A real-life Mr. Glass, though no villain

Janine and Eric Ludwig. Photo courtesy of Eric Ludwig.

In 1973, in a small Navy hospital, a baby boy was born with most of his bones broken. Fans of M. Night Shyamalan’s super-hero film, Unbreakable (2000), will immediately think of the Elijah Price character who was born with both of his legs broken. Elijah’s condition, osteogenesis imperfecta, brittle bone disease, isolated him and contributed to his becoming the villain of the story — nicknamed “Mr. Glass” by bullies.

Osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) had the opposite effect on Eric Ludwig — who is more of a superhero than a villain. For him, it was a catalyst for virtue and determination.

Priest called

When Nancee Ludwig went into labor, she and her doctors had no idea that the waves of contractions would be dangerous for her unborn baby. Still worse, Eric was breech, so the doctors tried to turn his body and then they pulled on his feet, breaking both of his femurs. He had also suffered fractures in utero.

Upon his delivery, the naval hospital was in a quiet panic — though Nancee had not an inkling because she had been put under for the birth.

“The doctors didn’t know what to do with me or why I was so fragile,” Eric says. “I was in shock, and my liver was failing.”

A few hours after Eric was born, he was medevaced to a larger hospital in San Antonio. Doctors thought he would die, so the Catholic chaplain was brought in to administer the sacrament of Baptism. His parents waited in dread, thinking that at any moment Eric would die. “I couldn’t even be with him because the hospital wouldn’t release me,” Nancee recalls.

A young Eric Ludwig. Photo courtesy of Eric Ludwig.

Strong will to live

His civilian physicians changed their prognosis, predicting Eric might live for a few months. After four weeks, they discharged him from the hospital to die at home. The Ludwigs were also told, “If your baby makes it into early childhood, he won’t read or write or go to school or ever care for himself.”

Those painful days of fearing Eric might die turned into weeks, a month, and then a year. “We took him to a naval doctor who told us that Eric was not going to die,” Nancee remembers.

The new normal

Defying earlier grim predictions, Eric, though small in stature, was developing at a normal rate physically and mentally. Still, life was difficult for Eric’s parents because they lived in constant fear that they would hurt Eric or he would hurt himself.  “I was always going for treatment for broken bones,” he shares matter-of-factly.

His bones were so brittle that a sneeze broke one of Eric’s ribs, and once while rolling over in bed, he broke an arm. When Eric was 4, his spinal column crumbled and he could no longer walk. It was time for a wheelchair.

By age 5 or 6, a break was so commonplace that Eric would treat his own fractures by wrapping and stabilizing the broken bones with supplies from the naval hospital. Then his mom or dad would take him in for the cast.

“The doctors were always puzzled by how I got treated. ‘Oh, I did it myself,’ I’d tell them,” Eric recalls. “They’d look at this little boy, and they just couldn’t understand how he could splint his own broken arm or leg.”

Growing up

Unlike the Elijah Price character, Eric did not feel isolated even though his family often moved because of his dad’s naval career. Eric was not only the new kid in nine different schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, but he also had the obstacle of being the kid with the wheelchair.

“If I wanted to make friends, I had to make the first move to break through whatever fears the other kids may have had about making friends with someone like me,” he explains. “That forced me to be more outgoing than I may have been.”

Most people would assume that Eric struggled with making friends. It’s the narrative we see all of the time in movies, but that wasn’t the case. Eric was popular with the other students.

He adds, “I never felt that I was an outsider, ostracized, or excluded.”

Academically, there was tremendous pressure on Eric to excel. His dad, Rick, told him that he wasn’t going to be digging ditches for a living, so he’d better study. “My parents helped me see the larger picture because I didn’t have as many career options available to me compared to other kids.”

No pity party

Eric never felt victimized by his disability, and he never let it define him or prevent him from living — and enjoying — his life. “What’s there to feel sorry for? Even before Janine and Charlotte [his wife and daughter], I had parents who loved me, and I had everything I ever wanted growing up — all the G.I. Joe and Star Wars toys, fastest go-karts, BB guns, and the coolest computers.”

Speaking of that go-kart, Eric recalls being 9 and driving his gas-powered go-cart around with his parents in tow. They would don their roller skates, hook a rope behind the go-cart, and Eric would pull them around at speeds of 20 mph. “The car was like the one they [Tattoo] drove on the TV show Fantasy Island,” Nancee shares.

Unexpected call

During his senior year at the University of San Diego, Eric still didn’t have a clear idea of what he would do after graduation. He knew that he didn’t want to go into the accounting or insurance professions. It was an enthusiastic friend who talked him into applying for law school. “I couldn’t think of anything else to do at the time. I thought, ‘Why not give law school a chance?’”

Eric was in his dorm room when UCLA called him and told him that they were sending him an acceptance letter. They had called to ask him if he would promise to go to their law school.

Never underestimate

After passing the bar exam, Eric spent six years practicing intellectual property litigation and then left to become an assistant district attorney because he wanted to get experience in the courtroom.

“My disability was an advantage, probably an unfair one, but I don’t necessarily like to fight fair,” he chuckles. “The defense counsel would often and regularly underestimate me.”

Eric saw over and over that people who didn’t know him would assume that he wasn’t that bright because he was small and used a wheelchair. “I think it’s just cultural. Disability of any sort means an intellectual challenge. They’re thinking, ‘He probably has to have someone tie his shoes,’”  Eric says.

As a result, Eric was always catching the defense counsel off guard because he would quickly create a rapport with the jury.

“Being different at school forced me to be outgoing. I leaned on those lessons hard, and I still do when I am at trial, to build a bond with the jury. My goal when I see the jury walk in is to make them fall in love with me as quickly as possible. If they like and trust me, then they like and trust what I say. I have an edge with the jury that a lot of other lawyers can’t replicate.”

The Ludwigs in summer 2017. Photo courtesy of Eric Ludwig.

Having it all

Eric was in his early 40s when he met Janine, a 32-year-old chiropractor, from Canada, on CatholicMatch. The site matched the two of them, and when Janine read Eric’s profile, she was intrigued by him.

“His profile was different than all of the others I had read,” Janine remembers. Janine continued to find that Eric was one-of-kind — even worth giving up her practice for to be with him in California. On Feb. 14, 2015, while a snowstorm was raging outside Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, Saskatchewan, Janine became Eric’s bride. (Read their full story here from Catholic Match.)

A year and a half later, their baby daughter, Charlotte Grace, was born. She also has OI but they were able to take precautions with the birth, and so she has had relatively few breaks. With advancements in medicine, Charlotte is receiving treatment to strengthen her bones, so she will most likely not end up needing to use a wheelchair. Like her father, Charlotte has a type of OI that improves as she ages.

Both Eric and Janine were aware that they had a 50-50 chance of conceiving a baby with OI. “If God sends us another baby with OI, it will be OK,” Janine says.

Eric adds, “Those individuals not wanting us to have a baby like me have devalued me and my life. How could it be that I’m not worthy? Why would anyone think that Charlotte isn’t perfect enough to have a chance at life?”

Path to virtue

Eric hasn’t had a break since he was 19 partly because his condition improved after puberty and because he gets up early every morning to swim or lift weights. Often, it’s at the gym when someone approaches him to tell him how he’s an inspiration — something that used to embarrass him.

“I don’t consciously go out and try to show off or seek attention. If people find inspiration in me, then I am OK with that. I’ve told this to Janine and others, ‘It may seem odd but I think, in a way, I am grateful for having OI and growing up with a disability because it taught me patience, acceptance, perseverance, empathy, and resilience.’  These are lessons that I don’t think I would have received as well any other way.”

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