A walking miracle
Richard Perrin was thrown off a motorcycle at 160 km/h. ‘I came out on thewrong side of the risk-reward equation,’ he says of the accident that left him paralyzed from the ribcage down. ‘I knew the risks. … I wasn’t asking, Why me?’.
Richard Perrin’s obsession was ignited one decade ago by a television commercial that pictured a gleaming motorcycle power-sliding across the desert sand. “Only one custom motorcycle in the world can cruise like this,” the narrator intoned, “the Valkyrie from Honda.”
Perrin was hooked: “I thought, holy hell, that looks cool.”
The computer software designer signed up for an introductory motorcycle course at the Ottawa Safety Council.
He bought his first bike from his future wife, Maureen, who would later enjoy reminding friends of that fact. They went on bike tours in New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, Maine, Newfoundland and England. He rebuilt old bikes in his garage; he pored over motorcycle magazines. All of which led him to consider what had once seemed unthinkable.
“When I first started motorcycling, I thought, those guys that are racing, they’re crazy. It’s insane. I would never do something like that, but then … ”
Four years ago, he took to the track as part of the Vintage Road Racing Association, a regional organization of motorcycle enthusiasts. Racing stoked his passion: he devoted himself last year to winning his motorcycle class. In the off-season, Perrin worked out in his basement as he watched races on TV.
It was while competing in the summer’s premier event at Mosport International Raceway that Perrin suffered the crash that would land him in The Ottawa Hospital Rehabilitation Centre.
On Aug. 14, 2009, he was on the first lap of a two-hour endurance race with about 40 other competitors. He was riding a 1978 Suzuki GS1000 from the “superbike era,” a time when manufacturers turned out heavy, fast machines. Perrin had spent the winter rebuilding his bike’s engine to make it even more powerful.
On Mosport’s backstretch, he opened the throttle. As the bike roared to 160 km/h, the handlebars began to shake violently. Perrin went into a desperate speed wobble three-quarters of the way down the straightaway.
“The oscillations got worse and worse,” he says. “ I knew at one point that this is just going to be bad.”
The handlebars ripped from his palms and he was thrown to the track. According to the official accident report, Perrin bounced and tumbled 140 metres and slammed into a concrete wall, the impact of which broke his back.
If not for the wall, he might have walked away since his only other injuries were some broken ribs and a scraped pinky.
Perrin came to rest fully conscious and in extreme pain. He raised his arms to make sure emergency workers knew where to find him. “I wanted to get in the ambulance so I could get to hospital so they could give me some painkillers.”
Perrin was taken to Bowmanville and airlifted to Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where he underwent surgery to relieve the pressure on his spinal cord. Two titanium rods, secured with 12 screws, were inserted into his back; the metal scaffold would allow his spine to fuse from above his shoulder blades to below.
Perrin was paralyzed from the ribcage down: He could wiggle only the big toe of his left foot. An intensive-care nurse would turn him in bed every three hours.
At night, his mind boiled with worry and grief.
“You’re there and you can’t sleep with all of the beeping and alarms. I had lost my glasses in the crash, so I was even more disoriented. …There’s nothing to do but think. And at that point, I was thinking about what I’d lost.”
Doctors wouldn’t tell him whether he would ever be able to walk again since he had suffered an “incomplete” spinal cord injury, the outcomes of which are notoriously difficult to predict. Perrin didn’t dare to dream of taking another step.
Instead, he grieved for his former life as a competitive swimmer, rugby player and bike racer. He grieved for what he would not be able to do with his children, Audrey, 3, and Amelia, 5. “I was never going to go running and playing with my kids again. They weren’t going to have a dad that could do sports with them.”
Yet Perrin was keenly aware of the danger posed by despair. He would allow himself only limited sessions of grief — 20 minutes at a time — before forcing his mind to return to the hard road ahead.
“I realized in the hospital in Toronto, at that point, I had no tools at my disposal except my attitude. And I decided then that I was going to be relentlessly positive through all of this experience. …
“Really, I knew I was lucky because you don’t come off of a motorcycle at near top speed and go tumbling along and live some kind of life that is still OK. I still had my kids. I still had my wife.”
Maureen flew to meet him in hospital.
“I love you,” she told him. “Everything is going to be OK.”
Perrin arrived at the rehab centre in early September 2009, unable to sit up in bed or transfer to his wheelchair. He needed a nurse to help him go to the bathroom and to get dressed. It took him more than two hours to get ready for his first physiotherapy session of the day.
His rehab began with a basic lesson: how to sit on the side of a bed. When he could do that, he worked to improve his balance by passing a Nerf ball back and forth from the same position. Later, he graduated to a three-pound medicine ball.
After he had mastered those challenges, Perrin learned to lift himself from his bed, onto a transfer board, and into a wheelchair. His nurses and occupational therapists taught him how to shower and dress.
Perrin would have left the rehab centre by December — he had acquired the essential life skills for a paraplegic by then — but for a curious development: The muscle movement once isolated in his big toe had started to creep up his left leg.
Richard Perrin stands between the parallel bars, his right leg in a brace, his left leg exposed so he can watch it operate in a full-length wall mirror.
It’s mid-January. With his physiotherapist, Becky Sottana, in front of him holding his hips, Perrin peels one finger at a time from the rails. He keeps his thumbs anchored as he studies his left knee in the mirror to make sure it’s not about to slam backward or buckle.
Then, with the fixed stare of a man on a high wire, Perrin lifts his right hand from the bar. He moves the hand to Sottana’s shoulder and does the same with his left.
Sottana squeezes the muscles in his pelvis to help him “activate” the ones that will stabilize him. She tells him not to concentrate on individual muscles, but his body as a whole.
Perrin readies himself for a single step.
For months now, Perrin has been building strength in his legs and core in preparation for this day. He has done hours of squats and calf-raises in the therapy pool, hours of stretching and leglifts in physiotherapy. He has spent hours more learning to activate his stomach muscles for balance before moving an inch.
Sottana grips his left leg just above the knee to guide it forward. Since Perrin still has sensation in his legs, he can feel the pressure exerted on his quadricep.
He concentrates on summoning the necessary muscles, but his left foot seems to have a mind of its own: it wavers left and right before landing on the ground. He lifts himself back and repeats the motion, watching the mirror to understand the behaviour of his left leg — and exactly where it is in space.
“Everything that should be automatic, isn’t,” Perrin explains later. “If you put your arm behind your head, you know were it is. But I don’t really know where my legs are if I can’t see them.”
Still, Perrin is exhilarated by the morning’s session. After months of building the muscles and balance necessary to stand, he can finally envision the payoff: He now believes his road back might, just might, end with him walking.
“It’s a lot of hope,” he says. “At this point, I don’t expect to be walking to the corner store. But a little bit of walking, even from one side of a narrow door to the other, that’s really useful.”
Much uncertainty remains. “All we’re able to say is that it is a good prognosis in that there is potential for motor recovery,” says Perrin’s rehabilitation physician, Dr. Vidya Sreenivasan. “There’s still a lot of really big question marks as to where his recovery is going to take him.”
The spinal cord carries transmissions from the brain to the body, but it also holds independent neural networks that trigger reflexes and patterned muscle movements, such as walking.
Studies show spinal cord patients can improve significantly in the first three to four months after an accident as the body rebounds from the shock to its central nervous system. Further recovery can take place — usually at a slower rate — within the first year.
“It’s like damaged electrical cabling,” explains Dr. Sreenivasan. “The sheath around it and the cable are repairing themselves, but the transmissions may not be as smooth as before. …The body does its own healing: We work with what comes back.”
Perrin fits the profile of a someone with a traumatic spinal cord injury in that he is young and male, a risk taker. Yet he’s anything but a typical patient, says Dr. Sreenivasan. Many young men suffer depression or lash out out in frustration after such an injury, she says, but Perrin has maintained a disciplined focus on his recovery.
“A lot of people have a lot more anger than Richard,” says Dr. Sreenivasan, “and that anger is understandable because they’ve had such a life change. Richard may have felt that sometimes, but he channelled that energy really constructively.”
Perrin says his outlook has been shaped by his experience as a competitive athlete, which taught him the road to improvement is marked by pain and frustration. He’s convinced better times are ahead. It has also helped to know there’s no one else to blame for his predicament.
“I knew the risks and I had thought about them and accepted them, and in many ways, I think that helped me here because I wasn’t blindsided. I wasn’t asking, ‘Why me?’
“I know why me: Because I was doing something inherently dangerous. Unfortunately, I came out on the wrong side of the risk-reward equation. And I also ended up being part of the small percentage that suffer a very serious injury since the injuries tend to be broken bones, not paraplegia.”
In the last week of January, Perrin again stands between the parallel bars, this time strapped into a shoulder harness that’s fixed to the ceiling.
A safety net of sorts, the harness will protect him as he tests his ability to walk with a new brace, custom-built at the rehab centre for his weak right leg. The brace bends, then locks as more pressure is brought to bear on it, supporting his weight when he strides.
Perrin studies his feet as he drags and heaves his right leg down the length of the bars. He moves purposefully, hand over hand, like a climber on a mountain shelf.
Exhausted by the end of the session, Perrin didn’t immediately appreciate its significance. But later that day, he posted a video of his walk on the Vintage Road Racing Association website, along with a note: “For a long time,” he wrote, “I didn’t even dare to hope that I’d be able to walk again. Then I didn’t dare to voice that hope. Then it was possible, and after a bit, probable. After this morning, I know I will walk again. It may not be far, or without lots of support, but it’s happening.”
He showed his family the same video. “Daddy,” said five-year-old Amelia. “You could do flips.”
Three days later, Perrin’s wife Maureen and his two children come to see him in action. He walks two lengths of the parallel bars strapped into the shoulder harness.
For Audrey and Amelia, the event is not nearly as interesting as the physiotherapy room’s other features: its beds and mirrors and balls. But then, they already know their dad can walk: They’ve seen the video.
For Maureen, however, it means something more. It’s the first time she has seen her husband on his feet in five months, the first time she could again appreciate his wide, square shoulders.
She folds into his arms and buries her head on his shoulder. Audrey and Amelia stop to watch. Physiotherapist Becky Sottana passes out the Kleenex.
“It was like the impossible: I never thought it would happen,” says Maureen, a government epidemiologist. “It wasn’t something I’d ever thought I’d get to see again or I’d get to enjoy.”
Maureen gently spurned Richard the first time he approached her at a Cowboy Junkies concert. Their courtship began after they met again, 10 years ago, in a pub on St. Patrick’s Day. They married in 2002.
Maureen loved the way Richard threw himself into things: cooking, woodworking, motorcycling, marriage. It’s one of the reasons she doesn’t resent, even today, his obsession with racing. “He was doing something he loved so, so much. That’s who he is.”
Maureen has watched Richard apply the same passion to his rehab, but it is another revealed quality that has moved his wife.
“It’s so humbling in a wheelchair because you can’t always do things yourself. But he kind of accepts it and moves on. I think it takes a really special person to be able to do that.”
The accident, she says, has made her appreciate how much she could have lost. “I could understand what that would have meant for me, for the way that we manage each other, for the way we raise our children, and what the kids would miss from him. … He knows he has to keep it together and get on with it because people need him.”
For Richard Perrin, 36, the road ahead now is a little more certain.
His family will take possession of a new home later this month near Andrew Haydon Park; it will take a few months to complete the renovations required to make it wheelchair accessible. He’s still awaiting a response from his insurance company as to what it will cover.
He will go back to work soon since his disability will not affect his job as a software designer with Kanata-based Solace Systems.
Perrin expects to leave the rehab centre in early April. In the meantime, he wants to learn to use a walker. “Then, all of a sudden,” he smiles, “I could walk places without parallel bars — which is most of the world.”
By Andrew Duffy, The Ottawa Citizen
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