Update: Travis Roy, 45, died of complications from paralysis on Oct. 29, 2020. Read more here.
COLCHESTER, Vt. — He sits here, on a deck, in a chair with wheels, framed by a warm sun over Mallets Bay. The way the light hits him from the back gives him almost an aura.
This is where he feels most at peace. At his home overlooking Lake Champlain, where his great-grandfather ran ferries.
There was supposed to be a big time Tuesday at Boston University, to remember the worst moment in Travis Roy’s life, the moment that counterintuitively led to a different, amazing life. But COVID-19 postponed all that and the good that would come of it, so it will happen next year.
“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” he says, almost to himself. “Sometimes it feels like it’s been forever, and sometimes it feels like yesterday.”
On Oct. 20, 1995, Roy was 11 seconds into his first shift for the BU hockey team when he fell hard against the boards.
His fourth vertebra cracked, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
At first he despaired, but despair quickly gave way to determination. Within a year, he was back at BU, in a wheelchair. He got his degree, wrote a book, and started a foundation. The book remains one of the most heartbreaking yet inspiring ever. The Travis Roy Foundation has funded research and become a lifeline to so many people who have suffered life-altering injuries.
Heartbreaking and inspiring: those two words sum up Roy’s life in many ways. By heartbreaking, I don’t mean pity, because that’s the last thing he wants or deserves. Rather, I mean the heartbreak you feel when you stop to consider all he’s missed out on in life.
But that, too, is not the appropriate response, because Roy would not have touched as many lives so profoundly had he not been grievously injured. He knows that and struggles with the contradictions.
“Sometimes I might be in a mood and might wish the moment didn’t happen, and I wonder what life would have been,” he said. “But it’s a part of who I am."
For some, their children are their legacy. For Roy, his legacy is helping others, by speaking and providing tangible assistance to those who suffer spinal cord injuries.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of his injury, Boston’s business community, led by CBRE’s John Butterworth, raised $1 million for the Travis Roy Foundation. BU established a Travis Roy professorship in rehabilitation sciences with $2.5 million from anonymous donors and donated office space for the foundation.
Those acts of charity supercharged a small foundation that had already done some amazing work.
“We’re never going to solve all the problems with paralysis,” Roy said, “but I believe in our work more than ever."
Just recently, he interacted with the families of a 2-year-old paralyzed in an accident in New York, a kid in Massachusetts who was paralyzed in a water accident in Rhode Island right after the boy’s dad had died, and a Connecticut teenager who didn’t get proper care after his accident.
Still, most of those who ask him for help have been paralyzed for five or more years.
“They’re on Social Security. Their resources have dried up. Their friends and family are tired," Roy said. "All they want is a mattress so they don’t end up with more sores. They want a computer so they can go back to school or learn how to make a living on the Internet. They don’t have the resources to convert their baths into showers. When I go through these claims, I realize how lucky I have been.
“I’m 45 years old. I know that’s young. But I do feel old. There are things that wear you down when you live in a wheelchair for 25 years. But I have been so fortunate, and all the people who have helped me are still with me. There are people that are so worse off than me, and I want to help them.”
And so he will. For the rest of his amazing life.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.