I'll Always Miss My Past, but I Refuse to Let it Steal My Future....

More than a little ironic, two weeks before I broke my neck I recorded this story, (click here)  I broke my neck at c6 and c7 becoming a quadriplegic and ending my fighting career at 19-6 after holding two Middleweight Championship 185 lb titles. While training at the gym two days before Thanksgiving 2009, I was training/teaching a grappling class. As class ended and I was closing the gym, a guy from class asked if I would show him an escape. I kept tapping him out with simple triangle chokes from my back during class, so I dropped my gym bag quick, jumped on my back on the mat and put my legs around his shoulders to show him the escape.  He stood up and I felt him get me just off the ground so I swept his ankle with my hand, and he stumbled forward coming down on my neck with 215 lbs plus my weight of 200 lbs. I knew I was in trouble. 

I remember I could hardly breath and I kept telling myself, "No, no, no, no, no".  Then I heard a pop, pop, pop, and saw my legs flop to the ground. I knew immediately my neck was broken. I also knew I was in trouble.  This may sound crazy, but all I could think about was Christopher Reeve at the time.  My thoughts and emotions started running wild.  I did not want to live like this.  Everything that I had worked for was gone in an instant.  I knew right away that I was never coming back to fight. People kept telling me that it is just a stinger, but I knew after 20 fights what a stinger felt like.  I'm looking at my arms fingers and toes wishing them to move.  I'm not a real religious guy, but if there is a God I'm begging to get feeling back. I was telling the higher powers I would do anything to just move my extremities.  After a minute, I told them to call the ambulance and the finality of it all came quickly to me. The EMT's came and the gentleman that put me on the stretcher was someone I actually trained for his first MMA fight.  I also knew the other EMT as we went to high school together.  The look the EMT gave to me when he was putting me on the stretcher assured me what I already knew - it was over for me.  To me it was like a little kid watching his favorite super hero die. That look he gave me, I will never forget as long as I live. So they get me in the ambulance and rush me to the hospital.  At the hospital, things take a turn for the worse.  My diaphragm started to shut down. It became extremely hard for me to breath and I started going in and out of consciousness.  They get me in the ER and started putting a halo on my head.

One of the doctors that was present at the ER  was also on Christopher Reeve's surgery team.  I was going back and forth with him.  I kept telling him that I can't do this. I can't live paralyzed.  I asked him the same thing I asked my last doctor when I got into a serious car accident. "Please tell me I'm going to walk and fight again."  The doctor turns his back on me and tells me, "I cant do that."  I told the doctor immediately,  "I don't want to do this.  I don't want to sign papers.  Just let me go, just let me go!"   The doctor told me, "I don't think you are competent enough to make that type of decision with the amount of stress you are under."  I argued with the doctor to let me die.  My mom shows up and I'm telling her the same thing. "Just let me go! I don't want to do this".  My mother ends up signing the papers and the doctors go through with the surgery. They tried a traction procedure to put my neck back together, but that did not work so they had to go in manually. They ended up fusing the c6 and c7 vertebrae.  They put a bunch of hardware in the front and the back of my neck.

I came out of the surgery with no arm function, no tricep movement, I couldn't move my arms or fingers.  The first thing I realized when I woke up from surgery was my huge belly, it had expanded from the surgery.  This may sound superficial, but I had worked so hard and dealt with being overweight my entire life and I finally got the body I wanted and It was gone!  The first thing that came out of my mouth was, "What happened to me?"  

It was a long fight from there. I ended up getting a tracheotomy and I had a trach in for 3 1/2 weeks.  I had to learn how to breath on my own all over again and my lower lobe collapsed and I ended up getting pneumonia.  I was fighting multiple things at once.  My heart stopped 3 times.  I learned how to type simple things on boards and push letters so the doctors and nurses understood my needs. I had no idea what the future held for me and I thought my life was pretty much over.  The hospital I recovered at ended up sending me to Craig Rehab in Denver because I got a stage 3 skin sore on my tail bone and it was starting to enter stage 4.  Medicare/Medicaid really did not want to send me there because of the cost, but because of the sores they really had no choice.  I arrived at Craig Rehab on January 3, 2010.  While I was there, I started gaining arm and hand function back so I started to get the idea that I was going to get back in shape and start lifting weights with my arms and maybe eventually walk again.  Those thoughts quickly went away.  I guess you can say I accepted the functions of my body. It was a long road as I spent the next six months in bed because the sores needed to heal.  During the 6 months in rehab, I really didn't have anyone come visit me.  My mother came a couple of times, but that was about it.  My girlfriend at the time left me laying in the dark. She sent me a text one day telling me she was not coming back.  I guess she realized what she was really in for and back then I was not nearly as independent.  I was alone. I didn't have much family support.  The staff was worried, as I just laid in the dark a lot.  I didn't talk to people and I didn't eat much.  I was in bad shape mentally. I was in a dark place and at the edge of ending it all.  Not to be selfish, but I believe anyone who has become paralyzed has the right to think about ending it all.  I battled with those thoughts and I can't blame people wanting to commit suicide after being paralyzed. One of the therapists thought it would be a good idea to show me a documentary about Murderball.

Murderball is rugby in wheelchairs created for quadriplegics.  A couple members of the Denver Harlequins came in to talk to me and they wanted me to come check them out at practice.  At first it was hard to comprehend going from an MMA fighter to settling for playing some wheelchair sport.  Funny, even though I was in a wheelchair myself, I was almost still looking down on them.  I had no idea what good shape these quadriplegics were truly in.  I didn't appreciate the athleticism it takes to be an athlete in a wheelchair.  It took me a while to get up and about, but I finally got to check out practice and I wanted to be on the team.  The challenge was that they were going to send me back to South Dakota.  During the last two months, my current girlfriend, who started  as just a friend at Craig Rehab, really stepped up for me. 

Monica helped me a lot and prepared me to go back home. She knew I did not have much family support so she stood by me; rock steady.  She offered to help train people to support me in South Dakota.  The last week in rehab your family is supposed to come see you off and recognize your progress. I didn't have that.  Monica offered to come to South Dakota and soon we were inseparable. I was back home for two months. It was August now and I could hear the  Sturgis Motorcycle Rally going on and the roar of the motorcycles. It reminded me when I used to ride, but here I am stuck having a hard time just getting out of bed.  I kept thinking about the things I used to be able to do and it really drove me crazy. I tried to escape it.  I didn't want to be that guy anymore.  The day we got back, Monica, my family and I went to eat at a restaurant and this guy yells over, "Hey, aren't you that guy who used to fight?"  I didn't want to hear about my days as a fighter. I just wanted to dig a hole and hide.  I stayed in Dakota for 2 or 3 months and the entire time Monica and I kept talking and making plans. One day she offered to take care of me.  I was extremely apprehensive.  I was nowhere close to being independent. I couldn't even dress myself in the morning or get out of bed or shower.  I was scared to death and I told her, "I'm counting on you. I have nothing".  We found an apartment and I moved in and I'm glad I never looked back!

She stuck by my side as I moved to Denver and busted my ass to become independent; learning to live a second chance life.  Although I no longer fight, I stay active and play for the Denver Harlequins wheelchair rugby team (which has become life).  We play all around the country and I spend my life surrounded with others like myself.  I'm working hard to be as good as I can be for rugby.  I gained a lot of my function back in my hands and arms.  I function almost as a paraplegic and most people assume so on how well I function.  I don't carry myself like a quadriplegic.  I don't drive a mini van with a ramp, I drive a Dodge Magnum with 22's; capitalizing on the function I have. 

I try to show people that just because you are in a wheelchair does not mean you have to wear sweat pants all day and look like you are fresh out of the hospital.  You can still have style and be in a chair.   I hate to sound so cliche', but a wheelchair does not really define you, but it can become a unique part of you.  When you start to embrace it, it makes things a whole lot easier.

Our club is much smaller now and we did not ask to be part of this club.  We are in a club that most people will never understand the things we go through on day to day basis, not just physically but mentally as well.  It is a constant battle, but my respect for people in wheelchairs has grown ten fold.  I fought 29 guys in the cage and I still have more respect for the guys who fight every day living in a wheelchair. We fight this fight together, I know I'm not alone.

Every summer I volunteer at kids wheelchair camp for a week. I used to complain that I would never feel my toes in the sand ever again, or hike a trail. After working with these amazing kids, how could I possibly complain? I had 29 good years to hike trails, look off the tops of mountains and ride bikes.  Many of those kids will never see my age.  I guess I do these camps for my own selfish reason, but it helps me understand how fortunate I really am and it humbles me to the core.

In the end, life is all really about experiences.  I'm not rich, by any means, but I'm building on what I have and my relationship with Monica is amazing. Don't get me wrong, I went through hell to get here and I came close to the edge many times. My situation has taught me both empathy and patience of which I had none before.  

I miss fighting everyday more than words can express, but I can't let that be my last accomplishment. I have a decent life - slower - but I have come to appreciate it. A great woman, good dogs, a roof over my head, I can't complain. I'll always miss my past but I refuse to let it steal my future...

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Tom Gauthier's picture

Thanks for sharing your really inspiring story! I am blessed to have a job where I work with individuals who have disabilities, and help them connect with employment. One of the guys I worked with who really inspired me plays wheelchair rugby for the Milwaukee Iron. He's an amazing guy, like you, who inspires other people by his attitude, his inspirational play on the team, and his job, working with other people with disabilities, helping them connect with community resources and have fuller lives. Keep up your great work!