Walking toward a life ERASED

John Overell doesn't remember the motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed. "Rumour in Dawson is I probably slammed on the brakes for something between the size of a mouse and a moose," said the town's only...

John Overell doesn’t remember the motorcycle accident that left him paralyzed.

“Rumour in Dawson is I probably slammed on the brakes for something between the size of a mouse and a moose,” said the town’s only veterinarian.

“They know I wouldn’t hit anything.”

Overall bought the motorbike to save on gas.

“And I did,” he said with a laugh.

“I haven’t used any gas in the last eight months.”

He’s spent most of that time in the hospital.

Medevaced to Vancouver on June 1st, after someone found him lying in the ditch, Overell didn’t remember who he was.

Nurses kept asking him where he lived. One day it was England, the next Scotland, even his mom’s hometown of Greely, Ontario, took a turn.

“I must have started getting upset about always getting it wrong,” said Overell.

“I started just answering, ‘Here.’

“So humour emerged.”

Then, about three weeks after the accident, still full of tubes and wires, a little bit of Overell shone through.

One of the many test questions was, “What’s your favourite animal?”

“I said, ‘I haven’t got a favourite animal, but I can tell you my least favourite – humans,’ said Overell.

“That’s when Natalie (Edelson) knew I was coming around.” The local singer/songwriter was with Overell almost every day.

Now, Overell has changed his mind about the most despicable species.

“I kind of regret that comment, because I got such amazing care from humans,” he said.

Although Overell still sports his signature flyaway hair and well-worn sweaters, he’s not the same.

“At first, all I could move was my head and my toes,” he said.

“Actually, not my toes.”

Overell would tell nurses they were moving. But they weren’t.

Then one day, after two months, he said he was moving his toes – and they moved.

“It’s like being a newborn baby,” he said.

“You’re going through all these stages, but the frustrating part is that you already know what it’s like to do all that stuff.”

Overell’s spinal cord was so badly damaged a pieces of a one vertebrae had to be carved out and replaced by a metal cage.

With an intricate knowledge of anatomy from his vet work, Overell was interested in seeing the X-rays.

But when he saw them, he freaked out.

“They told me they were only removing one vertebrae, and two were missing,” he said.

Turns out, though they are similar in many ways, humans and dogs don’t have the same number of vertebrae in their spines.

Overell was, indeed, only missing one.

He also saw X-rays of his lower back, with its bone-straight spine.

“I thought it looked great,” he said.

But, while a straight lower back is excellent in dogs, it’s a bad sign in humans who stand on two feet, not four.

Two months after the accident, Overell was transferred to a rehab centre in Vancouver.

“When they moved me, I was moved from my bed to a wheelchair in a sling,” he said.

Three months later, Overell would walk off the airplane in Whitehorse using only a cane.

“They don’t tell you you’re going to walk,” he said.

“It’s a partial spine injury, so they don’t know if you’re going to recover.”

When Overell realized he was going to be hospitalized for five to eight months, he started “bawling.”

Nurses showered him with niceties, reassuring him he was doing well.

“But that’s not why I was crying,” he said.

“I was crying because I couldn’t go back to Dawson.”

With a mortgage and bills piling up, Overell thought his chances of returning were next to impossible.

He didn’t remember the fundraisers his community held in those first hazy weeks after the accident.

His bills and his mortgage were already taken care of.

“Then I started bawling my eyes out again, because I realized what my town had done for me,” said Overell.

Local mouth-harp player George McConkey even wrote him a song, called John Needs Us Now.

It was about McConkey’s old dog, whom Overell cared for over the years, and the role reversal that had just taken place.

Talking about Dawson was hard for Overell.

His voice broke when he talked about returning to set up the vet shack for the Yukon Quest this week.

Monday, on his way home, Overell stopped in at the McCabe Creek dog drop.

He was sitting inside the warm workshop with handlers and volunteers when a musher rushed in looking for a vet.

“That was hard,” said Overell.

“I wanted to jump up, and then realized I couldn’t,” he said, tearing up.

And that’s the hardest thing about returning to Dawson, he said. “It will bring to the forefront what I can’t do.”

Overell has most of the movement back in one hand, but still can’t form a fist with his other.

“It’s little things, like being able to stand in the shower holding a bar of soap and lathering yourself up,” he said.

“I can do it with one hand, but not both.

“Even being able to stand in a shower without worrying about falling – these are the things I celebrate.”

Overell has a dream, and he’s holding onto it.

“My fantasy is the first time I will be able to do surgery again,” he said.

“I could probably sew up a laceration right now, but doing a spay or internal surgery would be a challenge.”

Everyday friends and volunteers drive Overell from his government-subsidized apartment in Granger to physio at the Thompson Centre.

“The quality of care in Whitehorse is amazing,” he said. “My doctors in BC were shocked.”

Despite his progress, Overell battles moments of total despair.

“Those are the times I think I won’t ever be a vet again,” he said.

“But if you dwell on the fact you’re not going to recover, you won’t recover.”

The most exhausting thing is the pain.

It’s neurological, said Overell.

“If someone touches my hands, or I touch anything, it feels like I’m being burned,” he said.

Overell is on painkillers, but has been trying to cut down on his dosage.

The pills numb the neuro-transmissions from his brain, but this also impacts his ability to walk, because it means his nerves aren’t functioning properly.

“No one should ever take walking for granted,” said Overell.

In Dawson, friends are going to park his old brown Toyota forerunner in front of Bombay Peggy’s the day he arrives.

“I went there everyday for coffee,” he said.

“So people are going to see my truck there and wonder what’s going on.”

He hopes to return home for good in May.

“Although chopping wood may be a bit beyond me,” he said with a smile.

Overell has always been a person who celebrates every day. “I try to notice the small things in the world, like sunlight catching snowflakes or a drop of rain on a branch,” he said.

“But I never contemplated so much that I did that was amazing, like tie my own shoes, or brush my teeth or make breakfast.

“As a human race we’re not grateful enough,” he said.

Contact Genesee Keevil at