Still Standing

When I shattered my neck in a gymnastics accident, doctors told me I’d never walk again. Six months later, I took my first step

I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff in my life. I grew up in LaSalle, a bedroom community south of Windsor. I had a sister and two brothers, and we spent countless afternoons in the forest behind our house, swinging from vines like Tarzan or soaring off homemade dirt ramps on rickety bikes. Every summer, my family drove to a cottage on Georgian Bay, where I’d leap from a cliff and plunge 30 feet to the lake below. As I got older, the drops—and the thrills—got bigger: hang-gliding, dune buggying, BASE jumping, skydiving.

At 12, I was accepted into the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but my parents decided not to let me go because, well, I was 12. My dad was the president of a local gymnastics club’s board, so he enrolled me in lessons. I fell in love with flipping and twisting on the trampoline. By my early 20s, I was training under Dave Ross, a legendary trampolinist who has since coached five Canadian Olympic teams. I competed at the national level, and at my best, I placed in the top six in the country. After graduating from Seneca’s coaching program, I helped found an elite training centre in New Brunswick. The gymnasts I trained were even better than I was. A few of our boys competed in the 2000 Olympics.

By 2010, I was 43 years old and coaching in Windsor. I was strict but supportive, and I expected nothing less than the best from my athletes. That November, I visited a gym in Michigan with two of my nieces. I always liked to goof around on the trampoline as they practised their routines. This time, I tried a half-in full-out—two somersaults with a 540-degree spin—into a foam pit. I bounced 15 feet into the air, and the manoeuvre went fine. The landing didn’t.

The author jumping into a quarry in New Brunswick in 1988

Gymnastics pits aren’t usually regulated, but they’re typically at least six feet deep with padded floors. This one was three feet, and the base was pure concrete. I entered the pit feet first, hitting the ground before I expected to. My legs collapsed under me with an audible crunch, and my body condensed into a cannonball.

For a few seconds, I couldn’t breathe. I gingerly twisted my neck, hoping my lungs and throat would open up. They did. I gasped for air and quickly realized I had another problem: I couldn’t move my legs or arms. Coaches, parents and kids crowded around the edge of the pit. Stuck in the fetal position, I told them I was alright. I told myself, too. But deep down I knew this was different from other injuries. I couldn’t feel anything at all.

It took 28 people, two hours and one fire department to get me out of that pit. At Beaumont, a top-tier hospital near Detroit, nurses pumped me with steroids to stop the swelling and injected a mess of metallic tentacles into one of my central veins to prevent blood clots from entering my lungs. I protested when the nurses cut off my shirt and shorts. “These are the good ones!” I cried, trying to make light of a clearly dire situation. By then, my parents had arrived to find me in an ICU bed, hooked up to an IV drip and a catheter. I still couldn’t feel or move anything below my neck: after a few days, they started calling me the Talking Head.

It was hard to find much humour in my situation, though. The higher a spinal injury, the more of the body it affects. I’d broken my C3 and C4 in the back of my neck and suffered a heart attack from the trauma. I’d need two major surgeries. The good news, my doctor told me, was that I was alive. The bad news was that I’d never walk again. “Sorry,” I told the doctor. “That’s not going to work for me.”

When I imagined life as a quadriplegic, the vision devastated me. I could never rock climb again, or go dune buggying or white-water rafting. Trampolines and balance beams would be out of the question. I’d probably never dress or bathe myself, either. I’d need tubes just to help me breathe, eat and use the washroom, and I’d have to endure constant nerve pain.

At a gymnastics meet in the ’80s

I had severed my spinal cord: my brain couldn’t tell my body what to do, and my body couldn’t tell my brain what it felt. There was a shred of hope, though. As the doctors studied my case, they discovered I had an “incomplete” injury—my spinal cord wasn’t entirely severed—so there was still a chance that I might recover.

The brain strengthens neural pathways that get used regularly—for example, the ones responsible for assuming first position in gymnastics—and neglects the ones that don’t, like those needed to play a long-forgotten piano melody. Think of it as a dirt road: the more cars travel along the road, the more pronounced it becomes. When I got injured, my signals hit a roadblock. If they wanted to get through, they’d need to change lanes, reroute, take a detour—whatever metaphor you prefer for neuroplasticity, the brain’s amazing ability to reconfigure itself and alter the way signals travel through the nervous system.

Spinal cord injuries are incredibly complex. There was no way to know exactly how much progress I could make or how long that detour would take. There was no guarantee I’d regain much control or feeling at all. I chose to look at it the other way: there was no guarantee I wouldn’t.

I wasn’t being naïve. I knew that quadriplegics—even those with incomplete injuries—don’t normally get back on their feet. But as a gymnastics coach, I’d seen almost as many injuries as a paramedic. I’d heard stories about people who’d sustained spinal cord injuries like mine and, years later, ended up walking around without even using a cane. I’d bounced back from injuries before, so why couldn’t I rebound from this one? I resolved to do whatever it took.

Nine days after the accident, I was transferred to a hospital in Windsor. I was bedridden. I couldn’t control my bladder or bowel. I couldn’t sense heat, cold, pressure, moisture or anything, really. If I burned my hand on a stove, I’d never know it. Though I couldn’t feel my torso, arms and legs—it was like they were perpetually asleep—they somehow prickled with pins and needles, as if my body was permanently frostbitten. I experienced sporadic muscle spasms that caused my arms and legs to flail around uncontrollably, like I was being electrocuted. When I laughed or sneezed or yawned, my lungs felt like balloons trapped inside papier mâché moulds, desperately trying to inflate. I spent most of my time practising breathing, sleeping and looking around my hospital room in misery.

To keep my mind off my helplessness, I formulated a master plan. I was lucky that Toronto is a great place for people with spinal cord injuries. The same way I’d sought out the best gyms and coaches as a young trampolinist, I searched for the best hospitals and doctors. My doctors at Beaumont had recommended Lyndhurst Centre, part of the University Health Network and Canada’s largest spinal cord hospital. I had sued the gym in Michigan for damages and settled for $1.16 million, which left me $697,500 after legal fees. I’d need it: OHIP covered my hospital stays, and the Trillium Drug Program subsidized my medication, but I’d have to pay for my own physiotherapy.

At a Burlington diving competition in 1988

Then I found out that Lyndhurst had a two-year waiting list. I was crushed—the first months after an injury are crucial to recovery. That’s when rehabilitation is the most effective, because the patient is still in good shape and their neural connections are still fresh. Was I really going to spend those two years waiting for treatments while my opportunity to recover rapidly diminished?

For a while, I was anxious, stressed and despondent. I thought about throwing myself in front of a bus, but I wasn’t exactly in a state to throw myself in front of anything. I was still suicidal when a family friend visited shortly thereafter. We’re both Roman Catholic, and she told me her parish was praying for me. I jokingly said I could use a little divine intervention to get into Lyndhurst. I don’t know how it happened, but three days later, a bed opened up.

I arrived at Lyndhurst in February 2011. It’s a two-storey brick building nestled between the houses of Leaside and a wooded ravine that runs east to Sunnybrook Park. The place is made for people like me: ramps, wide hallways and support staff everywhere. As I met other patients, we compared injuries like battle scars: “You’re a C5-C6? I’m a C3-C4.”

Things started slowly. To move me between my bed and my wheelchair, nurses had to put me in a Hoyer lift, a hammock-like seat suspended from a mechanical crane. Instead of pressing a call button, I blew into a tube attached to my bed if I needed anything. I spent my days sleeping, getting wheeled around the facility and having my arms and legs gently stretched by occupational therapists. My body wasn’t ready for much else yet.

By month three, I could finally hit the gym. The staff strapped me into specialized bikes—with pedals for my arms as well as my legs—that simulated cycling. The bikes shot faint electrical pulses through my muscles, mimicking the signals they should have been receiving from my brain.

I started visiting Aim2Walk (now known as NeuroChangers), a neurological rehab clinic in Etobicoke. The staff at Lyndhurst didn’t approve—Aim2Walk wasn’t part of my medical recovery plan—but it was one of the only places in Toronto that had what I was looking for: a Lokomat, a robotic device that looked like a Trekkie’s idea of a treadmill, outfitted with a bird’s nest of wires and circuitry. I’d dangle from a harness, fasten into to a pair of robotic legs and start walking. I wasn’t doing any of the work. Like the bikes, the Lokomat was supposed to replicate the repetitive motion of walking until my brain could take over. Several sessions later, it worked. It wasn’t a 50-50 effort. Not even close. More like 99-1. But it was a start, and I was ecstatic.

Every bit of progress encouraged me. I was determined to keep improving. I refused to learn how to get items out of the fridge from my wheelchair, because I didn’t intend to be in a wheelchair for very long. I treated my bathroom like a second gym. Whenever I brushed my teeth, I tried to stand in front of the sink. At first, nothing. But eventually I’d get up for a second or two before falling back into my wheelchair. Two seconds became 10 seconds, then 30, then a minute. It wasn’t pretty, but I was improving. Like gymnastics, I just needed to put in the reps. A number of my daily exercises—certain stretches, steps and balancing acts—were straight out of my coach’s handbook. If I had muscle memory for anything, it was those movements.

My body worked in weird ways. Sometimes, if I tried to extend my leg, nothing would happen. Then a nurse would put a ball in front of it, and I’d instinctively kick it away. Without an item to hit, the signal didn’t get through; with one, it did. Other times, I’d spend hours repeating the same motion only to forget how to do it the next day—the new neural connection didn’t last. My doctors couldn’t figure it out.

As the months passed, physiotherapy strengthened my neural connections. Finally, in May 2011, six months after my injury, I tried to do what I’d set out to: walk on my own. In one of the rooms at Lyndhurst, we set up a Skype feed with friends back in Windsor, who’d raised money to help with my recovery. When I was ready, I rose out of my wheelchair. I had to mentally break down each step into pieces: heel strikes ground, knee straightens, weight transfers forward, knee bends, leg lifts. Before the injury, I never thought about those things—I just did them. But without any sensation in my legs, I had to visualize each movement and will it to happen.

Every step was a monumental task, like tightrope walking above Niagara Falls. I couldn’t talk or look at anyone. I had to concentrate, so I fixed my gaze out the window instead. Unconsciously, I pressed my legs down so hard looking for a sensory response that the bottoms of my feet bruised and turned purple, not that I could feel it. But it worked—kind of. I placed one foot in front of the other in a series of movements that approximated walking. I took two steps that day. The people on Skype cheered.

By the time I left rehab in late 2012, I could stand, however precariously; dress myself, however slowly; and walk, even if for just a few steps. I regained control of my bladder and bowel, too. I moved in with a friend in Toronto, which allowed me to keep doing sessions at Lyndhurst and Aim2Walk for a year and a half. Things weren’t perfect and probably never would be, but I was walking. Then, one day, without warning, I woke up paralyzed again.

I lay motionless in bed, feeling like I’d just been pulled out of the foam pit again. All the progress, pathways and muscle memory I’d built in my all-important first months—they were all inexplicably gone. I thought again about the life the doctor at Beaumont had described, with all the catheters and ventilators and, heartbreakingly, no walking. Did I really have to go back to the hospital, back to rehab, and do everything all over again? Even if I did, there was no guarantee I’d progress as far as I had—or that I wouldn’t lose it all overnight again.

I felt the same way I did waiting to get into Lyndhurst. My darkest thoughts came rushing back. I could roll my wheelchair in front of a train, but I worried that would backfire and just make my injury worse. I pictured myself wheeling into a lake, but drowning seemed unpleasant. If I’d come up with a better way to do it, I might have killed myself.

But before I could, I began making progress again. I moved into Bridgepoint Health, a rehab hospital that’s part of the Sinai Health System. I went through the same steps: the gentle movements, the bikes, the Lokomat. None of my doctors could figure out what had paralyzed me, but within three months, I could walk again. A year later, I surpassed where I was before my relapse into paralysis. For a year or so, I bounced around between facilities—Bridgepoint, Lyndhurst again, then another hospital in Windsor—before moving back into my childhood home, where my parents could help me with the tasks I couldn’t do myself.

All told, I was in and out of hospitals for a total of four years. When I was finally discharged for good in 2014, I could walk—not just two steps, but enough to stop counting. I still have to visualize every step, but it’s become easier with years of practice. I can even feel a subtle sensation when my heels strike the ground, which makes the process less exhausting. I use a walker because, without it, I don’t walk properly. Without help, I still look like I’m stumbling out of a pub after last call. I even made a shirt that says, “I’m not drunk, I’m a quadriplegic.”

These days, I live in an apartment in East York, mostly independently. I cook for myself and swim regularly. Tasks like shaving, writing and using my phone give me no trouble, and I run a small business selling gymnastics apparel online. I can feel some temperature on the left side of my body, and my right arm is pretty strong.

I’ve got a handle on my pain, too. My washroom stocks more pills than a pharmacy, and my living room is like a showroom for pain-relief products: electric flip-flops to shock my feet, a sickle-shaped hook for knots in my back, a vibrating platform to stimulate my nerves until they give up and just relax. I’ve tried everything—acupuncture, chiropractic, Pilates, hydrotherapy, traditional Chinese medicine—often paying out of pocket. In 2016, I spent $8,000 on physio alone. I started signing up for any and every clinical trial that I came across, whether it was testing a new gadget or studying falls among quadriplegics. To me, it was all free therapy.

In September 2018, I began coaching full-time again. I couldn’t live on $876 of disability pay a month. Besides, I was itching to get back to it. Coaching came back easily compared to walking. I wasn’t demonstrating flips, but I had three decades of experience to lean on.

These days, I teach as many as six sessions a week at three different gyms. That’s where I walk best. I don’t fixate on every movement when I’m coaching. I just do it, the same way I reflexively kicked when the nurse put a ball in front of my foot.

Today, the author lives in an apartment in East York and coaches several sessions a week at three different gyms. Photographs by Luis Mora

Coaches and kids say I’m inspiring, but I don’t feel that way. I just approach everyday life the way I’d expect an elite gymnast to approach the sport: with unrelenting willpower and the best resources available. If that inspires kids to be better athletes, great. If not, I don’t mind playing the cripple card, reminding them that I learned how to walk all over again whenever they complain about simple drills.

In some ways, my life resembles what it was like before the accident. In others, it’s infinitely more difficult. Even simple tasks—like getting groceries or going to the bank—can drain me if I don’t get enough sleep. I still need a personal support worker to help with meal prep (I can’t grip items in the freezer, and I avoid reaching into hot stoves for obvious reasons), laundry (my clothes once got mouldy when I folded them while they were still damp) and even buttoning up my coat (I usually let that one slide, since I can’t feel the cold anyway). On my worst days, I picture the two lives I might have had—the one where I’m bedridden, and the one where I’m not injured at all. But then I remind myself to focus on what I want to do next.

Right now, that’s relearning to drive. I decided to start with a boat, not a car—there are fewer things to crash into on the water. Will I be able to get in and out, pull up the anchor and steer? I’ll find out this summer at the cottage, where I do things that would make my physiotherapists shudder: splitting logs, driving a lawnmower, walking through the woods. My parents and siblings joke that they like hiking with me because they know they can outrun me if a bear attacks.

In 2017, I climbed that cliff on Georgian Bay for the first time since the accident. It took me half an hour to get up there, and neither way down was appealing: I’d either spend twice as long descending, or I’d jump, belly-flopping at best and drowning at worst. I stood at the precipice for a few minutes. From the water below, my niece’s boyfriend shouted, “Jump!”

So I did. I’ve been doing stupid things my whole life. A broken neck isn’t going to stop me from doing a few more.

This story originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.