The “inconvenienced” buddies
Dan Hansen should be dead now, but instead he has survived and thrived with the help of his best friend
Editor’s Note: In 1991, SN&R profiled Dan Hansen and Brian Burrows as they overcame great odds to graduate from El Camino High School. Today, the writer of that original article (who taught the pair at El Camino) revisits her subjects and offers this story of survival and perseverance.
Dan Hansen is a miracle. He is a teacher, scholar, author, motivational speaker and friend who captivates with his warm smile. The miracle is that his smile is the only thing on his body he can move. Born with Duchennes muscular dystrophy, Hansen is unable to use any of the muscles in his body except those in his mouth. His mouth is of utmost importance. Hansen loves to talk.
On an ordinary Sunday afternoon in March, the Hansen family was testing a five-hour battery to see whether it would hold up long enough on an airplane to get Hansen from Sacramento to Alabama. He was slated to be one of the keynote speakers for a Special Education Teacher’s Conference at Auburn University.
The airline was dubious as to whether it could accommodate the young man. Usually he sits in a specially outfitted wheelchair that allows his life-giving ventilator to function 24 hours a day. Now he would have to sit in a regular airplane seat without this apparatus.
Even though all plans had been cleared with the airline ahead of time, things did not go smoothly given heightened security concerns since September 11. Hansen’s extra-large, heavy chair had to be dismantled and transported in cargo. When the family walked through the scanning area, they were told they couldn’t take the 40-pound battery or the ventilator on the plane.
Airport officials were called to verify that they had made the arrangements ahead, but it didn’t end there. The family was then told they couldn’t get on the plane until they had a doctor’s note saying that Hansen was life-dependent on the ventilator. Finally, an airport doctor verified for them and they were on their way.
The battery worked and Hansen spent three days at the University where he and his best friend, Brian Burrows, spoke and ran workshops for 700 teachers. Burrows, a special education teacher, is a graduate student studying rehabilitation counseling at the university. Talking is equally as important to him. He was born with cerebral palsy, which causes him to stutter.
The two met in the fourth grade at Mission Avenue School, and have remained the closest of friends. In their senior year at El Camino High School, it was Burrows who shakily fed Hansen every day in the cafeteria when Hansen began to lose the use of his arms. It was Burrows who stood by his bedside in the hospital when Hansen made the decision to continue his life even if he had to be on a ventilator permanently.
He had suffered respiratory failure and doctors told the family that an immediate decision had to be made as to whether to “let go,” or to take the chance that Hansen might not be able to talk or eat normally again. While Burrows cheered loudly in the background, Hansen wrote his decision: “Life has been good, and after the trach, I will fight on.”
And fight on he has.
At El Camino’s graduation, 4,000 people rose to their feet as Hansen and Burrows rocked and rolled their way across the football field, Burrows pushing the boy’s chair, to receive their diplomas. No one had thought that Hansen would live to see this day.
Diagnosed with dystrophy at the age of 5, Hansen unwillingly submitted to the wheelchair before his 10th birthday. The prognosis was not encouraging. Duchennes victims are always males who generally do not live beyond 14 years of age. Hansen knew this and decided to fill his life as full as he possibly could.
He laughs as he tells how he had to overcome his parents’ over-protectiveness, and relates the story of begging his mother to be allowed to canvass the neighborhood for muscular dystrophy donations … alone. When he hadn’t returned several hours later, his mother went looking and found him stalled on the sidewalk because his battery had run down.
That desire for independence also got him in trouble when he was a high-school student. At one point, he had to be disciplined when he pinned another student against the wall with his chair. The student had been trying to disconnect the electrical part of the chair so that Hansen couldn’t move.
When he was 12, he was chosen as the 1988 Northern California Muscular Dystrophy Poster Child. Later that year, he read that runners would be carrying the Olympic torch across the United States, and he expressed a strong desire to be one of them. Radio station KZAP raised the $4,000 required for a runner to carry the torch six-tenths of a mile.
The day the torch arrived in Sacramento, many of the thousands lining the streets to pay homage to the Olympic symbol were there to see Hansen, in his wheelchair, receive the flame from famed runner Billy Mills. Because Hansen was unable to hold the heavy torch, a special apparatus made from PVC pipe was rigged to his wheelchair. It extended about four feet above the chair.
Into the pipe, the Native American runner carefully placed the torch. Then the man who had overcome the adversities of ethnic prejudice to win an Olympic gold medal in the 1964 games, and the boy, in the process of overcoming prejudices toward the disabled, moved together across Sacramento’s Tower Bridge. The huge grin on Hansen’s face reflected a pride that no well-muscled Olympian throughout time could ever exceed. A replica of the torch is prominently displayed on the Hansen’s living-room wall.
Twenty-one is a perfect score in the gambler’s game of blackjack. In December 1993, Hansen and Burrows celebrated their 21st birthdays at the gaming tables and slot machines in Reno, Nevada, trying for that perfect score. A couple of lifetime gamblers if ever there were two, Hansen was sporting away some of his Christmas gift money, while Burrows supplemented his stake with a roll of quarters his mother had given him to do his laundry.
The only difference between these gamblers and the others in the casino was that Burrows served as Hansen’s right arm at the slot machines, while Hansen’s father, Harold, held the cards for him at the table. For the two young men, this was their first taste of gambling for fun.
Their lives, so far, had been built on taking chances, on gambling each day that they could do the same things as everyone else. Hansen was six years past his prognosis, and ready to gamble for the rest of his life.
About the time Hansen graduated from American River College to his second standing ovation, he decided to write his story. He still had the use of his right index finger at the time. Using a special computer program that allowed him to use a mouse to record one letter at a time, he completed a book, Let the Flame Within Burn Brighter.
The book chronicles Hansen’s life and the philosophies that have helped him thrive. He explains the disease that has slowly taken him over, discusses how he deals with it, and inevitably adds a little “box of chocolates” advice as to how you, too, can deal with adversity in life. Photos show him smiling his way through good times with family and celebrities. The only thing missing is some of his artwork. Before he lost the use of his hands, Hansen wanted to become an artist. His last painting is a picture of himself in his wheelchair surrounded by Olympians.
After four years of majoring in communications at CSUS, Hansen received his third standing ovation at his graduation. This time it was in appreciation for what he had just said. Hansen was the keynote speaker, but after that big moment, Hansen has searched for what’s next.
Burrows was well ensconced in teaching and graduate school, so Hansen decided he, too, would apply to the graduate school in communications at CSUS. To his surprise, he was not accepted.
Several of the committee members felt that he would be unable to do the required research and papers. Although the Hansens have continued to question the decision, the graduate committee has recently informed them that he will definitely not be accepted. When asked why they couldn’t just give Hansen a chance to prove himself, and then if he failed, he would drop out, they were told that he would be taking the place of someone more qualified.
Dr. Mark Stoner, a member of the committee said, “We’re caught in a bind. We’re supposed to treat everyone equally. We have to say ‘no’ to a lot of people, and Dan is just one of them.” Stoner said the committee does not feel graduate school is the appropriate goal for Hansen. He says that he has personally made phone calls to schools and businesses where Hansen might practice his motivational speaking.
Hansen hasn’t taken “no” for an answer and continues to push for his acceptance into graduate school. In the meantime, Hansen gives his motivation speeches. After contacting all of the schools in the area and telling them he wants to be a motivational speaker, he is working two days a week with high-risk students, teaching them how to handle diversity and adversity.
“When you look at me, what do you see?” he asks the students, and then answers for them, “I hope it is someone who loves life.”
He talks with them about some of his struggles. He shows them how he maintains a 140 bowling average with the help of a little invention his father made to fit the wheelchair. He shows them how he can dance in his chair. He tells them how he joined Toastmasters, and how he teaches at his church. He tells them he prefers to be called “inconvenienced” rather than handicapped or disabled.
Dan Hansen can inspire his students with his many achievements, but they would be hard-put to understand the daily struggles he and his family must overcome: lowering the floor on the 1984 van so that he can ride upright, the series of qualified nurses who must be in attendance every day, encroaching isolation because friends in his age group now are married and have families, a desperate desire to meet a woman and have a family himself, and the daily weakening of his body.
Hansen and Burrows just turned 30. Their friendship has lasted 16 years longer than anyone expected it possibly could. Both adamantly agree their struggles have been worth it, and as long as there are goals to be set, they will keep on striving to defy expectations.