Michael Segal Offers Message of Hope

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Before Michael Segal was shot in the head, he wanted to help people with broken bones.

“Now I try to help people with broken spirits,” he said.

Segal, son of Rabbi Jack Segal, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Yeshurun in Houston, defied physicians’ expectations and re-learned how to walk and talk. Now 57, Segal works as a psychotherapist and travels the world and tells his story. On Sept. 1, he stopped in Philadelphia for a Selichot conversation at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El with Rabbi Charles S. Sherman.


Michael Segal shared his story with NASA before coming to Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El. | Photo provided

“I believe life’s not supposed to be easy. Not just for me, not just for you, not just for anybody. I believe the definition of being human is trying to overcome obstacles,” Segal said.

Segal’s first love was basketball. But by the time he was 9, and his peers had grown taller and faster, he realized he probably wasn’t going to make it to the NBA. As he got older he decided he wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, so he could help professional athletes recover.

He was on that path at the University of Texas at Austin. He met a girl, Sharon, and one evening in 1981 the two were studying in Segal’s dorm room when Sharon said she wanted to go home. Segal hopped in his car and, before dropping Sharon off, stopped at a gas station.

He went inside to pay as Sharon waited in the car. Seconds turned to minutes, and still, Sharon waited. She was alarmed when a pack of men finally left the store and she didn’t see Segal. She stepped inside and saw him sprawled on the floor. “Mike! Mike!” she screamed. The store had been robbed, she later learned.

“One of the three thieves forced me to go to the back of the store, pushed me down and shot me in the back of head,” Segal said. “He thought I was dead. Barely, I was alive.”

He was rushed to the nearest hospital, where doctors told Segal’s family he was unlikely to survive the night. When he awoke in the morning, and it was determined he needed surgery, the doctors said there was a 60 percent chance Segal would die on the table. And if he survived, there was a 100 percent chance he’d emerge in a vegetative state.

He was in a coma for weeks, and Segal’s father accepted that his son wouldn’t regain brain function. His mother pushed back.

“That neurosurgeon might be a great neurosurgeon, but he does not know Mike,” she told her husband. The parents rented a warehouse in Austin to store Segal’s college stuff for when he returned.

The doctors were less optimistic. Segal came out of the coma, though, and was flown to a hospital in Houston. A physician there told him to focus on “moralistic goals,” instead of thinking about going back to college.

“I thought to myself, ‘Lady, who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do. You don’t even know me,’” Segal said. “I admitted my goal right then and there to somehow, one day return to college, at UT.”

With the help of Sharon, who took a semester off to provide emotional support, Segal spent the next year and a half rehabbing. Eventually, he learned how to talk again. How to walk again. He returned to UT-Austin, and graduated with a liberal arts degree.

He was one of 12 dean’s distinguished graduates, he said, and before he received his diploma his story was told. He received a standing ovation. Segal couldn’t see his parents amid the massive crowd, but he knew they were smiling widely.

“It was, I thought, the most beautiful thing that would ever happen to me,” Segal said. Then life happened. He married Sharon and they had a daughter, Shawn, and both of those moments gave him more joy than the graduation.

But that day stands as the crowning achievement of a journey few thought was possible. He didn’t give up hope, and he teaches people around the world to do the same.

“We all have problems in life. We have obstacles. We’re not God. Nobody is guaranteed tomorrow,” he said.

He draws on those grueling months in rehab to inspire others. They were difficult, Segal said, but there were positive moments. He was permitted to go home one weekend, and Sharon pushed him in his wheelchair to a park around the corner from his home. She leaned down and kissed him for the first time since the shooting. Segal remembers it fondly:

“Magic.”

jneedelman@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0737

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