heard a loud kink. An involuntary scream wailed from his body as he bounced and settled on the pad, his arms flying past his face, beyond his control.
“Don’t move,” Paul said.
“I can’t move,” Bob replied.
Paul sent the other, younger kids inside, and called the ambulance.
“I just knew I had broken my neck. Nothing hurt. I had zero feeling at all,” Bob recalls.
For the next few minutes, Bob and Paul spoke calmly. They wished the ambulance would hurry up. It was getting hard for Bob to breathe.
The firemen arrived first, placing an oxygen mask and neck brace on Bob before loading him onto a stretcher. The ambulance arrived shortly after. Bob asked Paul if he would ride in the ambulance with him and call his parents to let them know about the accident.
Bob talked with the EMT, explaining that he was wearing contact lenses. “I asked him if I shit my pants, because I know that happens to people. He just said, ‘I don’t know, man.’” Bob told him that it was getting harder and harder to breathe.
When he arrived at Spectrum Health hospital, Bob was wheeled down a bright hallway of people screaming at him, asking his name, his birthday, anything to keep him awake and talking. He answered their questions, then a few seconds later, he blacked out.
For a week, Bob was kept in a medically-induced coma. Every time he came out of the fog, he was put under again. At times, he knew his parents were in the room, but other times, he hallucinated being in a random gym, or in a room with total strangers taking care of him. He hated being in a drug-induced haze, and felt little motivation to live.
After a week, Bob was weaned off the medicine and back into reality where he finally received some clarity on his condition. He learned that when he blacked out, he had entered into respiratory failure, and aspirated vomit, resulting in a nasty case of pneumonia. In an effort to repair his spine, he had undergone a six-hour surgery in which the C4 vertebrae was stripped of cartilage and then fused to the C5 vertebrae. He was kept in a coma to allow the hardware in his spine to settle and begin healing.
Though he felt powerless, he was glad to be alive. Because of the ventilator and tracheotomy, Bob could not swallow or speak. Caregivers suctioned saliva from his mouth and mucous from his lungs. He relied on others to meet his every need, sometimes feeling frustrated or ignored while trying to gain the medical staff’s attention. “Thank God my mom was there,” Bob said. “She knew what I wanted and needed. Moms just kind of know.”
Because people with spinal cord injuries have a difficult time regulating body temperature, Bob often felt extremely hot despite his room being kept cool to encourage healing without swelling. In addition to the ice packs placed in Bob’s armpits and groin by medical staff, Bob’s mom, Julie, would wipe his face with a washcloth dipped in ice water. Though her hands were freezing cold, Bob begged her to keep it up just a little longer. Bob remembers going outside in 50-degree temperatures with only a pillowcase covering him and feeling like he was “just in heaven!”
The first important task Bob had to conquer after the accident was learning how to breathe independently. “It was one of the hardest experiences I’ve ever had, learning how to breathe. You don’t think about it. You don’t tell yourself you need to breathe. So when you come off a ventilator, you just feel like you’re drowning even through the therapists are sitting there telling you your oxygen levels are fine. Five minutes was so long. I tried everything – listening to music, watching TV, just holding out as long as I could, but still not fully understanding the significance of what I was doing.”
Bob was assigned a respiratory therapist from Spectrum Health who, coincidentally, was Bob’s friend, Liam Gavin. Initially, they both felt hesitant about the pairing, having known one another as friends first, but they decided to give it a try. Liam would come in and clear Bob’s lungs, take the ventilator off, and then chat with Bob about friends they both knew, the funny antics of buddies, and the whereabouts and endeavors of others in their circle. Having a friend as a therapist helped Bob to forget what hard work he was doing, because it felt like he was just having a normal conversation. Those visits helped Bob relearn how to breathe and talk simultaneously for five minutes, and soon after, work his way up to ten, fifteen, twenty minutes.
Eventually, Bob loved being off the ventilator, appreciating the varied depths of natural breathing. He hated going back on the device in the evenings, being subjected again to the rhythmic, perfunctory breath of a machine. After a few weeks of respiratory therapy, on May 20th, his mom’s birthday, Bob said goodbye to the ventilator for good. He was amazed at how wonderful it felt to be free to breathe and speak and do all the things we humans often do without thinking.
Later that day, Bob was transferred to the University of Michigan hospital where he faced his next hurdle: learning to live in his altered body. He attended classes to understand how his body functioned differently after a spinal cord injury, and how he could live independently.
During Bob’s spinal surgery, material had been removed through a hole in the front of the neck, stretching and altering the muscles of the throat. Part of Bob’s therapy was to relearn how to drink water without any liquid entering his lungs, and training to eat solids by tilting his chin forward and focusing on the act of swallowing. After six weeks of therapy, Bob’s doctors felt he was ready to be discharged.
Bob couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital. He was tired of having people in his room all the time, the beeping of machines, the hallway bustle of hospitals. He was ready to go back to Upper Michigan and relax in the calm atmosphere of his parents’ home.
“My mom and dad were overwhelmingly terrified. They thought they would kill me. They had to administer my medications, turn me every two hours, deal with my feeding tube. I still had my neck brace on and they were so worried they’d f— up my neck even more. I had to calm them down by assuring them that they were NOT going to kill me. The medical team educated me very well. I told them if we have questions, we’ll just figure it out.”
It helped that Bob’s mom, a physical therapist’s assistant, already knew the basic anatomy of the spine. It would be a learning experience for all –Bob, his parents, Tom and Julie, and his sister, Missy — but Bob was confident that they would each do their part, and the adjustment to life at home would be a smooth one.
On July 2nd, Bob took an eight-hour journey in an ambulance back home to the small town of Norway. Bob felt great about being out of the hospital, being back in society again, and catching up with friends he hadn’t seen in months.
His parents, however, were stressed and worried about his future. What would he do with himself now? Would he regain any arm function? How would his hopes and aspirations be affected?
In the fall, Bob’s mom began encouraging him to take up local art teacher Shelly Danielson on an offer to have Bob assist her teaching in the high school classroom. After weeks of prompting, Bob agreed and began working with students on Photoshop and Illustrator, along with photography and design concepts. “That helped me so much–,” Bob said, “to realize that this is what I love doing and what I need to be doing.”
At the end of the school year, Bob approached his parents with a request to help him figure out a means to move back to Grand Rapids and continue his photography education at Kendall. “My parents were awesome. They helped me move into an apartment with my friend Liam, set up home health care, and get back into my school routine. My mom stayed with me for a month, and then I said, ‘Ok, Mom, it’s time. We have everything going well. You can go home and pick up your life and work again.’ And she did. She managed to shut off “Mom” because she knew I needed to be twenty-two and independent. But I’m sure she cried all the way home.”
Bob quickly found his groove again at Kendall. He lived downtown and rolled back and forth to school every day. He finished his general education classes and dove back into specialized photography courses. Initially, he worked on the technology portion of figuring out an easy way for him to complete the physical aspect of photography. In 2011, the chair of the photography department helped Bob perfect his methods, utilizing assistance from other students, so that he could continue doing the work he loved.
“There’s a huge misconception about people with disabilities and spinal cord injuries that they won’t be functioning members of society. Yes, we have our adversities, but we can still do what we want to do –we just have to be a little more creative. When you’re disabled, you come up with life hacks. If something isn’t working for you, you invent a new way of doing things. “
Though Bob hadn’t photographed in a year and a half, he swiftly transitioned back into practice. “It was like nothing had happened. I had a slightly different method of working, but whatever I envisioned in my head just came out on film.”
At the end of 2011, Bob began working on a photo series called Disabilities and Sexuality, a project inspired by the frequency of questions about sexuality within Bob’s dating life. Bob spoke with his disabled friends, who confirmed that their potential suitors often had questions and hesitations about the sexuality of a disabled person. Bob set out to portray, through nude photographs of himself and some of his disabled friends, that people with disabilities are still human and have a deep desire for intimacy, including kissing, physical closeness and sexual contact. Bob explains that, “The biggest sex organ is the mind, and it feels good when we can exercise that part of us.” For Bob, reconnecting with his own sexual being, despite his disability, was an important step towards fully embracing his body .
In 2012, Bob was nominated for an ArtPrize for the series. From a pool of 1500 artists, Bob’s art was chosen to be in the top twenty-five of the jury selection, and the top five in two-dimensional artwork.
Bob’s work caught the attention of some notable artists in the disabled art community. He was invited to a disability festival in Chicago and asked to be on a discussion panel about disability film. At the festival, he had the opportunity to converse with several well-known disabled artists.
In 2014, Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College, put Bob in contact with Chris Smit, the director of DisArt, a group created “to change minds about disability, one work of art at a time.” After a few meetings with Smit, Bob was on board with the DisArt mission and objectives.
This past November, Bob had the opportunity to travel to Liverpool, UK with Chris Smit and Jill Vyn, (DisArt program manager) to attend DaDaFest, a disabled artist festival that has been taking place there for decades. Coombs documented their travels and experiences at the festival, which are currently being used to help shape the upcoming DisArt Festival in Grand Rapids this April.
Today, Bob lives in a ranch-style home in Grand Rapids that he purchased after receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2013. He has two roommates. One is the young adult daughter of the Hagans, who continue to be a like a family away from Bob’s own family. The other roommate graduated from U of M with a neuroscience degree, and wanted to attain some medical experience, so he both lives with and helps care for Bob. Other caregivers come and go throughout the day, until Bob lightheartedly tells them to “Get the hell out!” Bob’s service dog, Ladd, accompanies him in daily activities both inside and outside of the home.
Bob is loving his life as an artist in a happening city. He enjoys evenings out wreaking havoc with friends or going on dates, or doing other “normal” things. He says, “Yeah, you have your moments where, holy shit, this sucks, but then you go to sleep and wake up the next morning and ask yourself what the hell you were crying and worrying about, and you say, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna have a good day. I have stuff going on this week. I have therapy. I’m going to see some friends, and do some work, and have some fun.’”
Looking back on the accident, Bob is so thankful that it happened to him at a time when he already knew who he was. In the months after the accident, he remained positive. He told himself, “The worst has already happened, so why not try anything? If there’s an opportunity, I’ll take it. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I don’t worry about trying anymore. It’s actually quite liberating not having to worry about failing .”
Surrounding himself with other disabled people has helped Bob to create a sense of pride in being disabled. “I don’t try to suppress my disabled-ness. It defines me, but it doesn’t. I am a disabled person. I am a disabled photographer. The society we live in can be disabling because some public transit is not accessible to me. Some buildings are not accessible. Airlines don’t let me just wheel right on. But I’m not disabled in a way that feels like my fault. Being disabled is just a part of me. I don’t shy away from it or downplay it, but I don’t worry about it either.”
The next few months are sure to be filled with hard work and excitement for Bob. He will be working with Chris Smit of DisArt to prepare for the festival this spring, which will feature the DadaFest International exhibit from the UK. Bob has been hired as the photographer to document behind-the-scenes festival preparations. In addition, he is creating his own art to exhibit at the festival and spearheading a festival fashion show featuring clothing designed for people with disabilities .
When Bob Coombs awoke from his coma in 2009, his physical body was forever altered, but his upbeat, optimistic personality and creative passions remained. He knew he could revise his plans, that he could still find a way back to his calling, back to the pursuit of art.
When he reflects on the months after his accident, he says, “I knew I’d have to do things differently, and that I’d have to be creative, but I never really thought my life was over.”
It seems to me that for 27-year-old artist Bob Coombs, this is only the beginning.
To see more of Bob’s work, visit him online: Robert Andy Coombs