After a tragic biking accident left Patrick Lewis paralyzed, he still can’t leave the Foothills Medical Centre until he finds wheelchair accessible housing in Calgary
The walls are stark white, and the floor, a worn-down peach. Sounds of continuously beeping hospital machines and attentive nurses linger all around. The room appears perfectly divided, as a single sheet separates two occupied hospital beds. It appears lived in with small home-like knick-knacks, making it clear that Patrick Lewis’ stay has been long term on Unit 58, Neuro Rehabilitation.
It has been five months since Lewis, age 23, received the tragic news that he would remain in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. The Foothills Medical Centre has been his home since Oct. 4 2014. Despite his wishes to leave, it hasn’t been his wheelchair holding him back – but his inability to acquire accessible housing here in Calgary. He is one of many living in Calgary’s hospitals for the same reason.
Patrick Lewis was your typical twenty-something, living life care free, throwing a beer back here and there, he had little to complain about. Working odd jobs since high school, Lewis had aspirations of one day getting into motorcycle mechanics. But in the mean time, Lewis had been working with concrete refinishing, until recently being laid off prior to the accident.
Looking for his next employer, Lewis decided that he would head up north, but not before spending time with friends and family. Passionate about the outdoors and things extreme, Lewis relished in his time off and enjoyed being 23. Unaware of what the future was yet to hold, Lewis would soon realize that the extreme sports he lived for, would ultimately alter the rest of his life.
Photo by Ashley King
Not a cloud covered Calgary’s southeast skyline as Lewis and friends got the fire roaring for a backyard gathering. Nothing seemed different from the evening of drinks and harmless fun. As he usually did, Lewis grabbed the little grey hardtail Jamis mountain bike from where it lay in the yard. Eager to play around on the homemade ramp posted in the backyard, Lewis decided to attempt a jump off the ramp, and clear the five-foot fence bordering the yard and alleyway. After putting his helmet on, and admittedly, a few too many drinks, Lewis grabbed the attention of his friends to watch. Heads turned, and words of encouragement lingered through the yard. All – including Lewis – feared no harm. He had successfully landed the trick dozens of times prior, and well known to his name, extreme things of these sorts were in his nature. But this time was different. Rather than successfully clearing the fence, the back tire of the bike caught the fence’s edge, causing Lewis’ body to fling forward. Lewis landed on his head, severely compressing his spine from his own body weight, until finally tumbling onto his back.
“I pretty much knew I was paralyzed the second I hit the ground. I asked Josh to move my legs and that’s when it clicked in, I was paralyzed,” says Lewis.
“There was blood coming out from his helmet, so we tried to keep him calm. It was scary,” says Joshua Cooper, a life-long friend and the only one standing on the alley side to clearly witness the fall. “I’ve seen him do backflips off rooftops and land on his face and just get up and walk away. So for this to happen, it was really scary”.
With Cooper’s company, Lewis remained positive and light during the self-described 10/10-pain factor ambulance ride. He even managed to send some compliments to the beautiful nurses outside the hospital before entering. But as he would soon discover, the severity of his injuries were permanent and life changing.
Photo by Ashley King Due to his fall Lewis had fractured seven ribs, punctured and collapsed both lungs, shattered his T-6 and T-7 vertebrates, and completely severed his spine. After a nine-hour reconstructive surgery, 12 titanium screws and two titanium pins were now the essential mechanics holding Lewis’ spine together.
It was evident to Lewis and everyone else that the use of his legs were now a thing of the past, and adapting to his new life was now the main concern. While coping with this adversity presented the obvious challenges, Lewis proved to be resilient. With the help of his team of physical therapists, Lewis saw the bigger picture.
“They helped me realize there’s more to life than just laying in bed after a spinal cord injury, so that made it a lot better,” says Lewis. Excited to be in a wheelchair for the first time simply because it wasn’t a hospital bed, Lewis says, “It was like, ‘yay, I kind of have enough freedom again to go out and about’.”
Finding a new home
Upon learning the ins-and-outs of his wheelchair, the goal was now to be released from the hospital. But before this could happen, Lewis’ approval for release weighed on obtaining accessible housing, and since the previous place he was renting with friends had stairs, it was out of the question. With his parents situated in Ontario, and both sisters in the city also living in homes inaccessible for Lewis, he now had to embark on the journey thousands of other wheelchair-dependent Calgarians endure – finding accessible housing.
With Calgary already having such limited affordable housing available, it comes at no surprise that even less accessible housing exists. Even the few apartments available under Alberta’s Affordable Housing Initiative have waitlists that are anything but short.
“When I first had my accident and was looking for housing, they said there was only about 700 units, but there was about 3, 500 people on the wait list,” says Lewis.
The next stage of rehabilitation can only go so far while remaining in the hospital. According to Lewis’ psychologist, Odette Pettem, initial rehabilitation for individuals like Lewis typically takes about three months. After this, the next step to recovery can only really be done once the patient is out of the hospital and living in a home.
Photo by Ashley King
“I’ve been working in rehab for 20 years, and there has always been some issues finding accessible housing,” says Pettem. “When the average person is finding it hard to find an apartment for a reasonable price, it’s even tougher for someone who needs a wheelchair accessible one.”
Since Pettem assists patients such as Lewis to find strategies and coping mechanisms to deal with the stress and gravity of their new life, she witnesses how overwhelming the additional stress of finding accessible housing can have on an individuals recovery. While some individuals may have the ‘ideal’ setup, such as relatives within the city, financial security, accessible housing or the option for renovations, others may not be so fortunate.
“When you’re somebody who doesn’t have those kinds of supports, and doesn’t know where can I go to live, and where will I get some income and financial stability, when you’re dealing with all those sorts of things, it makes it tough to get on and rebuild your life,” says Pettem.
Few options available
It’s no doubt that getting out of the hospital is on Lewis’ mind, but since four scheduled release dates have come and gone due to inadequate housing, it’s unsure when Lewis will leave the hospital. While his name remains on the Accessible Housing wait list, only a few options remain.
The first – a pricey home renovation and stair lift to make Lewis’ previous home wheelchair accessible, but since being denied Workers Compensation Benefits at the time of his accident, and his most recent denial for Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH), funds are undoubtedly scarce for Lewis.
Since Lewis’ upper body is functioning, denial for these incomes are based on his ability to find work. While Lewis will be capable of finding work eventually, it’s obvious that for the time being, employment just isn’t an option. While he may be eligible for Alberta Works, the resource requires the applicant to have proper housing to determine the amount of funding necessary.
The other option, which tends to be the only solution for most, is a long-term care facility, also commonly referred to as a nursing home.
“For most 23 year olds, you don’t want to be living in a nursing home with old people, but sometimes it’s a stepping stone. Sometimes it gives them a place to go while they figure out what plan B is,” says Pettem.
“There’s people who have been here for over a year waiting on housing,” says Lewis, who as well as other accessible-housing seeking patients, have the aid of a social worker to assist in finding housing. But even with this, Lewis has realized sometimes you need to advocate for yourself and do some things on your own.
Just last November, Lewis’ friends and family held a fundraiser in his honour. With donations from local businesses, a silent auction, and a 50/50 draw, the event raised just over $5, 000. Intended to assist Lewis financially upon leaving the hospital and other amenities, it proved to be of great help. But even with the incredible turnout, it can’t solve every problem.
Photo by Ashley King
Although Lewis remains in the hospital unsure of his future release date, he continues to remain optimistic, not only for housing, but for the future.
“I used to free run, skateboard, mountain bike, downhill mountain bike, dirt bike, kind of anything with wheels,” says Lewis.
But with the trade of those old wheels for his new ones, Lewis is excited for what the future may bring. “I’m waiting to get out of here to play some wheelchair adapted sports like sit-skiing, sledge hockey, basketball, rugby; anything I can get involved in is really where my mindset is at,” says Lewis.
It’s unclear whether Lewis will end up in a long-term care facility, or continue to wait for accessible housing, but regardless the overall issue has left friends and family concerned,
“I don’t get it,” says Cooper, “Pat’s not the first guy to break his back, he’s not the first one to have a spinal cord injury. He should be out by now; this needs to change.”