© Tanja Schalling

“The Freedom is Gone”


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The “Weisser Hof” in Vienna is a rehabilitation facility. The wide hallways seem narrow. The smell of cold fruit tea and disinfectant lingers in the air - like in a hospital. Some of the room doors are wide open. You can catch glimpses of patients struggling to climb into their wheelchairs. Others are attempting to hold cutlery in their hands. They are all trying to come to terms with their new life. The thought that these patients have to be here, knowing full well that they won’t be walking out on their own two legs, is upsetting. “I’d rather be at home too, preferably on a mountain,” says Lukas Karan after we have settled down to talk in the patients’ lounge. “Hiking, climbing, summit experiences. That was my life,” he recalls as he launches into telling his story. It’s a story about a 30-year-old ambitious outdoorsman who never missed an opportunity to be in the mountains - to experience freedom.

Lukas grew up as an only child in Austria, decided to become an electrician, obtained his master’s certificate, and continued honing his skills by attending additional training courses. He met his girlfriend Brigitte when he was 18 years old. “We’ve never been extreme athletes, just fresh air enthusiasts. We simply enjoyed nature,” Lukas explains. “The feeling when you arrive at your destination - the summit cross - is indescribable. To sit there, to take in the view, to be proud of yourself…”

It wasn’t a climbing accident
28th of August 2018. It was a normal Tuesday morning, nothing more. He and Brigitte had completed the conversion of his parents’ home a year earlier. They were enjoying breakfast together in the comfort of their own home. The couple said goodbye to each other, just like every other day. “I was supposed to connect a photovoltaic system to a farmhouse. It´s a trivial task I had done countless times before.” It was a beautiful, sunny morning and Lukas went about his work as usual. Everything was running smoothly.

“The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital.” 

According to onlookers’ accounts, the ladder on which Lukas was standing slipped. The young man fell many metres and slammed onto the floor. A farm employee called the emergency doctor immediately. Lukas was airlifted to a hospital and underwent emergency surgery upon arrival. His girlfriend and family feared for his life. The diagnosis: basal skull fracture and an injured spinal cord.

“I was full of drugs when I came to. I couldn’t breathe properly and noticed some kind of device in my windpipe.” Lukas couldn’t speak and realised that he couldn’t move his legs anymore. When the hospital staff did their rounds, he learned what that meant - in passing, so to speak. “I was surrounded by five doctors in blue and four in green coats. One of them said: ‘Patient Lukas Karan: paralysed from the 8th thoracic vertebra…’ That was too much for me.”

Lukas knew that he would have to fight. He soon managed to breathe on his own again and slowly regained speech. Little by little, functions in his upper body returned until he could mobilise his arms, hands, and fingers. His immediate environment was always with him. “My girlfriend visited twice a day. She knew right from the start that we could master everything and that giving up wasn’t an option.”

Heavy, Numb Legs
When Lukas was transferred from his bed into wheelchair for the first time, he got a taste of what was to come. His legs were lifeless and heavy. “Suddenly they’re a part of your body you’re merely dragging along. Not only can you no longer move them, you can no longer feel them. Your legs are suddenly nothing more than numb flesh.”

While still in hospital, Lukas started undergoing various therapies and strengthened his circulation. After four weeks in hospital, he was finally admitted to “Weisser Hof” at the beginning of November. 

 (Tanja Schalling )
© Tanja Schalling

“I’ve been fighting to increase my mobility since the day I arrived here,” he says with a firm voice, and demonstrates how he can keep his balance in a wheelchair now. “Doing this seemed impossible until recently. I have been training for eight hours a day to reclaim parts of my old life at least.” The fate of other patients haunt him too. “I’ve seen people whose injuries are much higher than mine. They can’t even open a bottle of water alone, let alone take a shower or go to the toilet. I can move my hands and fingers. I want to take advantage of that.” 

 (Tanja Schalling )
© Tanja Schalling

Lukas’ home, which is approx. 220 kilometres away, is being converted as we speak. As so often the case… “Many areas aren’t accessible by wheelchair. We didn’t take that into account when we remodelled it the first time. Basically, I am keen to live as normally as possible.” No matter how independent Lukas is, he will face many challenges soon: shopping trips, strolls through the village with Brigitte, and listening to his friends talk about new hiking routes. “My girlfriend and I did have a life plan of sorts,” he says thoughtfully. They were looking forward to enjoying their new home, travelling, getting married, and starting a family… “Now everything seems much tougher. Brigitte took the reins and organised many things for us. I’m so very grateful to her…”

Whenever Lukas finds himself alone with himself and his thoughts, they revolve around that one fateful day. “I have often allowed myself to think ‘what if’.” But he knows that there’s no going back. “Then I realise that I can no longer jump into my VW van and embark on a spontaneous weekend trip. My plans are on hold for now. I might never experience that feeling of freedom on a summit again…” Lukas is now solely driven by hope. He hopes that the injured nerves in his spinal cord may still recover after all. He hopes that he can someday kneel in front of his girlfriend to propose. He hopes that things will be like they used to be when he is finally allowed to return home.

 (Tanja Schalling )
© Tanja Schalling

 

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