Darryl Tait wants to try a backflip in his wheelchair, but for now he’s still learning how to throw and catch a ball.
Being paralyzed from the chest down means he has no abdominal strength. And that complicates all sorts of tasks the 19-year-old never thought twice about before breaking his back in a snowmobile accident in October.
Even eating a sandwich presented problems at first. He can chew fine, but if he holds food with both hands, the weight of his arms make him pitch forward. He needs one hand free, to keep his torso stable.
Sounds simple, but old habits die hard. And Tait has a lot of tasks to relearn.
He always feels as if he’s sitting on a medicine ball, with no feet on the floor. Balance has become a precarious thing, easily lost.
But his daily life in the spine wing of Vancouver General Hospital is full of reminders of all he has. It begins when he wakes up and sees the well-wishing cards, posters and balloons sent by friends and family.
“They believe in me, so I need to believe in myself,” he said. “For me it’s like a rebirth. It’s a second chance. I could have died.”
Fellow spine injury patients tell him he’s lucky, too. Some envy his mobility. They can’t move their arms or hands.
But they may be blessed in another way. Some have incomplete spine breaks, which means they can hold on to the hope of relearning how to walk one day.
Tait’s spine is completely severed. He won’t walk again, barring an unforeseen technological breakthrough.
His spine ward colleagues are teaching Tait to stare this cold, hard fact in the face. They joke about it: at least you won’t be wearing out sneakers any time soon.
Tait is still wrapping his head around what it all means. When he first ventured outside the hospital in a wheelchair, he had trouble comprehending why he wasn’t walking around like everyone else. The street looks different from a wheelchair’s height.
And there’s no shortage of humiliations, big and small, that he’s had to swallow. The hardest is probably his reliance on a nurse to induce a bowel movement.
He always knew stunts carried risks. He took pride in his ability to coolly assess each new problem. But he never imagined he’d be here now.
Tait was always a thrillseeker. His father, Jamie, remembers when Tait, aged five or six, crashed his 300cc Yamaha Enticer snowmobile into the Atlin woods.
He broke the machine’s exhaust pipe before he could even properly pronounce the part’s name. He called it a “gizhaust.”
While bouncing between Whitehorse, Atlin and Yellowknife as he grew up, Tait became a young motocross champ, then an avid snowboarder. As he completed high school in Whitehorse two years ago, he became sucked into Yukon’s snowmobile stunt scene.
In the backcountry, he would hit jumps at such speeds that he cleared more than 50 metres before touching down. He started posting videos of his stunts on Youtube, under his sledding pseudonym, D-Rail.
He wanted to go professional. He wanted to make the X-Games. And he had a plan to get there. He would compete at New Hampshire’s annual Grass Drags and make a name for himself by hitting jumps with the RaveX team.
It was a blustery, blue-skied day on October 11, and Tait was determined to impress one of the big sponsors in attendance. He was out practising even before the crowd of 30,000 formed.
“Boy, this kid really wants it, doesn’t he?” one onlooker asked Tait’s father.
He performed stunts that professionals who had competed at the X-Games didn’t dare try.
He stood on his head while flying through the air.
He did what’s called a Dead Man, in which he hooked his feet through the handle-bars and let his body hang limp as he rocketed through the sky.
Then he decided to try a backflip. It was only a question of speed and timing. He just needed to do it exactly as he’d done it many times before.
But this wasn’t like the other times. In mid-air, upside down, the engine bogged down.
He eased off on the throttle and gunned it again. It didn’t help.
He had committed too long to kick clear, so he hung on. The machine nosedived into the ground.
It threw him forward. Then the snowmobile somersaulted and caught up with him, its tail bearing down like an enormous mousetrap.
A quarter-ton of metal crashed into his back, severing his spine, collapsing his lungs and crushing his heart.
Then everything went dark.
He awoke briefly to find himself on a helicopter en route to the hospital. He came through again to find a few sledders watching him as he lay on a hospital bed. Beyond this, he can’t remember much until after surgery.
He had 12 screws and a rod put down his spine. More than 60 staples held together the 30-centimetre incision. Tubes helped him eat and breathe.
It would be two and a half weeks until he would be fit enough to drink a milkshake. It was chocolate, and it tasted chalky.
On October 26, he was flown to Vancouver.
The outpouring of support for Tait was swift. To date, a Facebook page dedicated to his recovery has more than 18,000 members.
A total of about $40,000 has been raised for his family so far. Fundraisers have been held in Whitehorse, Atlin and Yellowknife, as well as Juneau and southern Alberta.
One fund is to buy Tait a hand-controlled car. Another is to help him get into a sport—maybe sit skis.
His parents have bought him a condo in Takhini. A friend is outfitting the unit so that it’s wheelchair accessible.
And he and his friends are determined to see him snowmobile again – although he concedes he won’t be catching the big air he once did.
The family continues to face a daunting battle with their insurance company. Tait’s surgery bills from New Hampshire are expected to total between $500,000 to $750,000. The insurance company has denied the claim. The Tait family is appealing.
Tait’s hospital release, scheduled for early February, has been delayed for a month. He has a sharp, consistent pain in his shoulders. The doctors still aren’t sure why.
So Tait will spend Christmas in Vancouver. His mother, Barb, plans to make waffles for the spine ward patients in the morning. Then she, Jamie and their eldest son Curtis will take Tait back to their temporary Vancouver digs for the day before returning him to the hospital in the evening.
While Tait remains in hospital, he takes inspiration where he finds it. He’s found some in online videos of 16-year-old Aaron Fotheringham.
He’s a paraplegic, too. That hasn’t stopped Fotheringham from pioneering what he calls “hardcore sitting.”
He can spin his wheelchair around 180 degrees in mid-air. He can even hit a ramp and do a backflip.
“It’s not the end,” said Tait. “There are still gnarly things to do out there.”
Contact John Thompson at