There’s a picture taken two weeks ago of Chris Rice free falling somewhere over Toronto.
A couple years ago he did the CN Tower edge walk with his sister Felicia. There’s a picture of that, too.
But there’s another picture of Chris taken seven years ago in a critical care unit in Toronto with IVs, fluid lines, a neck brace and oxygen.
That one’s hard to look at.
He was paralyzed from the neck down and things weren’t looking too good.
Chris thinks back to what life was like before June 23, 2012.
“My dream was to become a police officer and work in investigations. I was attending university in pursuit of that dream when I took the summer break in Ontario,” he says.
He was living in Bridgetown with his dad and stepmom.
“I had only come to Ontario for that summer to work in order to pay for school while visiting my mom.”
He’d turned 19 a couple of weeks before and his life, up to that point, was pretty normal.
“I had been in a slump with depression for the previous year or so, but things were looking up and I was exercising and in the best shape of my teenage life,” he recalls. “I had already graduated from high school and had completed one year of university.”
Turns on a dime
Life turns on a dime though. June 23 sliced through his life just like the shard of bone that pierced his spinal cord.
“The day of the accident was a hot Saturday afternoon. We had spent the past couple hours at a music festival down the street and had just walked home to spend time in the pool to cool off,” he said.
“My brother had just flown in the night before to visit us from Nova Scotia.”
One moment he was on the pool deck talking to his mom and carrying on. The next he was face down in the water fighting for his life.
“I had (dived) into the pool and slammed headfirst into the bottom, crushing my C7 vertebra and paralyzing myself from the neck down,” he said. “As soon as I realized that I couldn’t control a single muscle below my head, my mind went to panic. I tried holding my breath for as long as possible, but the air ran out quickly.”
The only part of his body he could move were his eyes.
“My brother was standing just a few feet away from me but didn’t realize anything was wrong for the first minute or so,” Chris said. “Because my hands were moving on the surface of the water, he thought that I was doing the ‘dead man’s float.’”
“I know they say your life flashes before your eyes, but before this moment I didn’t think that was completely accurate,” Chris says in a brief article he wrote titled ‘June 23, 2012 – The Story.’
“I can tell you it is true. In a matter of seconds, images of every girl I’d ever loved, every mistake and happy memory I’d ever made, and everyone I care about flashed through my mind. I began to imagine how my family would make it through this; who would miss me when I’m gone. I wondered if they would know that I didn’t mean to die.”
Drowning had always been one of his greatest fears, something he had nightmares about since he was a child. At that point, he was convinced there was no way out and he was going to die in the pool that he helped build a few weeks earlier.
“My head felt as if it were going to explode. The effort it took to not inhale water was extreme,” he wrote. “There comes a point while holding your breath underwater that your body doesn’t listen to you anymore. My mouth was open, face and neck muscles clenched, trying with every ounce of my strength not to let things end that way.”
And he might have gone out like that if his brother Alex hadn’t figured out something was wrong.
“After about 45 seconds, he realized that I had been facedown for too long and rolled me slightly to my side, where I was able to catch my breath,” he said in an interview. “After that, my stepfather leaned me back against his chest to support my head, while I explained that I couldn’t move anything below my neck. My hands were flailing out of the water, but they were not under my control. Spinal shock was causing my nerves to fire in random ways.”
He spit out part of a tooth that had broken off when his jaws smashed together when he hit the bottom of the pool.
While his family didn’t know what was happening, Chris told them to call 911 because he was pretty sure he’d broken his neck.
“Most likely due to shock, I was calm,” he wrote. “There were only a few words that I kept repeating: ‘I can’t feel anything’ and ‘It’s OK, Mom. I’m OK.’”
The ambulance first took him to Southlake Hospital in Newmarket. Once stabilized and given a preliminary diagnosis, they transferred him to Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, where he went into surgery that day. After 12 days in that hospital, he was transferred to Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Centre for five months of inpatient care.
Chris has all the technical terms from the surgery and says he owes a lot of his recovery to surgeon Dr. Nicholas Phan, who specializes in neurotrauma and traumatic brain injury. Dr. Phan removed a small portion of bone from Chris’s pelvis to use as a graft. Using titanium, they replaced the crushed portion of his C7 with a metal plate and used four long screws to fuse his neck from C6 to the T1 vertebrae (C7 Corpectomy). And they also had to repair five or six spots of bleeding around his spinal cord.
“I first started hearing the words about never walking again while I was waking up from my surgery, though I was so hopped up on pain medication at the time that I didn’t process much information clearly,” he said. “Even from the first moment after my injury in the pool, I understood that something serious had happened and that this may be a life-altering event. Luckily for me, there was no moment where anything really hit me very hard, with all of my family there to support me, I felt supported and hopeful from the start.”
It was at the rehabilitation hospital, ironically, where the prospect of recovery seemed slim.
“I was told to focus my effort and money on adapting my daily life, rather than physiotherapy,” he remembers. “I was also told at that time that my injury was severe enough not to expect any recovery after the first year or so. I was warned about a plateau in recovery and that I should consider that as my sign to accept my situation.”
“The five months in the rehab hospital were brutal,” he said. “Every night I would lay in bed, thinking about how I was a burden on the health-care system and everyone around me. I started thinking about how dependent I would be on everyone and that maybe I should just end my suffering and everyone else’s.”
Of course, he didn’t do that.
“The things that kept me going were the kind messages of support from all of my family and friends, as well as complete strangers on the internet,” he said. “The benefit that the Town of Bridgetown held really gave me that extra boost of motivation and helped me get on the right track with much-needed equipment and supplies. Without that support, I have no idea where I would be today.”
He tried to hide the negative feelings while in the hospital, but he’s certain those around him could sense it.
“I always tried to put on a strong face, but inside I was really struggling with my future,” he admits. “Thinking too far ahead was especially painful, because I would only focus on what I would never be able to do again, and how difficult moving forward would be.”
At some point, he just started taking his injury and recovery one day at a time, looking at each day as a new opportunity to progress and improve his situation.
Then he met some miracle workers.
Walk It Off is a physiotherapy clinic located in Newmarket, Ont. They’re a non-profit and Chris said they have a very positive atmosphere, sort of an accessible gym where you work one-on-one with kinesiologists, physiotherapists, and other trainers.
“They have tons of special equipment used for spinal cord injuries and other neurological injuries, including electrical stimulation bikes, supported treadmills, etc.,” he said. “I credit all of my recovery to them, specifically my main trainer Rebecca Wheeler. She has been the most important person in my life for the past six years, helping me grow as a person and achieve all that I have.”
He says the trainers and other clients at Walk It Off are some of the most incredible people you can possibly imagine meeting, and he’s going to miss them dearly when he returns to Nova Scotia this summer.
Yes. Chris is coming home.
But hold that thought for a moment.
On the five-year anniversary of his accident – to the day, June 23, 2017 – Chris defied all the prognostic odds and stood up and danced at his friend’s wedding.
There’s a picture of that, and of all the pictures, it’s the keeper.
“Dancing at the wedding was the proudest moment of my life,” he said. “I managed to stand up and dance after being told that it was not going to happen.”
Like all the best rumours, this one started on the telephone.
“The idea of dancing at Kate Jollymore‘s wedding came about a year before it happened,” he said. “I was talking to Donna, my stepmom, on the phone one night and she mentioned hearing that I was going to dance at the wedding.”
Until that moment he’d never even considered the idea and had no idea where the rumour started. The next day at physiotherapy he laughingly mentioned it to one of his trainers.
“She said ‘well, should we try it?’ And that’s where everything began,” he said. “We began working towards standing balance and getting my hips and legs strong enough to support me while gently moving side to side. The wedding was on June 23, 2017 and we started preparing for it a year before that. I got up and danced at her wedding on the five-year anniversary of my injury.”
But he isn’t running marathons and he hasn’t heard from Dancing With the Stars.
“Despite everything that I have regained and all the training we have done, I still use a wheelchair for getting through my day,” he said. “Hopefully someday I’ll be able to use a walker and grow beyond that, but for now I’m still struggling with muscle spasms and balance issues. I have recovered most of the muscles in my upper body and midsection, and can activate most muscles in my lower body, though they still need to be regrown to support my weight reliably.”
Because he wasn’t able to find a physiotherapy clinic in the Annapolis Valley suitable for his situation, he decided to build a house with a fully accessible gym inside it.
“That way, I can hopefully maintain my regimen and continue to progress while attending university,” he said. “I’m on a constant uphill battle against muscle atrophy. If I stop pushing myself and exercising on a regular basis, I’ll quickly lose the muscle mass and function that I’ve gained.”
University? The Valley?
“Right now, I am enrolled at Acadia university to study nutrition, with the goal of working with people with disabilities and chronic illnesses to maintain their health after an injury,” he explained. “I live a very active life right now and am working on finding a balance between exercise, school, and a social life.”
He’s in the process of moving back to Bridgetown and hoping he can handle all of the extra challenges coming his way.
“Needless to say, before injury I had never expected to be in a situation like this. While it, of course, has had plenty of downsides, it’s helped me grow as a person and provided opportunities that I otherwise would have never found,” he said.
“All that I can say is that you’d be amazed how resilient people are when faced with a seemingly impossible situation. I could’ve never imagined myself being an inspiration to others. I find that taking life one day at a time and enjoying the little things, has really helped me,” he said. “We’re not here for very long, so enjoy life and spend time with those around you.”