Written by Linc Bedrosian
October 11, 2012
Compiling items from our archives for our "Fishing Back When" column allows us to pour over stories and photos stretching back over 50 years. It's fascinating to see how commercial fishing has changed in some ways, but not in others.
One thing that hasn't changed is fishermen's remarkable ability to persevere in the face of adversity. And there's no finer example of this than a wonderful story by Rona S. Zable that appeared in our December 1982 issue.
In it, we learn that in November 1958, Robert Wayne Paxton was a fisherman aboard the New Bedford scalloper Linus S. Eldridge. The Iowa native was 29 years old, married and the father of two small children.
And then tragedy struck.
A winch cable broke during a storm at sea, causing the fishing gear to fall on Paxton, crushing his back and skull and smashing his face against the deck. A Coast Guard helicopter rushed him to Brighton Marine Hospital, where his condition was deemed "very critical."
He would not regain consciousness for 11 months. Since he could only be fed via nasal tubes, his weight dropped from 165 pounds to 92 pounds over that time.
According to the story, relatives were told Paxton likely wouldn't live. And even if he did, he'd probably be brain damaged. The medical prognosis was so dire that for years, Paxton's relatives, scattered throughout the country, thought he was dead.
But in time, Paxton began to recover. He emerged from his coma, eventually relearning how to talk and to walk with the aid of a special walker. His right eye was blinded in the accident, but some vision remained in his left one.
His memory returned, too. He remembered his brothers and sisters, but over the years had lost contact with them. Eventually estranged from his wife, Paxton became a resident at the Casa Seville Long-Term Care Facility in New Bedford.
Then Paxton's daughter died. Dr. John Swanson, the facility's executive director, believing that Paxton needed emotional support from his family, set out to find Paxton's relatives. Eventually, he tracked down a cousin in Iowa, which led to locating the rest of the Paxton clan.
Soon his relatives were calling Paxton and sending him cards and letters. Paxton ended up moving to Mineral Wells, Texas, near where one brother lived. The Lone Star State was also a central location that would enable Paxton's other relatives to visit him. Twenty-four years after his accident, Robert Paxton, at age 51, was reunited with his family members. And today, 30 years later, the tale of Paxton's resilience and of his doctor's perseverance remains an inspiring one.
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