© David Robinson

“I was scared stiff”


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Heinz Kinigadner and his son Hannes, who suffered a life-altering accident in 2003, remember the worst day in their lives. A conversation with two different perspectives, but a common hope.

For a TV report, Heinz Kinigadner remembers the day that completely changed his son’s life - and thus his own - during a filmed interview.
“It was the 26th of July 2003. I was at the MotoGP at the Sachsenring in Germany. Hannes was taking part in a charity motorcycle race in Upper Austria in my stead,” he recalls. Kinigadner received a phone call while he was at the German track, completely out of the blue. He was informed that his son had fallen badly and suffered injuries of an as yet unknown degree. What a shock.
“For me, as a father, the world stopped turning at exactly that moment,” he says while thinking back. The former Motocross World Champion took the next flight home. At the same time, Hannes began fighting for his life.
While in the ICU, the then 19-year-old survived two cardiac arrests, a cerebellar infarction, and had to be rescued from suffocation. “The accident also caused an injury to the fifth cervical vertebra and the spinal cord. Once they stabilised him, it became clear that the fall had paralysed him from the neck down.”
The editor asks whether the father is willing to share the thoughts that went through his head when he heard the diagnosis. Kinigadner pauses briefly. “I was scared stiff. Nevertheless, my family and I were full of hope.”
A year later, the Austrian athlete joined forces with Dietrich Mateschitz, his close friend, to launch the Wings for Life Foundation. The declared aim is to find a cure for spinal cord injuries. “I was - and still am - convinced that the situation for Hannes and all other people affected by spinal cord injuries will change. That’s why we fund top research projects all around the globe.”

Heinz and Hannes Kinigadner before the interview with CEO Anita Gerhardter. (David Robinson)
Heinz and Hannes Kinigadner before the interview with CEO Anita Gerhardter.  © David Robinson

Painful Memories
During the filming, Hannes sits a little aside. He nods often while listening to his father telling his story. The TV crew beckons him over, eager to hear his side of the story. “I remember lying on my stomach after the fall. I could see my hands, but it felt as if I had rammed them into the ground below me. I could move my hands a little, but couldn’t move my legs.” Hannes received powerful medication during initial treatment on-site. He woke up in the hospital days later, after several surgeries. He remembers the time that followed as extremely dark and riddled with nightmares. “I really couldn’t think about it a lot. My body invested all its strength in fighting to stay alive.”
He only realised the extent of his spinal cord injury some time later. “I only realised the extent when the nurses put me in a wheelchair. That’s when I comprehended that I was paralysed and understood - at least in part - the effect this has on my life.”
Hannes returned home after his rehabilitation, which meant that the whole house of the Kinigadner family in Tyrol had to be made accessible by wheelchair. This realisation allowed the extent of the injury to sink in a little more. “Suddenly you need to avoid contracting skin problems, because you can’t feel anything anymore. Suddenly you can’t go to the toilet alone and are always dependent on others. The accident changed absolutely everything.”
Hannes is quadriplegic, which means that he only has limited use of his arms. “It means I need help when getting dressed, eating, drinking, and washing. Basically, I need help for everything.”

Preparing for D-Day
The reporter asks what these changes cause on a psychological level. “It’s difficult. But my family is very supportive and one somehow manages to grow with the challenge. One has to go on,” the 31-year-old says. “In this respect, Hannes is a great role model for us all,” his father adds. “Whenever we are tempted to feel down, he is the strong one. No healthy person can even begin to imagine what it means to be paralysed. Even though my brother is in a wheelchair too, I was never able to grasp the effect such an injury has on everyday life back then.”
Father and son are now a well-functioning team. Hannes is receiving many therapies and keeps fit by practising sport. He wants to be ready for - in his own words - D-Day. “Nerves in the spinal cord are capable of regeneration. The research into problems caused by spinal cord injuries is advancing and scientists are beginning to understand more. They are now working on a solution,” Hannes says. “Reputable research takes time, but I am convinced that I will stand up from this chair one day,” he says with conviction while looking past the camera at his father. The latter nods in affirmation.

 (David Robinson)
© David Robinson

Funded by donations, Wings for Life has already funded 124 spinal cord research projects around the globe. Help us make spinal cord injuries curable.