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A spirit unbroken: Cole's story

After a devastating train accident that cost him parts of both legs, tenacious Winnipeg teenager Cole Maydanuk is rebuilding his life on a hockey sledge and on prostheses

Posted: 02/16/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/18/2013 9:50 AM | Updates

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Cole Maydanuk was three days on the job when the train ran him over.

He was standing on top of a tanker car that warm July morning, shouting instructions to the engineer. Proper procedure for riding a tank car is both feet in the stirrup and one arm firmly holding the vertical hand rail. Cole was holding the hand bar. His feet were on the platform. The train moved backwards through the Brandon rail yard.

The coupling holding the two cars together suddenly pulled taut. Cole pitched off the car and rolled onto the tracks. He remembers trying to save himself.

He almost made it.

"I crawled half a train length. I got run over. I tried to stand up. My leg just buckled," the burly jock says months after the accident. "A train can't stop on a dime."

He still had legs, but barely. They'd be amputated a few hours later in Winnipeg.

The 18-year-old didn't lose consciousness when the 120,000-kilogram car crushed him on July 25. It would have been a blessing if he had. When a steel behemoth bears down on you, wheels squealing and your pulse pounding in your ears, in those seconds after you're done crawling through the dirt and dragging yourself over the rails to within centimetres of safety, you deserve oblivion.

No such luck. He remembers the whole thing.

The 18-year-old entered the family business when he went to Edmonton to learn to be a railway conductor. His father and grandfathers are all railway men. It's an honest, reliable way to make a living.

Three days on the job, and he's under a train.

Darryl Maydanuk, Cole's dad, got a call from his CN boss -- his boy had been in an accident. He was still alive. Darryl called his wife, Kim. She called her sister, Kellie Klyzub, who lives in Brandon. Klyzub says she "went hysterical." She raced to Cole's side. Klyzub's partner, Don Wakely, is a CP track maintenance man for the Brandon section.

"I know what happens when you tangle with a train," she says.

Cole was stunned but stoic at the Brandon Regional Health Centre.

"He said: 'Auntie, why did this happen?' for about five minutes. Then he said: 'There's no point in being angry. It's not going to bring my feet back.'"

"The boy, he's 18 years old and the doctor tells him he's going to lose his legs," says Klyzub. "He was sad, a little upset, but that was it."

Cole, looped on painkillers, called his mom and his 15-year-old brother, Riley, who wouldn't believe Cole was alive until he heard his voice.

"He said: 'Hi, Mom. It's Cole. Like Uncle Jerry, I'm going to lose my legs.' "

Kim was holding the phone and shaking. She knew her son was alive. She had a glimmer of what he'd be facing for the rest of his life.

"'It's OK, mom," he said. "I'm going to get legs. I'm going to play sledge.' "

Cole lives and breathes sports. His entire wardrobe seems made up of team jerseys and logo hats. He'd seen sledge hockey on TV and found it appealing. Less than an hour after being crushed, he was planning his sports future.

As the EMTs put him into the plane to Winnipeg, Cole told them not to "pull a Mike Modano on me." The former NHLer was dropped by ambulance attendants in 1984 as they loaded his stretcher. Cole, a fervent hockey and lacrosse player, pulled that one from the recesses of his drugged mind.

On board, Cole asked the pilot if he could fly the plane. He was already flying from the painkillers.

His family waited at Health Sciences Centre. It was 3:30 p.m. when the air ambulance arrived. Five hours had passed since the accident.

Cole was rushed into emergency and stabilized. He was still high as a kite.

"He was saying 'You don't have to spoon-feed me,' " Kim remembers. "'I'm going to play sledge hockey.'"

Kim and Darryl saw Cole for half an hour before surgery. They'd see him again three hours later.

"He was pretty good," says his mom. "He wasn't really in any pain. He was hugging and kissing people."

It's hard to know when the plain truth about losing his legs hit Cole. In an ideal situation, doctors have lengthy conversations with patients who are facing amputation. In First World countries, 80 per cent of amputations are due to vascular disease, the remainder to cancer or trauma. Surgeon Dr. Edward Buchel says efforts are made to give patients hours or a few days to reconcile the news.

Cole didn't have that time.

"It's a big, life-changing event," says Buchel. "They might have an objective understanding, yes. A comprehension of how it's going to change their life, no."

Buchel was not Cole's surgeon, but described the average amputation scenario.

"If there is no chance of a functional recovery," Buchel says, "there's no point in heroic measures."

If the patient hasn't got sensation in the limb or the ability to use it, amputation is likely.

Leg amputations can be BKA (below the knee) or AKA (above the knee). The more leg that can be saved, the better chance a patient has to learn to walk with prosthetics. It takes 15 to 40 per cent more effort to walk with a prosthetic when a leg is amputated below the knee, says Buchel, and 60 to 100 per cent more effort if the knee is lost.

Arguments that South African runner Oscar Pistorius had an unfair advantage when he competed in the 2012 Olympics were nonsense, says Buchel. His use of carbon fibre "legs" earned him the nickname Blade Runner.

"There's still a lot of extra effort involved (to run with artificial legs)," Buchel says.

During surgery, an air-driven reciprocating saw and oscillating saw ("You can go to Home Depot and buy a similar one," jokes Buchel) are used to cut through the skin, fat, fascia, muscles and blood vessels. The long, flat blade moves back and forth.

Doctors start at the toes and work their way up.

The critical part is controlling the bleeding during the operation. Blood vessels and nerves are clipped. The bone is cut and shaped so it doesn't later erode through the skin. Muscles are left longer at the back and flipped forward like a lid or a flap. The flap is sutured to the thinner skin at the front, forming padding to protect the stump.

It can be weeks or months before a patient will be fitted with a prosthesis.

"The surgery part," says the doctor, "is very predictable in a trauma setting. Recovery is variable."

Cole's legs were amputated below the knee. His left leg ended up nine inches shorter than the right. That would be levelled out when he got his new legs.

He was a young guy and he was fit. That would help with his recovery. Although he tried to make it look easy, it wasn't. It never is. It's just varying levels of hard.

-- -- --

Cole was run over on a Wednesday morning, legs taken that afternoon. Three days later, he was back in the operating room for a second session to remove more of his right leg and clean up his wounds. On Aug. 10, he had a skin graft. Doctors took skin from the top of his thigh and grafted it onto his left stump. It didn't take right away. The pain was excruciating.

The amputation was the worst part, but he'd also broken his clavicle in the accident. He had a steel plate put in there. It took more than staples to patch him up.

Cole's phone was left behind at the accident site. As soon as he got it back and put the news on Facebook, friends raced to the hospital. Cole posted a picture of himself in a hospital gown, a tube in his nose providing extra oxygen.

"What happened to you, buddy?" a friend asked.

"I got run over by a train!" he replied.

Cole would spend seven weeks in the Health Sciences Centre, moving from emergency to surgical recovery and eventually into the rehab hospital. His dressing changes were agony, peeling the bandages off wounds still sticky with blood. Three months after the accident, he'd still cry out when an occupational therapist peeled back the covering, snipping away at dead skin on the stump.

He got off the painkillers as fast as he could, afraid he'd come to depend on them.

Cole's homecoming was difficult.

"The first time we brought him home we pushed him up (a new ramp)," his mother says. "He didn't trust Riley, because he didn't think he was strong enough. Darryl has a bad back. It was really difficult. He said, 'I'm not coming back until I get my lift in.' "

Kim took a leave from her job as a pharmacy technician to help her injured son.

"It was just me and him at home one day and I heard this big bang from the washroom." Cole, who was 5-10 and 250 pounds before the accident, had fallen.

"So I run in there and ask if he's OK. He says 'I think so.'

"I'm thinking 'How do I get him out of here? I lifted the chair. He army-crawled to his bed. He was able to pull himself up and get on his bed. He didn't want any help."

Every step in recovery from an amputation is hard. Before he could be cast for his first prostheses, Cole had to reduce the amount of fluid in his stumps. Every day at home, he pulled on compression stockings. A machine squeezed and released. It looked like a primitive spa treatment. He did it every day, an hour a day in the privacy of his bedroom. He turned on the TV and got on with it.

The Maydanuks don't coddle their kids. At 18, Cole was considered a man. He'd moved out. He owned his own car, paid his own bills, came and went as he pleased. Moving back home, needing his parents to drive him around, that was hard.

His friends wanted to take him out, but fitting the wheelchair in the average car was often impossible. You're not just one of the guys when you can't get yourself to the bar or hockey rink.

"It's more I lost my feet than anything," Cole said in October. "I am going to skate again. That's a fact."

Like his uncle Jerry Harasymko, who lost his legs 15 years ago in a car accident, Cole knows a man can always find a way to cope.

"I didn't expect he would be like this," his mother says. "I didn't expect he would be this kind of man."

Cole is researching new legs.

"They make legs that you're hard-pressed to tell whether they're real or fake. The skin tone was there, there were hair follicles. There's spaces between the toes. You get them in New York. They cost $25,000 and more per leg. CN has told us whatever we need."

He wheels over to the family computer. The variety of prosthetics is astonishing and Cole has been doing his homework. He's dreaming of a bionic leg.

Asked about his future, he's quick to answer.

"Next five years, hopefully doing the same job. Maybe playing national-level sledge, maybe playing hockey."

His mother agrees.

"Yes, he will skate again and he will walk again," she says. "When he was two, he just stepped out on the ice and he was skating."

It sounds like the average apocryphal Canadian childhood story. The Maydanuks have the photos to prove it.

The men in this family play hockey. It's a fact of life.

Darryl plays in a beer league. Riley is on the Pierre Elliot Trudeau high school team, one Cole helped start and now unofficially coaches.

He was on five championship hockey teams before he was 18. Cole was probably a better lacrosse player, tending goal for the Gryphons and playing junior lacrosse for two years.

The Maydanuks spend a lot of time at community clubs, ferrying their boys from one game to another. That won't end now.

"Moving on doesn't have much to do with your legs. It's your head and your heart," says Kim. She smiles at her son, who glances down and blushes crimson.

-- -- --

The large, mirrored room at the rehab hospital, where some patients learn to walk again, is a triumph of human spirit. There are mats and parallel bars and all methods of self-propulsion. No one blinks at the sight of missing limbs.

Everyone gets physio and occupational therapy after amputation. Not everyone will walk. Age or health may stand in the way. Cole does well because he's young and is already in good shape. Physiotherapist Ron Recuenco works him hard. In the early weeks, Cole would do push-ups until he was covered in sweat.

He'll need those strong arms, his therapist says.

It's hard to watch, the young man gasping for breath, pushing harder and harder. His stumps are put in compression bags to prepare for the pressure of prostheses.

Recuenco says even learning to sit up is a challenge.

"My goal is for him to walk independently," he says. "For the patient, that's Christmas Day."

The legs will come in three or four weeks, he learns in October. It will be a late birthday present for Cole, who turned 19 on Oct. 13.

"I'm anxious," Cole says. "It's like walking on stilts."

His wounds still need attention. After working out in the rehab gym, he goes in and has "dried gunk" tweezed off his stumps. He jerks his left stump back, wincing.

A nurse still comes to his house to do wound care.

"It's like a 45-minute ordeal," Cole says. "It takes forever."

When he begins "walking" in November, Cole is fitted with metal cages over his stumps. They look like supports for tomato plants. He moves by leaning heavily on a walker. It's slow progress and he's getting lapped by old men with their walkers. But he's doing it. He's standing up and he's moving.

His mother posts a cellphone video on Facebook. "Baby's first steps! Again!!" she writes.

Recuenco says progress in rehab depends on the condition of the patient before they lost a limb.

"I generally ask them during the assessment, 'How well were you moving around prior to the amputation? What are your hobbies and goals?' "

Cole wanted to walk. He wanted to skate. He wanted to get right down to business.

"Learning to walk again, that's one of the most important parts of my job," says Recuenco. "A lot of people's self-esteem is in walking."

Tell that to the kid who lost his legs three days into his first job. It's all about walking now.

-- -- --

It's late afternoon in October when the family arrives at the Warren arena. Riley's high school team is playing and Cole and Darryl are on the bench. Kim is in the stands across the rink. It's a tough day; the rink is a reminder of what Cole can no longer do.

Cole's wearing his UND Fighting Sioux jersey. If he's frustrated with the way things worked out, he doesn't show it. Through the hard months of rehab, the inevitable disappointments and the occasional loss of dignity, he's been unflappable. He has to be picked up in his wheelchair and lifted onto the bench. Kim is clenching her hands into fists, watching from across the way.

"If they drop him, what then?"

She tries to keep her fears to herself. Because Cole is staying strong, his family and friends try to follow his example.

"It breaks my heart and brightens my heart at the same time," she says. "It's just harder for me, because I'm the one doing everything. Before we could just get in the car and go. You always have to be cognizant of his chair. If he wants to go somewhere, we go."

She admits she's having a hard time letting Cole out of her sight. She worries about the big stuff and the small, silly stuff.

"He likes to go ice fishing and he can't. Or just plain old fishing. It'll be tough until he gets his legs," Kim says, knowing that's not his biggest obstacle.

"Cole keeps me going. The hardest thing I've had to do since the accident was to come to the very first ice time the team had. He couldn't go on the ice. He couldn't skate. I had to leave. I went and cried alone in the parking lot. The manager came out and gave me a hug and I went back in."

"I told him, 'I know you're going to skate again. It won't be easy but I know you're going to do it.' "

She wipes her eyes, almost angry at herself.

"I'm still waiting for the day when he forgets he doesn't have legs and he falls. You don't ever want to see your kid hurt or in this situation."

And then the long-term fear emerges.

"You worry. Is a girl going to come along? Would she want a guy with no legs? If you can find somebody who can see your eyes and your heart, you'll be fine."

--------------

Sledge Manitoba holds an open house on Oct. 28. Wild horses can't keep Cole away.

The game's the same. The trick is keeping your balance on the narrow, two-bladed sledge. Players propel themselves with two short sticks they also use to shoot and pass the puck. Upper body strength is critical.

Cole has been waiting for this day. All those pushups in physio, those years of hockey drills are going to pay off. He's gone out and bought new hockey equipment, Kim says. With his left stump still not completely healed, he can't risk infection. His family is here: Kim, Darryl, Riley, grandparents and a family friend. This is Cole's new normal and everyone knows how much he needs to succeed.

There are always reminders of what came before.

"Not being able to see him do what he did before," says Darryl, a sob catching in his throat. "You want to see him jump in the car, head out with friends."

He's proud of his son but he wishes it wasn't like this.

"I always wonder why it was my kid. Life goes on, right? And for how strong he's been, I don't want to sit back and complain. He's been a rock through all of this."

Cole's on the ice. Sledge is tricky. You need basic hockey skills, but you also need balance.

He falls over, rights himself, falls over again. But there's no quit in him. Quickly enough, he's practising drills, shooting at the net, getting it in often enough to look good. He's still at home on the ice, just a little lower to the surface.

Kim's dad, Keith Williams, is at the MTS Iceplex. He's still trying to work through the accident.

"I've worked on the railway all my life. I've worked on locomotives and I've worked on moving trains. Having to hear my grandson goes on three days in and gets knocked off, that's a pretty good wake-up call."

Linda Williams, Cole's grandma, says the accident has brought their family even closer.

"I think it cemented everybody together," she says. "Cole doesn't let you think about what could have been. He'll say, 'Just think, it could have been worse. You could be spoon-feeding me and wiping my bum.' "

She was at the hospital every day.

Family friend Gary Nowicki is watching Cole, too. He was there the day Darryl and Kim met and was the best man at their wedding 20 years ago. He's watching over both of them as they cope with the aftermath of the accident.

"I think both of them, they're parents, right? When something tragic like this happens, it's 'Now what?' You're scared for him. You're worried. Cole has made it easier for them."

He remembers the raw panic of the afternoon of July 25.

"The first words when we met at the hospital were, 'He's alive.' "

Nowicki and a group of moms from Riley's hockey team decide to hold a fundraising social for the family. CN and the Workers Compensation Board are covering the costs of prostheses, home renovations and the like, but Kim's off work and there are unanticipated expenses. Community club friends have been dropping off food and making sure Riley gets to his practises, but they want to do more.

The friends decide to rent the Transcona Country Club. It seats 1,300, but Nowicki says they'll be happy if they sell 500 tickets. He's got some in his wallet at the sledge open house.

On the ice, Cole winds up and shoots at the net. He misses once. He misses twice. The third time's the charm, and the puck sails into the net.

When practice ends, the Maydanuks head upstairs with Cole for a beer. The other players roll up to a long table and start joking around. Cole's a new recruit, but he's automatically one of the guys. He speaks the language of hockey and hard work.

Months later, he'll talk about the sledge locker-room being the first place where he felt like himself again.

-- -- --

Cole's social tickets sell out. You can barely move in the room. Cole's friends, former schoolmates, coaches and players from every team he's been on jam the cavernous room. Most of Cole's relatives have arrived. Kim and Darryl's friends are out in force.

The line to view the raffle prizes snakes around itself. People wait in line for 10 or 15 minutes just to toss their tickets in a paper bag. The beer line is even longer.

Cole arrives, and he's greeted like a rock star. A lot of these folks haven't seen him since the accident. Some of them don't know where to look, glancing at the wheelchair and looking away again fast. Friend Michael Gallagher acts as his handler, getting Cole set up by the bar. A ragtag receiving line forms. People are lunging at him, shaking his hand firmly, wrapping him in awkward hugs, taking endless cellphone pictures. Gallagher scans the crowd.

"I want to make sure he's talking to everybody," he says. "I want to make sure people leave here thinking he hasn't changed. He's still Cole."

Gallagher is sweet and solemn in his sneakers and suit jacket. By the end of the night, Cole will have spoken to hundreds of people.

Jerry and Shelley Harasymko have driven from their cattle farm in Komarno, near Teulon. Harasymko lost his legs 15 years ago in a accident. He and his father-in-law, Steve Maydanuk, went out to help a pregnant neighbour whose van had stalled. Darryl was there that day, too, but stayed back to get someone else out of a snowbank.

The men got the van and their truck nose to nose. Another vehicle came along the road and hit Harasymko.

He nearly died that night. He and his 22-year-old wife had a young son and she had to make the decision to amputate his legs. It was a hellish time.

Jerry's amputation was the background for the family when they got the news about Cole. They feared Cole was as critically injured as his uncle was 15 years ago.

Cousin Matty Howard says Cole's attitude has been his salvation.

"He's an amazing kid. He's shown that it's not the end of the world the way some people think it is... he's got this mindset where nothing's going to change."

By 11 p.m., Cole is looking even ruddier than usual. People keep buying him beers, slapping him on the back. Gallagher stands placidly behind him, chewing gum and surveying the crowd. It's going well. Cole is talking to everyone he can.

Late in the evening, Gary Nowicki climbs onto the stage and shushes the crowd. He calls the family up.

"From the day of the accident until a couple of weeks ago," Nowicki says, "89 days this young man was in a sledge, on the ice and skating around. Eighty-nine days!"

Kim is up next. She clutches her speech like a nervous award winner.

"On July 25, I was at work," she begins. "I received probably the most devastating news I thought I could ever receive." Some people in the crowd start to cry. "Then, the next call was from Cole. He said 'Mom, I'm OK. I've lost my legs but I'm going to walk again.' " Her tears came. Half the people at the social cry with her.

That first call wasn't the worst call she could have received, she says.

"He was still here with us and he could still walk, eventually. We could have just easily lost him that day.

"Today he's here, a few inches shorter, mind you, but he's still here. And he is going to walk."

Darryl clutches a beer as he talks. His tears begin immediately.

"This is the best support group anybody could have," he starts. "You guys are all amazing." He's weeping. "As a family, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

"Cole has been a rock through all this. He's never changed. He's been the same kid as he was before the accident."

It's Cole's turn.

"On July 25, my life was changed forever," he says. "I was thrown off a tank car and subsequently run over by the train. I knew life was throwing me a curveball, and somehow I had to hit it. So here I am, playing sledge hockey and trying to live life like a normal teenager."

He gets a standing ovation when he's done.

The family won't say how much the social brings in. They're sensitive to money matters, to how it might look to other people. This is how it looks: No matter how much they raised, or how much CN offers them, at the end of the day Cole is playing sledge, not traditional hockey.

----------

The accomplishments come fast and furious. On Nov. 10, Cole posts a photo on Facebook. He's holding a hockey puck with "1rst goal" written on the side. On Dec. 14, he's fitted with his legs and takes a photo of his bright blue shoes.

"Just gonna walk in the house real quick!!," he says.

He needs these victories and he knows they're another way of moving forward. He's coming back, not to life the way it used to be but to a different kind of life.

"I don't see anything standing in his way," Darryl says.

In January, Cole heads to Minneapolis for a sledge tournament. He comes back with five points under his belt. He's walking now, almost without a hitch. He's tall. You forget how tall he once was. He hitches up his pants to reveal his prostheses. They're basic, with not a hair follicle in sight. He's got a bionic ankle that replaces his calf muscle. When it feels the pressure of Cole's toes, it responds with a bit of spring and pushes him forward.

"They work," says Cole. "I'm walking. All that other stuff adds weight and bulk. These ones do what I need them to do."

He strolls across a room in the rehab hospital. There's a bit of swagger there. You'd never know what this moment cost him, not without watching the months of gruelling work, the times of unbearable pain and the fear on the faces of his shattered parents. He makes it look easy.

"I plan to skate next winter," he says. Smart money's on him.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 ??65535

History

Updated on Monday, February 18, 2013 at 9:50 AM CST: One train car weighs 120,000 kilograms.

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