Every year more than 4,000 new cases of spinal cord injury are reported in Canada, and an estimated 85,000 Canadians live with such injuries right now.
Charlie Cetinski and Harvey Uppal are just two of thousands, as both have been paraplegic for years, yet the duo is working hard to help achieve something once considered impossible: a medical cure for spinal cord injuries.
Cetinski, 65 and living in Hamilton, was paralyzed from the waist down in 1997 when an aircraft that he was test-piloting crashed shortly after takeoff, and he also suffered third-degree burns to parts of his body.
Uppal, 50 and living in Burlington, was paralyzed back in 1988 when some farm equipment he was fixing collapsed on top of him out in British Columbia.
Their goal is to cross Canada to raise awareness and money in the summer of 2013, but it won’t be their first time making the trek from sea to shining sea.
In 2008 the two men – along with Chuck Mealing and Les McLaughlin – travelled from coast to coast in specially-designed handcycles, which are powered using the arms instead of the legs.
On their initial trip, they covered more than 10,000 kilometres while visiting all 10 capitals in each of the 10 provinces over a period of three months to raise money for spinal cord research at McMaster University.
Now, the two men are planning another cross-Canada trip starting June 1, 2013 and have a secret weapon in their training: a hyperbaric chamber in Elmira, owned by David Reimer and one of the largest in the country. The pair had their first session last week.
The 8,000-pound chamber, specially built by Reimer back in 2000 and moved to Elmira in 2009, will help speed their recovery from the rigorous training they will have to undertake.
While inside the chamber, the two men will be breathing 100 per cent oxygen at a pressure equivalent to going 46-feet underwater.
“That’s where you get the rapid healing taking place, better nutritional delivery to all parts of the body, and the immune system builds and rapid healing takes place,” said Reimer, who recently moved his office from Arthur Street to Howard Avenue.
“They’re an inspiration and I just feel grateful that I have the opportunity to help them out.”
They will spend 90 minutes in the chamber for five days a week for the next month to help build up their bodies, with a break about halfway through each session to breath normal
levels of oxygen to help regulate the oxygen flow in the body.
The original cross-Canada marathon, called Wheel to Walk Canada, was organized to mark the 10th anniversary of the Golden Horseshoe Marathon, an event founded by Cetinski to raise awareness about the challenges of living with a spinal cord injury and to help raise funds for research.
It garnered national news attention, and they hope their second will be even more successful.
“We did it three years ago, and this time around we’re going to do it harder,” laughed Cetinski while sitting in the waiting room of Reimer’s Elmira office. He was referring to the fact that for their trip in 2013, they will be travelling from the east coast to the west coast – which has never been done before.
The reason it is more difficult is because the prevailing winds in Canada generally blow from west to east, meaning if you start on the west coast you typically have the wind at your back.
By starting in the east, however, they will be moving against the wind all the time – and along the entire trip they know the Rocky Mountains will be waiting for them.
“There’s the 800 km of mountain after you’re already worn out,” he laughed.
The pair will actually be travelling a shorter distance than they did the first time, because in 2008 they wanted to hit every provincial capital, meaning they zigzagged up and down each province.
This time, through, it’ll be a straight shot across Canada from St. Johns to Vancouver Island, shortening their trip from 10,000 km to about 6,400. It took them three months to do it the first time around, and hope to do it in just 64 days, meaning they will have to cover about 100 km per day.
“On a bicycle that is an awesome distance, but in a wheelchair it’s triple-awesome,” said Cetinski.
The target they are trying to reach to begin human trials at McMaster University is a lofty $10 million and they hope this trip can fund at least a portion of that.
The thought of crossing the country must be a daunting one, but the fact they have already accomplished the feat once has given the men tremendous confidence.
“I think the main thing is just willingness. It’s more of a mental thing. It’s putting it in your head, and once you have put it in your head,” said Uppal.
As for Canada’s most famous paraplegic athlete, Rick Hansen and his Man in Motion World Tour, Cetinski and Uppal have the utmost respect for the work he is doing, but say their aim is fundamentally different. While Hansen is trying to improve the lives of those living with spinal cord injury, they want to fund a cure.
“We support him as well, but the thing is we have doctors here that we realize are very close to putting people back on their feet, so our focus is to not have better wheelchairs or accommodations, we want to get them out of their wheelchairs,” said Uppal.
“We want to hang these [wheelchairs] on the wall side-by-side and say ‘this is how we used to live’ and walk off. That’s our goal,” said Cetinski.
For more information about the Wheel to Walk Canada campaign, visit their website, www.wheeltowalkcanada.org.