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A man of motion

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Jonathan Dehaas doesn’t remember the motorcycle accident that robbed him of the use of his legs.

The first time he opened his eyes after the crash, he recalls white drapes pulled along each side of his bed, a nurses station across the hall and tubes coming out of every part of his broken body.

It was only weeks later, after he was transferred from the critical care unit to a regular hospital bed, his mom broke the news to her paralysed 21-year-old son that he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

Now a York Region ambassador with the Rick Hansen Wheels in Motion Foundation, Mr. Dehaas is determined to prove a world of activity can await spinal cord injury patients.

“We’re people, first off. We may be injured but we’re still people,” said the active investment banker, who enjoys snowmobiling, sledge hockey, tennis and competitive waterskiing.

“Spinal cord injuries, our brains function. We want to be integrated with society. I don’t want people to feel intimidated or awkward around me.”

The foundation is named in honour of Canada’s Rick Hansen, who travelled around the world in his wheelchair as part of his Man in Motion tour from 1985 to 1987 to raise money for spinal cord injury research.

The foundation will host its second annual Wheels in Motion fundraiser at events across Canada June 13.

Looking to raise $600,000, the foundation will use the funds to improve the quality of life for patients through initiatives such as increasing peer supports, building residential access ramps, training dogs, purchasing wheelchairs, creating accessible children’s playgrounds, improving transportation services and building accessible washrooms.

Funds will also be used for spinal cord research.

“Walking is the ultimate. Every spinal cord injury patient thinks, ‘What if I could walk again?’ Just to stand up again, you would start life all over again,” Mr. Dehaas said.

“But there are tons of other things research could help us with, as well.”

Mr. Dehaas, a former Motocross champion, was showing his motorcycle to a prospective buyer at his parents’ Aurora home Nov. 9, 1996 when he crashed the bike.

He was left with a broken neck, a broken back and a punctured lung.

The injury left him paralysed from the bottom on his ribs down, although nerve damage gives him the constant sensation of a sunburn in a three-inch band across his chest.

“It was a fluke, just one of those things and at least it was (while I was doing) something worthwhile,” said Mr. Dehaas, who displays an amazingly upbeat attitude.

“In the hospital, there was one guy who was dozing in a hammock in his back yard when some people startled him. He fell off the hammock and landed on his neck, which left him a quadriplegic. I would be more bummed out if I fell out of my hammock.”

Still, Mr. Dehaas’ life changed in an instant.

Two months earlier, Mr. Dehaas had won the Canadian F2000 Championship and was being scouted for Indy racing.

He was finishing his final year at Georgian College’s Canadian Automotive Institute, a management course for the automotive sector.

After the crash, his therapist had to prop him up with bean bags like a baby because he didn’t have the stomach muscles or balance to keep himself upright while seated on the floor.

“If it had to happen, I’m glad the accident happened when I was 21 before you have a family and responsibilities,” said Mr. Dehaas, who completed his education through part-time and night courses.

“I look at some people with a wife and kids and a house. I would think those people would be overwhelmed. I was a college student without those responsibilities.”

Mr. Dehaas, who lives with two roommates, is dating and hopes one day to get married and have children through artificial insemination.

“Initially, I was petrified women would just see the wheelchair. There are tons of able-bodied guys standing around, why go for the cripple?” he said.

“But now I see the right people will see beyond the wheelchair. I feel like I have carried on with my life. I focus on the here and now more than anything.”

Although Mr. Dehaas admits going through stages of despondency during his recovery, overall he has remained positive.

“It’s quite a journey learning to do everything again, but I’m always up for a challenge. I have an excellent family and wicked friend support,” he said.

“I don’t want to stop living. I don’t know how long the body will take it (the sports in which he participates), but you have live for the now because you don’t know about later.”

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