Sunday, May 13, 2012

All without his legs

We all have our set of despairs that bogs us down. We all tend to think that life plays the cruelest games on us everyday. And then you have Andre Kajilch..!! 

You will not come across many people like Andre in your daily walk of like. His specialty does not lie in the fact that he is a double amputee. It is in the fact that despite his adversities he participates in adventure races, marathons and triathlons with extraordinary zeal and passion and emerges from it as the best example of the celebration of human life.

When he lost his legs in a gruesome subway accident eight years ago, doctors doubted he would ever walk again – even with prosthetics. But he was determined to prove them wrong. In an exclusive interview to yours truly 32 year old Andre Kajilch recounts the horror tale of his accident, how he coped up after that and much more.. Read on..

Andre Kajilc

Q.1. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do and what are you currently occupied with?

I live in Seattle with my wife, where I work as a researcher in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington. When not working, I am usually training for triathlon, marathons, and other adventure races.

Q.2 Can you recollect the accident that made you lose your legs?

About 8 years ago, when I was 24, a subway train in Prauge, Czech Republic ran over me. I'd moved to Prague and was studying Chemistry at the same university my father attended. He was born in Slovakia and defected to the USA in 1967. On the night of the accident, I was out with friends and we were dancing and partying late into the night as we often did. I ate breakfast with some buddies and we separated to go head home. I woke up 3 weeks later, in a hospital bed. The driver of the train was the only witness. He was coming around a turn that opened to the platform and I was right there in front of him on the tracks. He had no time to slow down. Nobody knows what happened or how I ended up on the tracks. Besides losing my left leg at the hip and my right above the knee, I lacerated my liver, broke all the ribs on my right side - some of them puncturing my lungs - and I broke my arm, my scapula and had badly cut up my back. 

Q.3. What was your first reaction on knowing that both your legs would be amputated? How did you cope with its aftereffects?

When I first learnt of my amputations, I was coming back into consciousness. So, I never got hit with it all at once. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I definitely could tell something was wrong but I could barely make out where I was or what had happened for some days. When I finally was told and could comprehend what had happened, my entire family was there and I was just too confused, I think, to be shocked or angry or sad. Then my health condition was very bad so I didn't even know if I was going to survive. That made me scared and I don't remember thinking of the loss of my legs for some time. I was in pain and uncomfortable so the fear and horror of it all was in the forefront. After sometime I started thinking about what had happened and what I would do or be like without my legs. Actually, at this time while still in the intensive care unit in the Prague hospital, I was quite positive and optimistic. This was something like an automatic response and I don't know quite where it came from. Before the accident I was normally this way so I think it had something to do with it but I also credit the disabled that have come before me and live full lives. Hearing stories and seeing documentaries that showed major achievements and breakthroughs by people that had been born with some condition or been in horrible accidents gave me some hope that things could be great.

Q.4. Being a double amputee must be really difficult. How did you bring the motivation to stand back up in life?

I had goals and wanted to be happy and enjoy my life. 

Doctors and clinicians did not think I would walk. One actually found himself laughing when he learned that I wanted to try to walk with prostheses. I’d been pretty optimistic while in the hospital -but when I heard all these negative opinions about me walking, I was really disheartened and scared. Why would they tell me this if it wasn't true. Sure, I’ve heard of numerous people, it seems, that were told they'd never walk again but were able to do it...hadn't the doctors seen those stories??? So why would they say this??? Maybe this time it was simply true- maybe it just wasn't physically possible. I managed to do it though - and this is why I think it was possible:

First of all, I had a goal. I wanted to get back to Prague to continue on the path I was on. Once I got this goal in my head...I decided i was going. Whether i had to crawl up the steps to my university, I was going.

Secondly, I began focusing on what I thought I could do and not what anyone else thought I could do...I told my doctors that I was going to be an 80 year old lady with a cane.. I could see myself doing it and this was vital.

Still, there was one more hurdle and that was this pit that i kept tumbling down into. it was a strange comfort from despair...I don't know how else to describe it. I’d cry my eyes out and push every blood vessel in my head to its bursting point...just fighting against what had happened. I’d cry "why why" wondering why this had to happen to me. Why couldn't I have done something different? It was almost like the movie you've seen multiple times where you still hope someone will change their actions or words to avoid the movie playing out the way that it has the past 10 times.

One night, in October – about 10 months after my accident – I was out of town with friends, I found myself in this state – once again. i was in my room alone and i was crying and playing out the same pointless questions. Replaying what had happened in my head and wondering why it had to be this way – why couldn't things be different – or normal. i was out with my friends having a pretty good time but I just couldn't get over the way things were and the worries of still having a good life. Well, it all came to the surface and I was able to get a little wiggle room to work some logic into the mess. I began asking what I could do. What was the right approach? i wanted to change this –but I can't change this. Yet – How could I make the best of it. I can push forwards and simply do whatever I can do. Sure, I had doubts...but I would just go for it. So I decided to be productive. No matter what – I would try – I would try to get as good as i could with these prostheses and let go of the other concerns. It really has worked – accepting this and making up my mind in such a concrete manner and since that time – since that very night...I’ve never been sad about the loss of my legs – not for a moment.

Q.5. How did friends and family react to the news? Did they play a crucial role in motivation you back up?

I was really amazed at the support I received from my community, my family and my friends. I don't think my friends treated me any differently. I was worried that they would and can remember being nervous about leaving the hospital and facing the real world again. Those fears were quickly laid to rest and I am extremely grateful for everything they did for me.

Q.6. Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration?

My father is my hero and I've learned so much from him. He had rheumatic heart disease and when I was a little boy he had two open-heart surgeries. The implanted mechanical mitral valves in his heart. He didn't complain about his health and instead chose to do what he could do. That has been an instrumental lesson in my dealing with my own limitations. Although I cannot do everything I want - there are still infinite things I can do.

Q.7. Describe your journey on how you came into cycling after your accident despite all odds and how did you manage to be the champion you are now.

Initially, I was not interested in participating in sports - especially not wheelchair sports. I didn't want to do the things I used to do in a limited capacity. Over time I found that I wanted to be more active and when I tried these sports it was surprisingly fun and fulfilling. They have taken me to many exciting places and introduced me to great people and other dedicated athletes. My take away is to have a much more open attitude to new experiences because you never know what they might lead to. I get richly rewarded by putting in all the hard work. Training is enjoyable most of the time. Pushing myself when I don't feel like it teaches me a lot about discipline and what I am capable of.

Q.8. What are your future plans now?

I plan to keep competing in triathlons and I have planned some adventure races as well. In January I will compete in the Brazil135, an ultra marathon covering 135 miles in 48 hours. Runners climb 33,000 ft and descend 29,000 ft during the race. I will be doing it in an offroad racing wheelchair that I've built with some help. I'll be the first person to do this. Although it will be a big challenge, I am very excited to take it on.

Q.9. What would your message be to all those people across the globe suffering a fate similar to yours

The hardest thing for me was coming to the conclusion that I had to face this challenge with a productive attitude and just do what I could move forward and keep trying to live the best life I could. Once I made up my mind to push all concerns of what other people thought of me or my appearance, I was able to begin living how I wanted. There is peace in the struggle and I am an extremely happy person and just want to keep doing more. If you are in a similar situation - my advice would be to work it out in your own way. Try to figure out what your fears and uncertainties are. Realize that these things that cannot be controlled can only be tackled by making up your mind to control the things you can in a positive way. Just keep working on it and try to make progress. You may be surprised how far this attitude takes you.

(To know more about Andre, visit his website by clicking here.)

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