In Peer Profiles

At 21 years old, Gabe was stuck in a rut. Newly injured and emotionally numb, it wasn’t until he met his girlfriend that he decided to take a leap of faith. That courageous leap led him to Vancouver, BC and a fresh start that changed his life.

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In 2007 I was a typical, able-bodied guy, living an active life and attending college in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. About a month after my 21st birthday I woke with severe neck and back pain. I assumed it was nothing, took some Advil and turned on the TV. A few hours later I woke up in the hospital, a C3 quadriplegic, after experiencing a spinal stroke.

After several months in the hospital and a rehabilitation facility I returned to my mother’s house in the suburban town in New Jersey that I grew up in. To say I didn’t adapt well to my new circumstance is an understatement. I was emotionally numb, on a lot of medication, and spent most of my time in bed. I was treated like a sick, fragile child and wasn’t expected to take responsibility for much.

Although I eventually started working (from home), I wasn’t getting out of the house. I didn’t crave independence and had trouble seeing beyond my bubble. Life continued on that way day after day; stuck in an arbitrary routine and coddled by the people around me.

When I met my girlfriend in 2012 I was still out of touch with reality. She is a Vancouverite born and raised. We met online and for two years she flew to visit me every few months. During those visits, she tried coaxing me out of my comfort zone but I was stubborn. It wasn’t until I made a trip to Vancouver in August 2014 (my first time as a quad on a plane) that things began to change. I was so scared to leave the safety of my world but decided to take a leap of faith.

I was blown away by my first visit to Vancouver. The sheer accessibility of the city shocked me. I’d never seen an accessible taxi or anything as user friendly as the skytrain. Vancouver is also an especially beautiful city with its green mountains and stunning coastline.

However, it was the attitude of my girlfriend and her friends and family that had the biggest impact on me. Everyone from her world expected me to be a supportive and equal partner to her so nobody handled me with “kid gloves”. To them I was a normal guy. I was the butt of jokes, called-out if I was being socially awkward and was expected to be a capable adult. This experience helped me see myself the way they saw me. I saw my potential to do much more and knew this is where I wanted to be.

When my visit ended I returned to New Jersey, but not for long. Within a few months my girlfriend and I made the arrangements for me to move to Vancouver. In December 2014, I landed here in Vancouver to stay.

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Distancing myself from my cocoon of safety was what I needed to grow. It gave me the chance to break out of my emotional paralysis and opened a flood of emotions. I now experience life with feeling; everything from happiness to fear.

These days I am not in bed more than your average person. In fact, I hardly have time to sit still but I love it. I work full-time, I’m in school finishing the degree I had started before my stroke, I volunteer with Spinal Cord Injury BC, we’re planning our wedding for May and I’m also in the process of immigrating to be a permanent resident of Canada.

Moving to Vancouver was the fresh start I needed to gain perspective on my life. I have come to learn that some of the best things in life are often scary and require hard work. I have come to see the struggles in my relationship, in moving to a new city, the immigration process and in developing a new sense of identity as a person with a disability as opportunities to learn and grow-rather than hardships that I cannot overcome.

I’m still in the process of self-discovery but my relationship and this move were what got the ball rolling. I look back and can’t recognize the person I used to be.

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