I was once a successful business owner with two construction companies, living a comfortable life for more than 30 years. My three beautiful children were my pride. A few years ago, I decided to devote my life to humanitarian work serving in Africa and Southeast Asia. My background in construction enabled me to help the local people build schools and hospitals. While working with such a large number of refugees, I experienced humanity to its greatest extreme. I witnessed poverty, brokenness, oppression and even genocide. I evacuated from Africa when the nearby river was overflowing with bodies of innocent civilians.
In 2014, I took a break and planned a three-month trip in Asia. This dream trip would take me on an adventure of exploring, scuba diving and mountain climbing. It would end after visiting the Great Wall of China. After six amazing weeks in Manila, Bali and Kuala Lumpur, I made the untimely decision to go to Thailand. I went to a pristine island called Koh Lipe located near the southern coast of Thailand. It was an absolute paradise. In fact, it was so beautiful that I decided to stay for two more days than I had planned.
On that fateful morning of August 14, 2014, I went to the local ATM to withdraw a large amount of cash for an upcoming diving excursion. I remember having an eerie feeling that I was being watched as I withdrew my money, but I quickly brushed it off. I spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun, sand and surf. After dinner at a popular seafood restaurant, I finished the day and was on my way back to the hotel. As I entered an unlit section of the beach, a local man suddenly came from behind; he reached out to grab my wallet. I tried to push him away and that was my last memory before everything went dark. Later the local police told me that they had found a lead pipe and my empty wallet discarded on the beach. Around the same time, two other tourists were robbed and killed in nearby area.
I opened my eyes and saw a galaxy of stars blinking like the purest diamonds. The sound of the surf was really soft without the noise of the day. For a few seconds, the beauty of the night made me forget where I was or how I got there. When stabbing pain shot through my lower back I remembered the tide; was it coming or going? Sheer terror and panic gripped me as I envisioned the water getting closer and drowning me. I tried to get up, but my legs and arms were completely unresponsive. I screamed and screamed, but only creatures of the dark echoed my cries. I had never felt so lonely and hopeless. I cried and begged God to rescue me. My faith was what carried me through all these years. I thought it had already gone through enough trials to prove its depth. But the true test had just begun.
As the dark sky turned a shade lighter, the surf receded. The stars dimmed as if they closed their eyes to shun the next scene. Crabs, thousands of them came from the shallow for their breakfast, along with the mosquitoes and fire ants. They soon discovered that they had an exotic item on the menu – me. I was freshly seasoned by the saltiness of the sea. For hours, they feasted on me. It was fortunate that I could no longer feel the rest of my body. But the pinches and bites on my face were razor sharp. The horror of being slowly eaten alive was worse than death itself. I pleaded with God again, how could he keep on watching this when even the stars took pity on me.
This next part was the highlight of my entire journey. However, you might argue that I was delusional and hallucinating, but to me, it was more real than anything I could physically see or touch. I heard a deep and firm voice from above or from within that said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” It was one of the most assuring promises of God that I always meditated on. After hearing it, I was embraced by a wave of peace that stopped me from fearing. Shortly after this, a pack of stray dogs came out of the bushes. Just when I thought they were joining in the feast, they rubbed their furs against my wretched body, they licked my face and they swept the little monsters away. For the next while, they just leaned on me like they were my pets. Their warm bodies covered me like a blanket. I soon passed out or perhaps I fell asleep.
A squeaky scream woke me up. I saw a local man with his dog from a distance. Just when I wanted to call for help, “my dogs” got up and went towards the man. He threw rocks at them and then ran away frantically. The dogs left me for good. My hope reignited as I saw the sun climbing up on the horizon, that I would eventually be rescued as more people come to the beach. A few minutes later, another local man discovered me. When I called out to him, my voice was so hoarse that I didn’t sound like a human anymore. In his eyes, I saw a reflection of my gruesome and disfigured body. I could understand why he too ran away in terror. My survival depended on the mercy of a Good Samaritan. A couple from New Zealand taking a mid-morning stroll on the beach spotted me and came to investigate. I used my last bit of energy to beg them for help. Thankfully I could communicate with them and convince them that I did not come from the sea. The husband took off to find help while his wife stayed to guard me. She managed to pour water into my mouth. I can still remember clearly how refreshing and sweet that water was; it tasted better than the morning dew.
When the local police officers showed up on the beach, they could only speak Thai. They did their best to figure out what happened to me. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by a bunch of curious and gossipy bystanders. Everyone had their own theory of who I was or what I was. After what seemed like hours, they placed me on a sheet of plywood and balanced me on the sidecar of their motorcycle. They took me to the local clinic. The nurses on duty had no idea what to do with me. They placed me on a cold steel table and did their best to comfort me. I looked at the clock; it was 12:00 noon. The local police continued to interrogate me and I was questioned for more than two hours. Even though I had no idea what they were saying, I think they suspected me of being a drug dealer, they probably thought my paralysis was due to some kind of drug or horse tranquilizer.
The decision was made to send me to the mainland. A local fisherman was hired. Four hours later, I was carried to his boat. As I was being loaded, they dropped me. I believe it was the first time in my life that I have ever passed out from pain. The waves were treacherous, and with every bump I was a step closer to the gates of heaven. It took well over an hour to reach the mainland. When we arrived, I was loaded into the bed of an old pickup truck and taken to the city hospital in Pak Bara. The doctors did their best to assess my injury. I was sent for x-rays. My poor body was being tossed and twisted on the table for at least two dozen times before I was told that the x-ray machine did not have film in it and they had to redo the whole frigging thing!
I was then loaded into an old ambulance and taken to a bigger hospital in the city of Hat Yai. On arrival, I was quickly assessed and after receiving both an MRI and CT Scan, it was determined that my 4th cervical vertebrae had been shattered; my C5 and C6 were compressed together. FINALLY, a C-collar was placed around my neck. I needed emergency surgery to assure my best chance of recovery, but I was worried that they did not have the best neurosurgeon for the job. Coincidentally, a top neurosurgeon from United States was in town giving a lecture that day! He played a big role in directing my surgery and ultimately, it was a success.
I remember waking from surgery gagging on the intubation tube placed in my throat and thinking at least I was alive. The doctor asked if there was anyone he could call for me and, soon after, I was finally connected with my family. Obviously frantic with worry and concern, they began making arrangements to get me home. The doctors decided to transfer me to Bangkok. Two weeks into my recovery, I was propped up in my bed; and for the first time I was able to wiggle my big toe. I cried like a baby and made the bold statement that I would walk again. After four weeks, I was finally well enough to travel home to Toronto. I was immediately taken to Sunnybrook where I spent eight days, and then I was admitted to Toronto Rehab-Lyndhurst Centre for 16 weeks of rehab.
As tough as my rehab was, going home was by far the toughest war I had ever faced. The physical challenges were overwhelming, but the mental and emotional obstacles were even worse. I went through all the stages of grief, as well as dealing with loss of dignity, invasion of personal space, loss of control, loneliness, regret, and pity. Fighting and defeating these battles took the greatest amount of strength and faith I could muster.
I am now four years post injury. What slowly and gradually turned my life around was reaching out to my peers and being active in the SCI community. When I realized that I could still give and serve, I regained my purpose and meaning in life. Among the many advisory boards and projects that I am involved with right now, my greatest fulfillment comes from being a peer support volunteer at SCIO. I surely hope that my story and resilience will inspire many to never give up and to fight courageously in their own battle.
Sometimes I still think about the magnificent stars on the night when I lied on that beach. It was the dark sky that made their twinkles shine so bright.
In addition to his work as a SCIO Peer Support Volunteer, Chris is a volunteer with UHN’s Patient Partner Program doing whatever he can to help bring his message of patient support and awareness. He is collaborating as a member of the Fitness Centre Refresh Steering Committee at Toronto Rehab-Lyndhurst Centre working towards integrating patients back into the community. Chris holds a bachelor’s degree in Theology and has three children.