“I dream of walking”
Had the events that transpired on the evening of October 31, 2014 not ended in tragedy, one would have dismissed it all as a youthful prank. Florian Klaffenböck, then 17 years old, was out and about with his friends. His uncle, with whom he has lived since he was 12, even called Florian on his mobile to remind him to come home for a family dinner. However Florian never claimed his seat at the dinner table that night. “A friend suddenly came up with the idea of throwing a firecracker into a glass container next to the road. He yelled at us others to run away at once. Then the thing simply exploded,” Florian recalls. His friends and he panicked and fled, but the police soon found them. “They wanted to take us in, so we ran away from them like madmen,” he says. With the police in hot pursuit, Florian crossed side streets, sprinted through private gardens, and jumped over fences. “It was pitch-dark. I jumped over a hedge, but my leg got caught. I fell three metres into a kind of ditch and landed on my head.” The teenager from Linz couldn’t get back on his feet and couldn’t move his body. “I turned my head and called out to the policeman. I asked him to come over and help me.” The policeman, who was soon joined by concerned neighbors, notified the emergency services. “I can remember panicking until I was in the ambulance. Then they put me into a deep sleep for two weeks,” says Florian.
Fight for survival
At four o’clock in the morning, Jörg, Florian’s uncle, was awoken by the ringing of his mobile phone. “I was completely distraught. Someone from the State Psychiatric Clinic in Wagner-Jauregg was on the line. The person told me that my nephew had had an accident and was in surgery.” Jörg drove to the hospital at once to be by Florian’s side. “When I got there, they sent me away. They said that the operation would take a long time,” remembers the Upper Austrian. Seeing that sleep was out of the question, Jörg decided to pay the nearby police station a visit to find out more about how the accident had happened. When he returned to the hospital later, he was finally given a detailed update regarding his nephew’s state of health. “During the fall, Flo splintered the third cervical vertebrae, which led to a spinal cord injury on C4/C5. So the injury occurred near the top of his spine. I was told that he was paraplegic and that we would have to wait and see if he even managed to survive the next few days.” Florian survived a bout of pneumonia and had to be ventilated artificially. The doctors woke him up for the first time after two weeks. “That was absolutely the worst day of my life,” remembers the young man. “I felt like I was suffocating.” His lungs didn’t function properly. Once again, he was put into artificial deep sleep for a few days.
When Florian woke up again, he saw his uncle Jörg standing at his bedside with a doctor. “The doctor was quite insensitive. When Flo was fully conscious, he soberly said that he was now paraplegic and would remain so forever. I will never forget the look Flo gave me when he had processed those words,” says Jörg, who tried to give his nephew hope, telling him that they could work through it together. He tried to remain strong outwardly. “However, I had a nervous breakdown when I got home,” Jörg recalls. “I had to lie down and couldn’t stop crying. When I awoke the next morning, I felt a little lighter. I found the strength to accept the new situation and to deal with the issue head-on.” Florian spent two months in the hospital and another four months in a rehabilitation clinic in Bad Häring. “You have so much time to think. I really regret what I did,” he says, blaming himself. However, he decided to move on and soon made progress thanks to many therapy sessions. He even regained a certain degree of arm mobility. While his nephew learned to deal with his fate, Jörg prepared to move into a new, barrier-free apartment and monitored the entire remodelling process. “Luckily, my company afforded me the opportunity to go on parental eave. This allowed me to take care of all the necessary purchases and of Florian himself.”
Assistance with everything
Actually moving into the new flat was a real challenge for both of them. “It was weird to suddenly need assistance with everything. But I never rejected the help offered,” says Florian, while describing how grateful he feels towards his uncle. “I was obviously quite clumsy, especially at the beginning. After all, I didn’t know how to touch Flo or how to empty his catheter properly,” remembers Jörg. Their shared life has been full of small achievements ever since, but also full of setbacks. Only recently, the young man suffered from a severe decubitus (Editor’s note: see page 6 and 7) that healed very slowly. “I had to lie down for three months in order to allow my skin to recover. That was pure cabin fever,” he says. Now that he is feeling better, Florian has started exercising on machines that were procured especially for his needs. “They are designed to keep me mobile and fit,” he says. A few months ago, Simba, a Golden Retriever, moved into the men’s den. “He is being trained as a handicapped dog and will facilitate our everyday lives. In addition to his legs, Flo can’t move his hands and arms properly. Simba will support him in the future,” explains Jörg.
The dream of walking
The 19-year-old has no clear notion what the future has in store for him. He can no longer work as a plumber. “I’d like to do something that involves computers,” says Florian. “Now that I am feeling better, I will start gathering more information.” He also wants to enjoy the summer and do as much as he possibly can. “I feel like I have been inside all the time during the last few months. I want to be more active again, even if it needs to be in a different context.” He glances over at Tatjana, his girlfriend since the beginning of the year. The two knew each other for quite some time before they got together. “When we told people we are a couple, everyone was very supportive. My friends from back then have broken off contact, but everyone in my immediate environment has responded well to it,” he says. The 21-year-old office clerk doesn’t hesitate for a second when asked how she deals with the limitations of her boyfriend: “I see him differently. I can look past his disability and help him as best I can,” she says.
Despite the overwhelming support he receives, Flo hopes that his condition will improve one day. His uncle says: “Of course, our heartfelt wish is that someone develops a cure that will allow Flo – and all other affected patients – to get back on their feet.” Florian complements his uncle’s words. “When I dream, I always dream that I can walk again,” he confesses. “I think it may not have sunk in properly just yet.” When asked if there is anything in particular that he misses from his past, the young man ponders the question for a long time. “Even though I still can’t believe it all, it is nevertheless difficult to imagine that everything will be OK again,” he says. “If my body would feel like it did before the accident, I would definitely play the guitar and go ice-skating again. But what I miss most is the ability to move. If there was a cure, I’d simply jump up and run until I am out of breath.”
Please support us with donations to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. 100% of your contribution is invested in spinal cord research.