Spinal cord injury didn’t stop Kent Hehr
There it was in the middle of his face, itching. And it would take Kent Hehr some six months to do what he had done millions of times before — reach up and give his nose a scratch. Relearning simple tasks and how to live a new life was all about baby steps, hard work, confronting fear and moving on.
It was a process the Calgarian was thrust into after a bullet in a drive-by shooting hit his neck and left him a quadriplegic 13 years ago.
Hehr wasn’t in hospital long when he realized fighting fate wasn’t a battle to be won.
Instead, he focused on striving for a future forever changed by a single moment when a stranger’s actions put a bullet in his flesh and ripped apart life as he knew it.
“The doctor was pretty clear on the prognosis and didn’t offer any illusions,” Hehr says matter-of-factly.
“I knew she wasn’t lying and reality set in immediately.
“Then they are trying to get you ready to survive in the big, bad world out there.
“They call it Rehabilitation but it’s learning how to live with a spinal cord injury and setting up a game plan.”
Unable to do anything about the past, Hehr knew he could have a say in his future.
“You know you are not going to walk but what the hell are you are going to do with your life,” he recalls of those early dark days.
“You go through some major conundrums, you’ve spent 21 years of your life living in a certain way and define yourself, as an athlete, working a certain job — you are no longer Kent-the-athlete or Kent-the-Safeway-employee … I no longer had an identity.”
Initially, he says, there was a futile bid to cling to “remnants” of who he once was — a college football player planning to be a teacher.
“But you are not involved in the hockey game next week and are left a little on the outside looking in — that’s until you get out and involved in life, again,” he says.
Today, the 34-year-old works as a junior lawyer at a downtown law firm and counts his blessings.
The pivotal point in Hehr’s soul searching may have been returning to school 11 months after his injury.
“It’s a difficult balance between asking for help and being independent, but you have to learn to ask for certain things,” like letting a stranger pull his wallet out of his wheelchair so he can buy a coffee, “and you find people don’t mind helping.”
“Now I’m almost a pain in the ass,” he adds.
His memories of that Oct. 5, 1991, night are blurry and time has made recollection worse, but Hehr has never seen the sense in dwelling on that devastating moment.
He was on his way home after a night out with friends and words were exchanged with a stranger in another car.
Hehr, the passenger, remembers thinking two things — no one carries a gun in Calgary and that’s got to be a water-gun.
He was wrong on both counts.
“Hey, a pretty bad thing happened to me, don’t get me wrong, life gets complicated and I’ll probably make a mountain out of the next molehill,” he says.
“But that spinal cord injury happened 13 years ago and it’s almost a distant memory now.”
Martin Malaska, 22, the driver of the car from which the shot was fired was convicted of criminal negligence causing harm and given three years in prison after a witness in his car came forward a year after the drive-by.
His passenger got six months for pointing a firearm.
“I hoped the sentence would be more severe but any victim of any crime knows it doesn’t make it better or change anything,” Hehr says.
The courts never really figured out what exactly happened or who did what but Hehr says it doesn’t matter as much as making a decision to move on.
“There’s no doubt they changed my life, and if I had an option I wouldn’t be on this road, but I’m very happy with my life,” he says, cognizant some disabled people can’t access some of the basics, like affordable housing, transportation and job opportunities, needed to build a good life despite an injury.
“I don’t think a disabled person should be a firefighter but there are certain places where individuals with disabilities could work where they are not working,” he says, sitting in a sunny office overlooking the city at the Fraser Milner Casgrain law office.
Hehr loves being a lawyer but hasn’t ruled out politics later.
“Without a doubt, these past 13 years have been fabulous,” he says quick to point out that bullet could have put an end to his life.
“I’ve been alive, life ain’t over.”
By NADIA MOHARIB, CALGARY SUN