© Alfred Zeppetzauer

Trip New Zealand took a turn for the worse

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“I was going through a stage of self-discovery, like many young guys my age. But it all ended more abruptly and completely differently to how I ever expected.”
 Leonhard Maier tries to retell the story of his life and his accident. “Some things are very clear in my mind. Some other things are hard to remember” says the 38-year old.

Leo is a passionate climber, biker and snowboarder. After training in electrical engineering and spending a few years in the IT industry, he decided to take a six-month break. “I was 24 and knew that I hadn’t found my dream job. I was searching for answers. I kept thinking; what direction will my life take? What will happen?” So, Leonhard quit his job to go to New Zealand for a few months and to learn more about himself. “I enjoyed my time very much. I travelled a lot and met new people.”
Two months into the trip, on the 10th of August the adventurer went to Mt. Ruapehu in the area of Whakapapa to snowboard. “The conditions of the ski piste were great, but I crashed and fell.” Leo was in pain, but felt able to drive to the mountain rescue at the base station on his own.
Afterwards he was told that the cervical vertebra had shifted and the vertebral processes were broken. “I could move and feel everything, but the doctors in the hospital told me that the injury I had sustained to the cervical vertebra was so severe that I needed surgery.
Two days later there were complications during the surgery. It had not shown on the CT scan, but my intervertebral disc was also damaged. A piece of it had moved into the spinal cord and injured it. Six hours later, a second emergency surgery was performed. My diagnosis after this operation was an incomplete section at C5-C6.

Setbacks and Improvements
“Shortly after that last operation, I couldn’t really understand what had happened. I had contracted pneumonia immediately after the surgery and was delirious and feverish, with a temperature of over 40 degrees. I could not move anything.”
Leonhard’s lung has to be suctioned regularly. A very, “unpleasant matter” is how Leo describes it succinctly. “While I lay there I had plenty of time to think about my situation. Do I want to live this way? Never ever snowboarding, hiking or surfing again? I slowly realised that my life would not be the same from now on.“
The hospital contacted his family. One of Leonhard’s good friends traveled to New Zealand immediately to support him. After three weeks Leonhard was transferred to a hospital nearer home in Innsbruck, Austria. “It took us 48 hours to get there by Air Ambulance. I was transported on a vacuum mattress for part of the journey, but as they didn’t turn me over I developed such a bad pressure sore that I needed two operations. I had to lie in bed for months until the skin had finally recovered.”
After many setbacks things started to look up while he was in rehabilitation at Austria’s Bad Häring: “For the first time I woke up feeling that I had to accept help and that things would be much easier if I worked together with those around me.”
Although no one expects them to, many of Leo’s functions returned. With the support and guidance of his therapists he, although restricted, could move his arms and even other functions in his legs and fingers began to return. “I can stand on my own two feet and I´m also able to take some steps with the support of crutches.  However strong spasticity makes that difficult and dangerous for me.“
After about nine months Leo returned home to his parents. “I was very thankful for their care. I was having to deal with more than just being unable to walk. I would have loved to play guitar again, like I did before my accident. But I no longer had the fine motor skills in my fingers that you need.”

Moving On
After Christmas Leo started to get out and about. He passed his driving licence, and took up sports like hand biking, wheelchair rugby and monoskiing, and he teaches the latter too.

“I live in my own flat and I´m a personal coach at Alive656 where we have a programme where we combine special electric stimulation and exercise.” Alongside those able to walk, he coaches people with spinal cord injuries. “I have found the right job for me. It makes me happy to help people into an active and healthy life. No matter if they are disabled or not. And everything is even more fun in a team – that´s a fact."

Wings for Life World Run

Leo brings his positive attitude to the starting line of the Wings for Life World Run. He has just founded his team "ALIVE656" and wants to grow it. "I will start in Vienna, but we have already participants in Porto and Ljubljana. We would love people to joins us. I think this global run is an awesome chance to bring spinal cord injury to everyone’s attention." 100% of the entry fee of the Wings for Life World Run goes to spinal cord research. “It is difficult to say how long it will take to find a cure. But if there is hope that it will happen, it is worth every mile and every cent.”