On October 5th, 2008, I broke my back in a mountain biking accident. Going from fully able-bodied to paraplegic in the prime of my life, forced me to redefine the world and my place in it. I have a whole new appreciation for life, and how we all are trying to work our way through it.
To start back at the day of my accident, I invite you to visit the original blog. http://getwellrob.com/page/18/ (read from the bottom up).
If you want to know me a little better to understand where my ideas, values and writing comes from, I’ve tried to capture below how I currently see myself.
I define myself first and foremost as a family man. Without question, the most important people in my life are my wife Sabrina and daughters Chloe and Zara, followed by my moms and siblings, but also extending all the way to my over 75 aunts, uncles and cousins. I consider myself very lucky to be part of a large Dutch family, in which there is a lot of love, wholesome and delicious food, and the combined ability to build or fix anything imaginable.
My girls are my motivation for almost everything I do, and my family and friends are always close at hand to help me achieve any goal that I have.
I’m happy on the stage. From a young age attending the choir school in London, Ontario, I fondly remember getting out in front and making myself heard. This continued into my university and business years. Since breaking my back I’ve had many great opportunities to share my story and what I’ve learned so far on this journey. From elementary schools and corporations, to NPOs and TEDx, I love the challenge of adapting my message for the audience and value the feedback from attendees. My hope is that how I’ve responded to my accident can inspire others to make the most of the abilities that they have and encourage individuals to find their motivation to achieve whatever they set their minds to.
Just a few weeks before my injury, Sabrina and I completed our first half marathon. I’m not sure I would have called myself an athlete at the time, but with road cycling, mountain biking, running, motorsports and chasing my kids around, I was definitely active. The day that I broke my back and lay on the forest floor waiting to be rescued, the one thing that I knew for certain, was that I had to keep moving.
Soon after my accident my friends started training for and completing triathlons. From sprint distance all the way to Ironman (226kms), I was inspired to see if I could do it too - with just my arms. While still in rehab, I remember the thrill of riding my first handcycle around the hospital. A few months later, I borrowed a racing wheelchair and taught myself how to push. Finally, my friend Peter help me learn to swim again. Since breaking my back I’m proud to say that I’ve completed countless races in all kinds of sports and distances, including 6 Half-iron distance triathlons and 2 Full Ironman (making me the first Canadian Paraplegic to do so). Sports has been a huge part of my recovery, sanity, and my new identity. So yes, now I can say with confidence that I am truly an athlete.
If I’m not doing something with my family, working out, or speaking, you can bet I’m working on some business idea. I’ve always liked the satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from working hard. Starting with a paper route at the age of 10 and most recently working for Microsoft Canada and a small business I co-founded with a couple of friends in 2007 (www.sector.ca), my career has been diverse and extremely rewarding. This year my entrepreneurial goals include growing my motivational speaking business and starting something that will make the world a better place.
October 5th, 2008
The year of my accident, 2008, was incredible. Up until that fateful day my life was truly blessed. Sabrina, our young girls and I were all healthy, happy, and living life to the fullest. We were in the best physical shape of our lives and enjoyed everything from travelling with our camping trailer, to snuggling on the couch watching the Backyardigans. On the work front, my career was taking off. I had just won a President’s Award for Outstanding Achievement within one year of being at Microsoft, and other side-ventures I was involved in outside of my day job looked promising. I was achieving the goals I had set out for myself. I was enjoying success, at least in the way that I had always defined it. Self, family, career, money; all the cylinders were firing. Then, on October 5th, on an early morning mountain bike ride with a friend, everything came to a stop as my head plowed into the ground and my spine doubled over itself.
The Morning Of
In the forest, a tree had fallen across the path. Someone had built a ramp that was level and ran around five feet before the fallen tree and a couple of feet past it, creating around a 4 foot drop off at the end of the ramp. Eric and I both look at the jump and smile. He remarks that the jump was there last Sunday, but no one dared to try it. I’m looking at it and think it’s doable, even though doing a bunny-hop off of this jump just might result in some damage to my bike because of the height. I tell Eric, “worst case, I might need your help getting out of the forest”, thinking that I might break my back wheel if I land too hard. So without overthinking things or too much worry, I cycle up the hill a short distance and then turn around to head back down. I enter the jump slowly. As I approach the end of the jump I decide to do a bunny hop off of it (after all, this has worked for me in the past). But unlike other obstacles that I’ve hopped off of before, this time my bike starts tipping forward in the air and I land on my front wheel. Rather than throwing the bike away and putting my hands down to stop me, I hang onto the bars of the bike, waiting for my back tire to hit the ground so that I can ride away. Instead, I tip forward, and with a loud thud, my head plows into the ground. I hear my back snap as my legs fall over my head and I’m suddenly on the floor of the forest, my feet pointing down the hill and only able to move my upper body.
I can’t sit up. Fuck. I reach down and I yell to Eric “I can’t feel my legs”. I try to move my feet and while my brain feels like it’s sending the right signals, nothing happens. Eric runs over to me and asks me if I have my cell phone. I don’t, and neither does he, so he jumps on his bike and races back to the road to get help.
As I lay on the ground, knowing I just broke my back, my first thought is that I won’t be able to dance with my little girls at their weddings. But my mind races. I begin trying to answer an endless list of questions. How will I live in my home? It’s a two story with stairs. How will I ride my motorbikes, or play with my little girls? How will I continue my career with Microsoft? And the question that hit me the hardest: What have I just done to Sabrina? She married a tall and active guy. How is this going to impact her and our marriage? This is bad. I must figure out how to minimize the negative impact this fuck up is going to have on my family and me.
I’m not crying, but I am hyper aware of everything that is happening, including the throbbing pain in my back and the cold that is overtaking my body.
It’s Sunday morning and I have to be in Toronto later today for SecTor, an annual Security Education Conference in Toronto that I co-founded in 2007. Maybe I’m not really hurt that badly and I can just miss one day of the conference, I think to myself. I’m feeling terrible at the thought of inconveniencing my friends.
I can’t quiet my mind, it’s all over the place, trying to strategize solutions and uncover new opportunities. I’m probably going to be off of work for a period of time, so maybe I can work on learning more piano. Ah shit… I’ll need my feet for the pedals, so that won’t work. This past summer we saw athletes with disabilities on TV competing in the Paralympics. Perhaps there’s a sport I can do to get me there.
Again I think about my career goals. Instead of dismissing them, I acknowledge that they will be harder to achieve, but more satisfying when I finally do. I don’t change my goals, I just adjust my timelines and start brainstorming on how the hell I’m going to do everything I’ve always wanted to do. All of this while I lay totally helpless on the forest floor, waiting to be rescued. I’m in shock and starting to freeze. The forest floor is chilling my body and I just want to be warm. The forest is dead quiet as I lay there. The sun shines through the thick canopy of trees overhead. If not for the horrible reality that I can’t move, this would be a beautiful scene.
The paramedics just arrived. They’re breathing heavily. I guess racing two kilometers into the forest with all their shit isn’t something they do every day. They start the barrage of questions including if they can cut off my clothes. If it was my motorcycle leathers I’d say no, but I don’t care about my cycling clothes. The paramedic slides his finger across my chest and asks if I can feel it. I do, so he goes an inch or two lower and does it again. When I can no longer feel his touch, he uses a marker to draw where I’ve lost feeling. He asks if he can conduct a rectal exam. “Of course” I say. He asks me if I can feel anything but I can’t. There’s no hope or expression amongst the paramedics. It’s all very clinical as they go through their check list. Basically, I get the feeling that I’m fucked.
In small groups the site of the accident gets busy and crowded. I guess Sunday mornings are slow, because now I’m being questioned by a police officer while firemen check out the trails and a reporter snaps pictures of me shivering on the ground covered by a blanket. After what feels like 30 or so minutes, a group of them lift me onto a flat board. The pain is indescribable. Whereas the ground has some contour to it that accommodates having two of my vertebrae on top of each other, the stretcher affords no such comfort. Now on the board, they strap and tape my head so that I can’t twist or turn, all I can really move is my eyes. Then, after much discussion, six guys pick me up off the ground and start walking up the hill to bring me to the parking lot, where a helicopter awaits.
Rather than follow the same path out of the forest that brought them to me, we go straight up the hill through the thick of the forest, where no paths are cut, and then through a fence which leads to a farmer’s field. On top of the hill now, it’s a clear line to Dundas Road and the large school-bus parking lot where an emergency helicopter awaits. It feels like it’s been at least an hour now since the accident and the pain is starting to consume me. With every step my rescuers take, spikes of pain race through my body. I thought I had a pretty good tolerance for pain, but at no time in my life have I ever experienced anything like this. I try moaning, I try breathing out, I try crying, but nothing helps.
The gravity of my situation is visible on the faces of my rescuers. They all know that I’m in pain and that my life just changed forever. Except for Eric, they avert their eyes from mine and focus on each next step. Eric is helping and I can see the concern in his face as he tries to smile and assure me that everything is going to be okay. Cutting a path through the forest and up the steep hill was a workout for my rescuers, and I’m grateful for their help, but as we move along the farmer’s field, I hear one of them complaining about the fact that they still have to walk all the way to the parking lot. He wishes the helicopter would simply come to us so he wouldn’t have to walk. Seriously? I’m in the worst pain of my life, scared as hell, probably never going to walk again, and one of my rescuers is complaining about having to help carry me through a farmer’s field to an awaiting air ambulance. If I wasn’t so helpless I’d ask him to stop, or at least shut up. This is ridiculous.
The pain screaming through me erases any excitement that I might have had about flying in a helicopter. What a bitch that I can’t sit up and look around the helicopter or out the window. My first helicopter ride and all I can do is see the metal ceiling and hear the sound of the rotor. I ask for something to ease my pain but am denied. The volume and intensity of the pain continues to increase and it forces me in and out of consciousness for the trip to the hospital. The paramedics seem consumed with the procedures involved in having me in the helicopter. There isn’t much interaction, so when I am conscious, I just focus on breathing away the pain.
Having landed at the hospital, I’m brought into some kind of emergency room. I’m cold and in pain, so I ask everyone helping me for more blankets and something for the pain. I’m still shivering, but I soon feel the warmth of hot air blowing under a blanket. A nurse begins pulling on my wedding ring trying to get it off my finger but it won’t budge. I overhear her say that she’s going to have to cut it off, but I insist that she doesn’t. I encourage her to get some lubricant to help it off, which she does. I was okay with the paramedics cutting off my cycling clothes, but I won’t allow anyone to cut my wedding ring. It’s too important to me.
Sabrina just arrived at the hospital. She's scared and confused and starts crying as I repeatedly tell her that I’m sorry. It’s not registering for her yet why I’m so sorry. I’m sure it hasn’t even registered for me, but I know it’s bad and that both of our lives just took a sharp turn. I’ve broken bones before, but this is a whole new scale of injury.
Sabrina had grabbed my cell phone before leaving home, and she starts the process of calling friends and family, letting them know that I had an accident and that I’ll be heading into surgery soon. Eric and his wife, Lucy, arrive. The three of them take turns holding my hand and reassuring me that I’ll get through this. All I can think of is that I’ve fucked up big time.
I just woke up in what must be the ICU. I’m in and out of consciousness, waking to find different people in and around my bed when I open my eyes. This particular moment of lucidity I observe someone whom I assume to be a doctor as he checks over my vitals and looks at an X-ray of my back that is on a monitor at the end of my bed. I’m not sure what’s more disappointing, the x-ray that clearly shows my broken spine, or the fact that the hospital is still running Windows XP on their computers. I ask him how severe my injury is and he says in a clinical and emotionless voice “you’re lucky to be alive.” Even though this essentially confirms what I already knew, it‘s hard to hear. I don’t have anything to say in response, I just lie there looking at the ceiling and trying to figure out how I’m going to fix this.