“My Hope is Unwavering”
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There’s rarely a quiet moment in the Kinigadner’s large home in Tyrol. Family members, friends, and acquaintances coming and going is a common, almost natural occurrence. One hears hearty laughter and boisterous children. Everyone is on the move and seems to enjoy the lively hustle and bustle.
When the conversation touches upon a certain day 15 years ago, however, an oppressive silence bears down upon the entire family. Heinz, usually the strong head of the family, suddenly appears so fragile, and it seems as if Waltraud, his wife, is forced to relive the worst days of her life all over again. Their grown-up children Isabell and Hannes still struggle to comprehend how events unfolded on that fateful day.
We have, of course, already heard the story from Wings for Life founder Heinz Kinigadner. His wife Waltraud is now ready to share her perspective with us for the very first time.
The Tyrolean met Heinz Kinigadner, then an aspiring motocross rider, when she was 20 years old. The two fell in love, welcomed their children Isabell and Hannes into the world, and subsequently got married. Heinz soon became one of Austria’s most successful athletes, travelled a lot, and won the motocross world title twice. Waltraud took care of the children during this time. “I always worried about Hannes, because he was such a wild child. I often had the feeling that I wouldn’t be able to raise him…,” she recalls. At the tender age of 14, Hannes decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and took up motocross too. He was very eager to test the boundaries of his talent. “I never enjoyed the races. More often than not, I couldn’t even watch when he was competing.”
A Day Changes Everything
In July 2003, the Kinigadner family travelled to Ibiza for a holiday. Hannes and Heinz flew home earlier to visit Pit Beirer, a motocross colleague who had recently sustained a spinal cord injury that left him paralysed. “Pit was a role model for me. When we arrived at the hospital, I saw that he couldn’t move his legs. I was really shocked,” the then 18-year-old Hannes remembers. “I felt very depressed on the way home.”
A mere two days later, the young man travelled to a charity motocross event in Upper Austria with friends. “I can remember that it was a beautiful day. I was feeling great.”
Hannes started into the race and failed to dodge a fallen rider in a fast left turn. His head hit the ground hard and he was left motionless on his stomach. The race was interrupted immediately to ensure that Hannes could receive medical attention. In hindsight, he can’t recall that his boots were removed and that he had to be cut out of his clothing in the ambulance. He lost consciousness soon thereafter.
Time stands still
“I was still on Ibiza when my husband Heinz called. He told me to pack up all my stuff at once and fly home. I wasn’t aware of what had happened,” Waltraud continues. When she finally landed in Salzburg, her husband was waiting in the hospital’s ICU. “He already knew that our son had suffered a spinal cord injury and that his condition was critical.”
Time stood still for the family in the following weeks. Everyone feared for Hannes’ life. The young man suffered two cardiac arrests, a cerebellar infarction, and almost suffocated. When he finally came to, he experienced panic attacks. “We wanted to be close to him, so we moved into a small flat in Salzburg. Being unable to help him was a horrible feeling,” Waltraud whispers.
At this time, Heinz Kinigadner and his friend Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of Red Bull, invited medical experts to discuss the progress of spinal cord research. The sobering realisation: there is legitimate hope, but the research is woefully underfunded.
Paralysed from the Neck Down
A few weeks later, Hannes was placed in a wheelchair for the very first time. This is when he truly realised that he was paralysed from the neck down and would not regain his bodily functions. “That’s when you fell apart,” Waltraud recalls with concern in her voice. “It was horrific to have to witness that.”
Hannes was then transferred to a medical facility in Murnau. His roommate there was a familiar face: Pit Beirer. “You spent a couple of days together before Pit was discharged. It wasn’t easy to accept,” the mother says to her son. “But you have no choice. You need to keep going,” the now 35-year-old responds.
A Well-Coordinated Team
Hannes was allowed to return home seven months after his fateful accident. Heinz decided to retire from his motorsport career to take care of his son, who was dependent on assistance almost constantly. It was a tough situation for everyone involved. “I was grateful that people were willing to pick up the pieces for me. However, it was extremely difficult to allow others to assist in more intimate matters, especially at that young age,” Hannes admits.
Meanwhile, Heinz Kinigadner and Dietrich Mateschitz had decided that it was time to tackle the issue of spinal cord injuries proactively. They teamed up with medical experts and launched the Wings for Life Foundation in 2004. The foundation’s mission is to promote spinal cord research through donations with a view to finding a cure. Wings for Life has funded 191 projects to date. “The progress in recent years has been remarkable. It feels as though things are really moving forwards now,” Waltraud says. Hannes nods in agreement. He glances at his godchild Anna and her little brother Max. Everybody in his vicinity can sense how he yearns to be able to stand up and walk over to them, how he wishes to lead a carefree life again. “Hannes’ spinal cord injury not only changed him, but our family as a whole. As a mom, I want nothing more than his dreams to come true. My hope for a cure is unwavering.”
Thank you for your support on our way to find a cure for spinal cord injury.