Breathing becomes a challenge for avid amateur athlete who fractured his neck
Victor Van den Boomen used to swim, bike and run hundreds of miles every week, training for the Ironman and other triathlon competitions that were a key part of his life.
Now, the local amateur athlete and Victoria city parking manager is thrilled to stand, even for a shaky moment. When he pushed himself across a gym floor using a walker, he almost cried with happiness.
It’s a long way from the physical shape he used to take for granted, gone in an instant in a freak cycling accident on the Pat Bay Highway on Jan. 3. He doesn’t remember what happened. It’s likely his front bike fender got caught in the wheel.
He woke on the busy highway unable to move. Two Vertebrae — the C-5 and C-6 in his neck — were fractured and the right side of his spinal cord was torn.
He was taken to hospital in Vancouver. Dreams of a personal best this year in the Ironman, a gruelling race where competitors swim four kilometres, bike 180 kilometres and then run a 42-km marathon, were replaced with those much smaller.
He thought a spinal injury simply meant he couldn’t use his legs. He learned by living it what it really meant.
Van den Boomen couldn’t move from his chest down. He struggled to breathe and needed oxygen.
The strong core muscles he took for granted now wouldn’t even help him cough. His six-foot-three frame had to be turned every few hours to ward off bedsores.
When put in a wheelchair, he had to be strapped in because his usually strong torso couldn’t hold him up.
So he put the focus and willpower that powered him through numerous triathlons toward recovering from a spinal cord injury that had some thinking he’d never walk again.
“Lying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe with no control over my bodily functions was a big eye-opener to me,” said the father of three.
There’s no self-pity when Van den Boomen talks about the accident and his injury. Sometimes, as he’s spieling off technical and medical terms that have become commonplace for him in the past six weeks, he sounds like he’s simply immersed in a new project. There’s little point in being any other way, he said.
“I feel like I’ve gone to university again. There’s just so much information. I want more people to know about this kind of situation.”
A week after the accident, he lay in the hospital bed, staring at his left hand. He could see the muscles flickering.
“Inside, I said, ‘Move, move.’ ”
He did that for four hours, and slowly, he was able to move his hand.
“Every day since then, I’ve had something positive happen in my recovery. Moving my hand became like getting a personal best in a 10K run. It helps that I’m a pretty aggressive goal-setter. You just do it or you don’t move on.”
He worked for hours to pick up a roll of tape a nurse had forgotten on the bedside table, so he could tease her that she’d lost it.
He was transferred to the G.F. Strong rehab unit in Vancouver nine days after the accident.
Three weeks ago, 100 people came to see him at his sister’s house, which she made wheelchair accessible so her brother could visit.
Van den Boomen surprised many friends by standing up from his wheelchair. It was brief, and he sat right back down. But for the group, many of them athletes whose lives revolve around competition and accomplishment, it was a treasured moment.
The saddest thing is there are many like him, Van den Boomen said, but who don’t have the riches he has: a loving and supportive family, an understanding employer and the pure luck that saw his spinal cord only partially instead of totally severed.
At G.F. Strong, many of those dealing with spinal cord injuries are young, hurt doing sports.
And more older people are getting injured too, Van den Boomen said, as fit baby boomers continue being physically active longer.
“I was and am so lucky. I haven’t had to worry about where I’ll live or how I’ll survive, so it’s allowed me to focus on my recovery. Not everyone is that lucky.”
Van den Boomen turns 50 on June 7. His goal before the accident was to be “fit and 50.”
It might be a different fit than he thought, but it’s still his goal.
“I see how fortunate I am, and I better not waste it.”