© Christopher Kelemen

“ I thought everything would be alright”

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How does it feel to suddenly have to depend on a wheelchair? How does such a drastic lifestyle change affect a relationship? And what happens when a child suddenly disrupts all your routines? Martin Höfer recounts his story.

I remember being airborne with my paraglider. The next thing I remember is waking up in the ICU and realizing I couldn’t move at all.” Martin Höfer’s accident happened 13 years ago, but he still recalls his confusion and worries at that time. “I suspected that something had happened to me while flying or driving my car. But I had no idea whatsoever.” As Martin, now 40, calmly tells his story, his wife Tanja sits next to him with their three-year-old son, Stefan, in her arms. “Daddy ouch,” Stefan says compassionately, pointing at his father’s wheelchair.

Career and sport
Martin grew up in Hofamt Priel in Lower Austria. After finishing grammar school, he moved to Vienna to study at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. “I then started working at a company specialising in building surveys,” he explains. It was a dream job for the athletic geotechnical engineer, especially as visiting the many construction sites challenged him physically. In 2001, he fell in love with Tanja. The two lovebirds spent most of their time hiking, climbing, mountain biking and snowboarding. Martin was also an enthusiastic paraglider; he had been flying regularly for several years when he travelled to Italy with friends in June 2004. “We paraglided a lot down there. The view from the air is absolutely fantastic and you can enjoy total silence,” he recalls. On the last day, the then 28-year-old decided to drive home a little earlier than the others and made a brief stopover along the way: “The plan was to fly from the Emberger Alm in Carinthia one more time.” Martin arrived in the Greifenburg paragliding arena in the afternoon, took the shuttle bus to the launch site, and lifted off. “I remember being airborne and preparing to land…”

Martin and his paraglider a year before the tragic accident
Martin and his paraglider a year before the tragic accident 

That’s where Martin’s recollection of events ends abruptly. His life would never be the same again.

“I was convinced everything would be alright”
A little later, Tanja received a phone call from Martin’s mother. She was told that a gust of wind had caused Martin’s chute to collapse 50m above the ground. Her boyfriend had spiralled out of control and hit the ground unchecked. “She told me quite calmly that Martin had injured his back. Even though, at that time, I wasn’t sure what that meant, I instantly had an image of a wheelchair in my head,” the construction engineer says. When Tanja arrived at the hospital in Klagenfurt, a doctor informed her that Martin had injured four thoracic vertebrae. “I was told these simple bone fractures would heal,” she says. The physicians were much more troubled by fractures to the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. “The spinal cord was swollen. Nobody was able to tell me what this would mean in the long term.” Martin was operated on and his cervical vertebrae were reinforced with plates. When he finally regained consciousness, he was blinded by the lights of the ICU and soon realised he only had minimal movement in his head and arms. After a collapsed lung led to a tracheotomy, Martin required artificial respiration. “It’s difficult to put everything that happened into a temporal context,” he says. “I do, however, remember that I couldn’t even speak properly, and that Tanja was with me most of the time.” Martin was treated with strong medication. “At one point, the doctors explained that I’d suffered complete paraplegia in terms of motor skills, and incomplete paraplegia in terms of sensory skills. I was told that, with a bit of patience, I could regain all sorts of bodily functions.” Martin was relieved and optimistic. “I was absolutely convinced that everything would be alright…”
At more or less the same time, Tanja learned more about the injury and its possible consequences: “I was told that the injury had occurred at very high level, and that he might, in the worst case, never be taken off the respiratory machine.” “They also told Tanja that it would probably be better for her to look for a new partner,” adds Martin. Back at home, Tanja lay awake all night. “Martin is a fighter who never gives up. To me, it was clear that I would never sacrifice our perfect relationship.”

Struggle for breath
Tanja visited Martin every day and watched as he waited patiently for any sign of improvement. Right from the start, Martin was able to feel when someone touched his legs or applied pressure to his toes: “It was all still there; it just felt a little duller than usual. I never lost hope that I’d return to my old self one day.” Two weeks after the accident, Martin was transferred to a hospital in Vienna, still in a lying position. There, he spent another three weeks in the ICU. “I had to be artificially respirated all the time and I couldn’t speak. Nevertheless, I was happy to see how many people visited me. I tried to kill the time between visitors by listening to music, thereby creating a kind of dream world for myself.”
When the doctors finally made some careful attempts to take Martin off the respiratory machine, it soon became clear that he was struggling to breathe without assistance. “I felt like I was suffocating for almost an hour. They had to reconnect me to the machine. But I was stronger when they tried again two days later.”

A long year of rehabilitation  
A still bedridden Martin was then transferred to the Weisser Hof rehabilitation centre. “A doctor there told me that the best I could hope for was going home on crutches,” he recalls. At this point, Martin was still convinced he’d be able to manage it without walking aids. It took no less than three months before he was able to sit up slowly and move a little more. After countless therapy sessions, he started to regain an improved radius of movement in his arms. His triceps and wrists began to function again. He learned how to eat, and to brush his teeth, without assistance – enormous progress. “During every single doctor’s visit, I was asked whether I could move my toes.” Martin had to say no every time. He was able to feel his toes, but moving them proved impossible time and time again. The recovery he hoped for was becoming increasingly unrealistic. He found some solace in talking to a psychologist: “Coming to terms with it all was a gradual process.” Martin is a very ambitious person. He learned how to deal with his severe spasticity, how to climb into his wheelchair, and how to sit up independently. “It became very clear that I would be confined to a wheelchair. Nevertheless, I did everything in my power to be as independent as possible, and to keep that side of my life out of our relationship.” Tanja and her positive attitude were – and still are – a source of great support. “She has always been there for me, and she’s undoubtedly responsible for the fact that I never fell into a dark hole…” Towards the end of the one-year rehabilitation process, the couple started looking for their first, barrier-free apartment together. They moved in a little later.

Everyday problems and a test of their relationship
“When I returned home, I climbed out of the car and into the wheelchair, but found myself stymied by a kerb,” Martin says, recalling the new challenges he was forced to face. “I’m still confronted with my own limits on a regular basis, even when I go shopping.” Martin was soon able to navigate his new apartment, however. Today, he only requires a little assistance from Tanja, and things are also looking up in professional terms: “My former boss offered me a different job. While I can’t visit construction sites, I’ve learned to type with my little finger. I’m now an office worker.”

 (Christopher Kelemen)
© Christopher Kelemen

Martin and Tanja got married in 2007. “It was the most beautiful day of my life,” he smiles. “I did panic a little at the register office, to be fair. I thought she might say no.” Being an avid sportsman, Martin tried many new activities. “I have new hobbies such as wheelchair rugby and hand-biking,” he says. Tanja, on the other hand, withdrew completely: “She gave up everything we used to do together.” His wife nods, adding, “I didn’t want to dangle things he could no longer do in front of his nose.”
Martin in the process of crossing over into his training device (Christopher Kelemen)
Martin in the process of crossing over into his training device  © Christopher Kelemen

This act of absolute consideration worked for approximately five years. But, says Martin, “It became obvious that her life was lacking something; something I could no longer give her. Consequently, he started encouraging his wife to do more sport and go climbing again. “He struggled, though,” Tanja recalls. “That was apparent in his mood swings before and after my outings.” Martin concurs: “Tanja is right. It was a very difficult time for me, but I had to learn to accept the situation.” Talking about the issue proved very helpful to the couple.

Family duties
Martin and Tanja soon wanted to become parents. “Unfortunately, it didn’t work at all; not even with medical assistance. So in the end we decided to take in a foster child.” The couple are watching Stefan play in the garden with a ball.

 (Christopher Kelemen)
© Christopher Kelemen

“He’s very active and loves football,” smiles Martin, who admits that the new situation can be difficult for him at times. “The arrival of the little one was yet another wake-up call of sorts: I simply cannot be the father I would like to be,” he explains. “It’s impossible for me to run around with him, I can’t pick him up, and when we sit down to build something together he becomes impatient because it takes too long. I’m limited in everything I’d like to do with him.” However, it seems as if Stefan has adapted to the situation quickly: “He’s very considerate, and he listens to me when we’re alone.” Even though his accident happened a long time ago, Martin still shows a keen interest in spinal cord research. “I’m very grateful for Wings for Life. It means that someone out there is working on a cure.” After all, there’s one thing that Martin would love to do if he could ever move as he used to: “I’d round up our little boy, as well as the children of my brother and Tanja’s sister, and I’d take them hiking.”
 (Christopher Kelemen)
© Christopher Kelemen

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