I was paralyzed after getting mugged on the beach in Thailand. Five years later, I’m walking in a marathon

I was paralyzed after getting mugged on the beach in Thailand. Five years later, I’m walking in a marathon

In 2013, after 20 years in the construction industry in the GTA and some deep discussions with my kids and ex-wife, I closed my businesses and took a job as an operations manager for Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian aid organization. I spent nine months in South Sudan, building refugee camps for people fleeing the civil war. Then another six months in the Philippines helping with relief efforts after Super Typhoon Yolanda. That year, I saw a lot of violence and destruction.

Chris doing humanitarian work in South Sudan

By June 2014, I began to get tired. I was worried about burnout—it’s common among aid workers—so I took three months off to go travelling. I went to Bali, Malaysia and Indonesia, where I climbed Mount Rinjani, an active volcano. I went scuba diving in a cage with great white sharks. I just enjoyed that kind of crazy.

Chris scuba diving before the injury

Toward the end of my trip, I made it to Koh Lipe, a remote island off the southern coast of Thailand. One evening, I withdrew $400 for a two-day scuba diving trip. As I walked back to my hotel along the beach, a man approached me. It was dark on that part of the beach; I couldn’t see his face, only that he reached for my wallet. I turned to protect it. After that, I blacked out.

The beach where Chris was attacked

I came to later that night, lying face up on an isolated beach about a kilometre from where I was mugged. The night sky was full of stars, and a warm breeze blew. I could hear the waves lapping at the shore and music from a nearby restaurant. Under any other circumstances, it would be a perfect night.

But this was hell. My lower back was on fire with pain. I had full sensation—I could feel small insects and sea creatures biting me—fire ants, mosquitoes and sand crabs—but I couldn’t move, not even to lift a finger to brush them off. And those waves—was the tide going out or coming in? Was I going to have to lie here and slowly drown?

I yelled for help over and over but no one heard me. I started screaming in sheer panic. I began praying, God help me, help me. After hours of this, my voice was gone. I was exhausted and I passed out.

I awoke the next morning in the same spot. Thank God the tide had gone out, not in. There were some people on the beach. I tried to call out but my voice was still just a raspy whisper. They must have figured I was just some guy sleeping off a night of partying, because they saw me and just walked on by. A couple from New Zealand on their morning walk passed by—I don’t know when, exactly—maybe around 10 or 11 a.m. The woman came over to check on me. I whispered that I needed help. They helped transport me to a hospital on the mainland, in Hat Yai. The doctors there told me the C4 vertebra in my neck was shattered into 12 pieces and my C5 and C6 vertebrae were compressed.

An x-ray of the injury

“You’re going to die if you don’t get surgery right away,” said the neurosurgeon. “But chances are you’re going to die anyway. And if you come through, you’ll never walk again. I just need you to understand the risks.” He pressed my thumb into an inkpad and onto a piece of paper as a signature. I never got his name, but he saved my life—and my spine. Doctors who’ve treated me here in Toronto say his surgery was amazing.

Chris surrounded by family and friends in the hospital

When I awoke, I had no sensation from the neck down. The doctors sent me to Bangkok to recover. My kids and some family friends came to see me. After a month, a miracle: I could wiggle my right big toe. I travelled back to Toronto.

Rehab began a week later, September 18, 2014, at Lyndhurst Centre in the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. They wheeled me in. I vowed I would walk out. I had amazing physiotherapists and occupational therapists who helped me gradually regain some ability to walk. But living in a hospital was depressing. I felt like I was imprisoned there—locked in a broken body that seemed to take so long to heal.

Chris in hospital

Around that time, a guy named Charlie Warriner from Spinal Cord Injury Ontario introduced himself to me. He had been paralyzed in a sports accident. I thought, great guy, but I’m not going to be paralyzed. He ended up being one of my biggest supporters. He explained that the months and years ahead would be incredibly tough, but that I should be patient. He encouraged me to never give up and work hard. He also encouraged me to set goals and use my experience to help others.

I walked out of Lyndhurst on a sunny day in January 2015. It was a cold day but new hope burned inside me. When I stepped out that door, I yelled, “Freedom!”

There was still a long road ahead. I was grieving for my old life. I missed being able to get on a bike and ride somewhere. I was drinking a lot, taking too many painkillers. I gained 30 pounds. Twice, I stood at the edge of my balcony, 20 storeys up, and thought I might end it all. I was close.

Instead, I leaned on my support network, cut down on the drinking, lost the weight. Charlie and my other supporters were indispensable to my recovery. I wanted to give back to them, and to give others hope. I’m what they call an “incomplete quad.” I still have some feeling and movement, but it’s unpredictable and often painful. When I walk, I get burning pain in my limbs, excruciating muscle spasms, and I can fall easily. In June, I got the idea to walk in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. On October 20, I’ll be walking five kilometres. It’ll be like climbing a volcano, like swimming with sharks. I guess I’m still that kind of crazy.

Chris at his home (photo by Brittany Carmichael)