© Phil Pham

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Gabor finds himself on his back, floating in salt water. His mind is blank, the sun is blinding. He closes his eyes as he focuses on the warm feeling on his forehead and the tip of his nose. It seems as if gravity no longer affects him. His heartbeat is calm. Time stands still. “This is what dying must feel like,” he muses. Quite suddenly, time kicks back in. Someone pulls the young man out of the water and places his body on the hard sand. Gabor can feel the ground to a certain extent, but he cannot feel his legs. This is the day that will change his life. From now on, he is paralysed from the neck down.

Gabor and his sister grew up in a small German village. “I had a wonderful childhood. I trained as a wood mechanic before leaving home at the age of 18 to work in the automotive industry.” Gabor has always loved music. He wrote lyrics and played guitar in a band. He’s the one you’d find in the front row at rock concerts. “I was carefree. I hardly ever even wore a shirt,” he laughs. Hendrik has fond memories of these occasions. “I’m from the neighbouring village, so I’ve known Gabor for a long time. I attended many concerts as a photographer and we always had loads of fun together.” In summer 2010, the then 26-year-old Gabor decided to travel to Rügen on the Baltic Sea with his friends. “The plan was to stay for a week, to have a great time together.”

A Last Dip in the Water
Gabor made breakfast for the whole group on the very first day of the vacation. “I enjoyed preparing everything for the others. I picked up bread rolls and made scrambled eggs.” The friends headed straight to the beach after breakfast. It was a normal seaside day, relaxed and cheerful alike.

In the late afternoon, the group was getting ready to return to their accommodation to freshen up for the upcoming party night. “When I became aware of this, I decided to take a dip in the water for one last time. I headed for the sea at a run. When the water reached knee level, I threw myself forwards to dive head-first into the waves.” Gabor hit something hard with his head. It wasn’t a rock, but maybe a sandbank. “I heard a crack and immediately realised that my legs went dead.” As a reflex, the young man turned onto his back and experienced the aforementioned moment when time stood still. “The only sound in my head was the whisper of the water. It felt like I was levitating.”

Gabor’s friends rushed to his aid. “I kept on telling them not to touch me, because I knew I had broken my neck.” They carefully pulled him ashore, placed his motionless body on the sand, and called the emergency doctor. Gabor was picked up by a helicopter and taken to hospital, where he underwent fourteen hours of surgery.

“I Had No Idea”
When Gabor came to, he could still feel the effect of the medication he had received. He struggled to believe or even understand what had happened. However, he noticed immediately that he couldn’t feel anything from the neck down. A tube was protruding from his windpipe. He couldn’t talk at all and almost suffocated on one occasion. “It was clear to me that nothing was working properly anymore. But I had no idea how bad things really were at the time,” he recalls. He spent months in various hospitals before moving on to a rehab facility, where he slowly and laboriously learned how to breathe, speak, chew, and swallow again. “I never really gave much thought to my future. I participated in every therapy session as best I could and was actually in fairly good spirits most of the time.” His family and friends were his main pillar of support.

Gabor’s bodily functions never returned, neither did the feeling below his neck. His injury at the level of the 4th/5thcervical vertebra allows him to breath independently, but he cannot move his arms, hands, and fingers at all. The same applies to his legs.

“My situation worsened significantly when I returned home after twelve months,” says Gabor in retrospect. He moved into a barrier-free house right next to his parents. A 24-hour nursing service was hired to turn him around at night, to wash him, to brush his teeth, to dress him, and to help him eat and drink. “I was sitting at home and suddenly realised that someone had to be around me all the time, as a kind of replacement for my hand and legs. I didn’t know how to live my life in this manner.”

Gabor firmly believes that nobody can ever understand the emotions that flooded him in that moment. “How could anyone stand the prospect of never being alone again? I felt absolutely miserable.” Gabor required time to come to terms with his disability and to accept help. “It was – and still is – difficult for me to be both boss and patient at the same time.”

Gabor’s immediate environment has changed too. Parts of his family, friends, and neighbours visit him regularly. But many have severed all ties. “They felt pity. They didn’t know how to treat me and what to say. Many of my friends were suddenly gone. That was a real blow for me,” he says.

 (Phil Pham )
© Phil Pham

 (Phil Pham )
© Phil Pham

Hendrik, who has moved to the big city, is critical with himself. “I had troubles dealing with the new situation. At first, I was informed about Gabor’s condition by a mutual acquaintance. Then we established loose contact via Facebook,” the computer scientist recalls.

When the amateur runner heard about the Wings for Life World Run, his thoughts turned to his former friend almost immediately. “I decided to write him, because I realised that this could happen to literally anyone. I wanted to draw attention to the topic and raise funds for research with my own team.” The first meeting of the two men was tense. “I was inhibited. I knew that Gabor didn’t want pity. On the other hand, he needed help with everything. We couldn’t greet each other with a handshake anymore. It was a completely new situation.” The tension evaporated swiftly, however. “Gabor started cracking stupid jokes pretty quickly. That was familiar,” Hendrik laughs in his friend’s direction.

Nine Long Years
It’s been nine years since Gabor’s accident. Nine years of “wheelchair time”, as he calls it, during which he had to restructure his life completely. “I still spend a lot of time in hospitals and undergo several therapy sessions a week. Only a few months ago, minor functions in one arm returned,” he says while demonstrating how he can now gently move the stick of his electric wheelchair. “Touches – or even being tattooed – triggers a dull sensation at best, but most of the time I feel nothing at all.” Then he pauses for a moment. “But my mind works.”

Gabor himself says that he is happy. “My life may be different, but it’s still beautiful. I am happy when I can enjoy interesting conversations.” He is eager to retain his positive attitude. “When I ask someone how they’re doing and all I hear is whining, I don’t feel like pursuing the conversation any further. My time is too valuable. One should be grateful for being healthy, not focus on the problems.” Even though Gabor doesn’t enjoy talking about them, he has issues of his own.

“I used to meet women at the bar. You can’t do that in a wheelchair. It isn’t a great idea to bump into someone’s leg before starting to flirt.” Gabor wishes for more honesty and understanding for people with spinal cord injuries. Hendrik seconds that. “One needs to talk openly about the topic in its entirety. That prevents people from being as overwhelmed as I felt back then,” he argues. This is why he is so keen on motivating more people to join his Wings for Life World Run team. '

Hendrik and Gabors friends at the Wings for Life World Run (Phil Pham )
Hendrik and Gabors friends at the Wings for Life World Run  © Phil Pham

To Gabor’s delight: “It’s a beautiful gesture, but it’s not just about me. Everyone should benefit and I am happy for everyone who makes progress due to scientific advancements.”

Gabor’s wish for himself is to be able to move his fingers again. “The worst thing for me is actually that I can’t play guitar as I used to. It still breaks my heart, even after nine long years. But as they say: hope springs eternal.”

 (Phil Pham )
© Phil Pham

 

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