One minute you’re a top-flight ski instructor, and the next minute you’ve been told you’ll be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life.
Spinal cord injuries often happen instantly to top-level jocks and risk takers, paying what some might consider the ultimate price for living their lives to the edges: having that life taken away and being forced to watch it from the sidelines.
For Brian Donato, of Orangeville, Ont., there was nothing either extreme or sporty in working in his yard three years ago – until a tree he was felling suddenly split in half, severing his spine, breaking his ribs and puncturing his lungs. It was the heroic Ornge paramedics who got the tree off him and got him to Sunnybrook who saved his life; a three-month stay at Toronto Rehab’s Lyndhurst Centre prepared him for what that life would now be. The message was gently, through abruptly, reinforced: the life of skiing, sports cars, ATVs and boats would be forever changed. The man who had taught skiing all over the world would now be navigating from a chair.
Donato’s employer, Hockley Valley Resort, never thought for a second that it had lost its Director of Sports. Staff built him a customized snowmobile and golf cart so he could continue working, becoming part of a large network of supporters.
While staring at one set of wheels, Donato could only think about another: his beloved 1970 Porsche 912. Hospital specialists told him to readjust his goal and, if he was lucky, he’d get back to something like a Mazda5.
“Nothing against the Mazda5; it’s the sportiest minivan they could think of to make me feel better. But I wanted my Porsche,” he says with a laugh.
Before his release from the Lyndhurst Centre, his wife, Marla Firth, was taking him out for day visits – to an instructor who was prepping him to get his new licence to operate a car with hand controls. As they worked undercover, buddies of Brian’s were swapping an automatic Type 4 VW transmission into his tangerine 912 and kitting it out with hand controls. A man who had moved at top speed most of his life was simply finding a new way to continue doing so.
A little too eager to get back in the driver’s seat, a test run with uninstalled air filters meant a backfire in the engine caused a fire – with Brian trapped inside. Managing to get out at the last moment, he watched the car disappear into the flames. He started over with a 2002 Boxster, and has worked tirelessly ever since to get his life back to normal.
So what is normal for this father of two teenage daughters? Normal is continuing to pursue the same dreams, even if he has to do it in a new way. For Donato, his love of cars and sport had the Targa Newfoundland on his bucket list. An annual 2,200-kilometre event featuring Newfoundland’s spectacular scenery and amazing people along its famed closed public-road course, it’s a rally race that stands alone. You need an excellent driver; you need a top-notch navigator; you need a car built to withstand a lot of punishment.
A casual conversation with his kinesiologist, Danielle Rock, turned a magic key. Rock had previously worked with Rick Bye, one of Canada’s – and Porsche’s – winningest auto racers who underwent his own reversal of fortune on a North Carolina highway in 1998. En route to Daytona towing his race car, Bye crested a hill to be met by two semis stopped in front of him. Diagnosed with a catastrophic brain injury, Bye was given a 2 per cent chance of recovering. He went from a coma to long-term rehab to back behind the wheel as one of Canada’s top racing instructors.
Today, if you know him well, you might notice a slight limp, and airport security detectors light up like a Christmas tree when he enters. Most importantly, the man driven to succeed hasn’t changed at all – though he has changed his focus. He wants to help others discover their abilities, regardless of their limitations.
Donato has spent three years getting on with his new life; for Bye, it’s been 15. For both men, it’s been more about defining all they can still do, rather than lamenting what they can’t. There is an unspoken undercurrent of understanding that passes between them, and you can see both processing and interpreting ways around normally simple instructions. Both are teachers; necessity has caused both to also become students. They’ve formed a race team called Kidney Stone Racing (kidneystoneracing.com) – because they’re hard to pass.
I met Donato at a spinal cord centre in Hamilton; I’ve known Bye for years. Along with others, I’ve offered my assistance as they put this together – it’s a huge undertaking and it’s going to take many hands to get to the starting line.
The coming year will be a journey that will test both men in a way neither could have conceived of even a short time ago. And for Targa Newfoundland 2014, there will be not one, but two, medical success stories in one of those cars.
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