By David DeRocco
Accomplishing anything great in life often requires significant change that pushes you beyond your comfort zones. This can include times when a personal tragedy forever alters the life you were living.
With the right attitude and motivation, however, such a tragedy can do more than change you – it can serve to reveal the person you were meant to become.
Take Innisfil’s Rick Winson for example, an avid middle-aged outdoorsman with a wife, two young daughters – and a high-powered snowmobile. On a wind-swept winter’s afternoon, on the last day of snowmobiling season in Simcoe County, six inches of fresh powder to a snowmobiler is like a direct invitation from Mother Nature to take the sled out for one last rip across the open expanse of Lake Simcoe. Such was the case in March 2001 when Rick took off across the lake with a group of fellow sledders with the intent of using up the last bit of fuel in his snowmobile. Turning around at the end of the trail, Rick was careful to follow his own tracks leading back to his house on what was supposed to be a simple final run of the season.
That’s when fate intervened in the form of a sudden pop in the ice sheet, one completely obscured by the snow and late afternoon sun. Rick never saw it coming and hit the ice ridge at full speed, the impact of which sent him and his sled tumbling across the frozen landscape.
“By the time I stopped flopping along the ice I knew I had done something really bad,” remembers Rick, who was 41 at the time of the accident. “I knew immediately I was going to be in a chair the rest of my life. I knew that before they even picked me up off the ice. I don’t know why but I just did.”
Rick’s self-diagnosis turned out to be accurate. Rushed to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital, he began day one of what turned out to be a six month stay in the hospital. Initial tests revealed the worst: the accident had crushed his L1 vertebra, the first vertebra in the lumbar region of the back that bears the weight of the upper body. Twenty four hours later, doctors arrived with the news that would forever alter the course of his life. It was delivered to him in typically emotionless hospital manner.
“Basically the neurosurgeon came to the intensive care unit at Sunnybrook and said ‘you’ve really done damage to your spinal cord and you’re probably never going to walk again’. He even told me, ‘you know this might sound cold, but this is a fact and you have to deal with it.’ That was it.”
Rick had already mentally prepared himself for the worst; the real challenge was breaking the news to his wife and young children. Daughter Courtney, who was only five at the time of her father’s accident, still remembers that fateful family conversation.
“I remember sitting around the kitchen table,” recalled Courtney, now a 19-year-old university student. “I don’t remember the conversation exactly but I was trying hard to understand. Everyone was explaining things to me. I knew something bad had happened.”
Accepting the doctor’s assessment was fairly easy for Rick. Where he initially struggled was facing the uncertain future that came with being confined to a wheelchair. As someone who had been supporting his family as a travelling salesman in the plumbing and heating industry, Rick knew his physical limitations would present enormous challenges. With a long road to recovery ahead of him, Rick was moved from intensive care into the Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst Centre, and the gravity of his situation became all too clear.
“I was still in shock,” he says. “That’s where you really get thrown into the culture. You realize this is what your life is going to be. To be honest it was pretty scary. You don’t want to be that person who never gets out of his bed or out of his chair.”
At this important crossroad in his life, Rick turned to thoughts of his children for inspiration. It would add a nice touch of drama to his story to say he had a life-altering epiphany, but Rick says what he experienced was a gradual transformation during his rehab. Regardless of how it happened, Rick embraced a positive outlook and made the conscious decision not to let his accident turn him into a victim.
“I just decided I still had way too much I wanted to do,” he said, recollecting the moment that he took a defiant stance against his injury. “I was 41. I was older than most people that have (similar injuries) happen to them. I saw a lot of people who you knew were never going to do anything. I decided I wasn’t going to be one of those people.”
Thus began the second chapter of Rick Winson’s life, the one where he becomes an enormous role model to his children, a passionate advocate for accessibility and an inspiration to all those who have experienced his infectious energy. “I knew it was going to slow me down, but I actually picked up speed in other areas,” he suggests. One of his most positive early experiences was working at peer support for the Canadian Paraplegic Association, mentoring new accident victims and encouraging their recovery. That experience helped give him a new perspective on the everyday challenges faced by people in wheelchairs, which lead to his role with the Innisfil Accessibility Committee, leading the good fight against the number one enemy of people in wheelchairs – high curbs.
“They’re still the bane. If you go into downtown Barrie, which is an old city, every store along the main retail area has a seven-inch curb. So that basically means that the whole main drag of Barrie is inaccessible to anyone in a chair. In Innisfil it’s a smaller town where that hasn’t happened yet. We can nip all that in the bud through proper advocacy, which is what I’m hoping to do.”
Rick says rather than encouraging militant advocacy for the handicapped, it’s simple education and awareness that helps gain people’s empathy toward supporting greater accessibility. He offers his daughter as a prime example.
“You just need someone out there helping to make people aware. Like Courtney was made aware when she was five years old and now she has a greater sensitivity to people with disabilities. When you can make people who are older aware that will help us a lot. If you get militant people will just shun the idea, but if you’re trying to advocate and do it the way we have, slowly and surely, people will react and be receptive.”
People are certainly receptive to Rick’s renewed sense of purpose, which he has channeled into a variety of personal pursuits. Within months of injury, for example, Rick took over the position of president of the local car club, driving himself to classic car events in his fully restored 1970 Buick Skylark GS convertible that he retrofit with hand controls. Working on cars from his wheelchair “just takes me three times as long” as it used to, but he still manages to enjoy his passion for building things; in fact, Rick’s doing more things now from his wheelchair than he used to before that fateful snowmobile ride over a decade ago.
As strange as it might sound to some people, the benefit of hindsight has allowed Rick to view his injury as a blessing in one important respect: it’s enabled him to spend quality time with his wife and children he might otherwise not have had as a travelling salesman. “I got to spend my kid’s childhood with them, able to help them and be there when they needed me. It wasn’t a bad thing. I bought a boat to get us out doing things. I bought us ATVs. It’s afforded me spare time I didn’t have before.”
As one of the two children who benefited from her father’s increased presence, Courtney agrees that her father’s accident actually taught them all a valuable lesson.
“I think his situation hasn’t presented us with challenges but has instead taught us how to overcome challenges,” says Courtney. “Obviously he’s an inspiration to the community as a whole. And it’s helped me change my attitude for the better. If that bad thing didn’t happen I would probably be a different person today.”