Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Happy Birthday SIRC!

Happy 14th Anniversary SIRC!!
Party No. 2 in last week’s back-to-back party sequence was the 14th Anniversary Celebration of the hospital I work at, The Spinal Injury Rehabilitation Center (SIRC). After the Table Tennis Center opening, I spent the night in my second home at the Green Building. Deepak the architect and I stayed up a little too late lauding our success, so it was a rougher morning than I anticipated.

But I was up at 7 a.m. and packed up my gear which had grown considerably for this trip to Jorpati. Normally I just bring a tooth brush and a change of clothes, but for this adventure I had to haul my camera gear, a guitar and two changes of good clothes. Along with my normal backpack, I left my room hauling three bulky bags and a guitar.

The SIRC owns a bus that starts and ends its’ 90-minute rounds every day in Jorpati. It’s got a very steep ramp and room inside to seat three wheelchairs comfortably. But for the anniversary they had invited anyone who had been a patient. By the time the bus would eventually get to the SIRC on the eastern foothills of the Kathmandu Valley, the bus would be hauling 20 wheelers and their gear. 

The SIRC bus on a normal day. 
Those of us who boarded at the starting point were required to transfer into a regular seat while our chairs were being staged to be loaded on the luggage rack on top of the bus. I bounced into one of the first seats, while the lighter women were being carried to seats towards the back.

With most of us loaded in the bus, the driver inexplicably decided it was time to turn the bus around so it would go head first out of the compound gate. There were chairs and wheels all around him, but he thought nothing of it as he backed around and rolled right over my left wheel. I heard a clank and thought to myself, “Damn, somebody just got their chair mushed.”

The driver didn’t stop, he just kept maneuvering his gigantic Y-turn until I got full view of my maimed, irreplaceable (on this continent) wheel. One of my friends was still on the ground and I shrieked at him, “Dude – is that my wheel!!! What the f*ck!!! Let me see that thing!!”

He brought it over and although the basic wheel remained somewhat intact, the push-rim had been bent beyond recognition and the screws that held it to the wheel were mostly destroyed. By now the driver realized that he hit the one chair he didn’t want to mess with as all the other chairs have fully replaceable parts. He saw me through the rear view mirror and it wasn’t a pleasant face. He sheepishly got up and came back to take a look at the wheel.

This driver speaks no English at all, but I’m pretty sure he understood when I yelled, “What the F*ck were you thinking!!”

At this point I’m really freaking out wondering what has become of the rest of my stay in Nepal. This terrain is the toughest I’ve ever had to negotiate and having a solid push rim is essential to holding wheelies and climbing steep grades. Had the driver expressed any kind of remorse, I would have been upset, but understanding. But when my friend translated what he was saying, it made me 10-times angrier. He wasn’t saying, “I’m so sorry; I can’t believe I did this; we’ll get this fixed; can I pay for it.” He was saying, “It’s not my fault; that wheel must have just slipped; I can’t see out of the side view mirror.”

He saw my incredulous chin drop to the floor and realized that he might be in jeopardy of losing his job. At this point he said, “Let’s get It to the shop and work and see what we can do.” I was in a state of shock and panic, but there was nothing I could do. I sunk my face into my hands and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

The repaired wheel - believe me it looked a lot worse. 
I had been looking forward to this day since I got here. It wasn’t even eight o’clock and my day, and possibly my entire trip, was ruined. As the bus made its’ way around Kathmandu picking up wheeler after wheeler, I made the conscious decision to not be mad. If things were really crappy with my chair, I was going to deal with it the next day. For now, I planned on hopping into a spare chair once I got to work and having a great Anniversary day regardless of what the next days may bring. 

Two hours after we took off from Jorpati, we arrived at the gates of the SIRC. Normally there are only a few wheelers on the bus and we store extra chairs near the cab. But this bus was overflowing with wheelers. The rack on the top of the bus was a hodgepodge of wheels, chairs and all sorts of mobility devices.

When they pulled my rig off the top and assembled it, I discovered that although the push-rim was trashed, the wheel rolled fairly true. I rolled down the ramp and right into the repair shop, where I transferred over to an Indian long-wheel chair for the day. The long-wheel chairs are super-heavy and instead of two small front wheels, they have a long bar attached to one fat wheel.  While they’re really nice going over rough terrain, they are absolutely annoying in any kind of urban setting. Half the paras here ride one, so I figured I’d give it a test run for the day while my wheel was being operated on.

The festivities started with a time-trial race around the SIRC inside court yard. Even though I had been in my chair less than ten minutes, I decided I had to give it a whirl. While I couldn’t bust around the course like I would in my regular chair, I made decent time. And as opposed to the 5K I entered the previous week, I did not take last place!

New wheels - new finishing place (not last!). 

As much as I was participating, I was also documenting the anniversary for the SIRC website and Facebook page. Every time a new activity started up, I raced to the front with my tripod wedged under my chin then planted it close to the action. I’ve gotten pretty good at this over the past few weeks, but with the new chair sticking out two feet in front of me I had to be really careful with positioning the tripod. I couldn’t do a quick turn-around or I’d dump the camera. The week before, I’d hijacked Rownika, one of the patient’s daughters, as my crack assistant. Most patients come with a family member who stays with them the duration of their rehab which can last many months. 
Rownika is a super smart, super fun, super cute recent university graduate who speaks great English. I could see she was bored to tears with her stay at the SIRC, so I took her under my wing and she’s been a great asset ever since. Whenever I got in trouble, she grabbed the camera and filmed.

Ace production assistant Rownika reading a poem about pollution in Nepal. 
After a morning full of games and a huge lunch for all the guests, everyone moved to the basement where there is a large 200-seat classroom. They use the classroom to teach staff and care givers, but today it was a performance stage. The finale of the day was a talent show where anyone who had an act could hop up on stage and show what they had. I knew of a few musicians, but I had no idea of the depth of talent.

 Meanwhile back in the repair shop, the mechanics had taken off my push rim and unsuccessfully tried to bend it back to shape. Most of the screws that held it to the wheel were bent beyond repair. I always carry a tube of “Water Weld” (same as “JB Weld”) with me and it came to the rescue here. Water Weld is a combination of two kinds of putty that when rubbed together will form a chemical bond that is as strong as steel. We tightened what screws we could back to the chair, then fastened the rest with Water Weld. I transferred into my regular chair and made it back down to the stage just before the program started. Thank god too, because I never could have gotten that big wheel underneath my piano!

After a brief presentation of the history of the SIRC, the founder and president of the hospital gave a quick talk and had a friend of mine from Jorpati, who lives on a prone cart, cut the 14th Anniversary cake.

It’s at this point where it’s best to just run the video as the images speak much louder than my words will. But by the end of the day, my anger had completely dissipated. My chair was a bit of a noisy wreck, but now it’s officially a Nepalese chair. And being angry just takes too much damn work!

And for those of you who are brave, here's my full performance: 

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