This story was originally published on Oct. 20, 2005
Travis Roy died Oct. 29, 2020, due to complications of paralysis at age 45. Read more here.
This is the story of a boy who grew up in Yarmouth, Maine. He started playing hockey at the age of 3 and dreamed of playing for a top college.
After 17 years of lugging pads and lacing skates and gliding onto ice and hearing the crunch beneath the blades, and after all the hockey camps and skating clinics and the long weekend drives with his dad to games in Portland and Augusta, and after who knows how many body checks and rumbles and tumbles, he won a scholarship to Boston University in 1995 and the chance to play hockey for the national champion Terriers in the home opener against North Dakota.
Moments after faceoff, he was chasing a defenseman, lining him up for a body check, when he lost his balance and slammed into the boards, helmet first. He tried to get up. Nothing. The doctor arrived, then his father, who knelt by his son, and that’s when the first tears were shed.
He had shattered two vertebrae and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. The hockey career he’d dreamed about was over in 11 seconds. His name is Travis Roy, and it happened 10 years ago tonight.
Travis Roy is now 30 years old. He lives in a seventh-floor condominium on Commonwealth Avenue, and he looks out a picture window on a cloudy day at a panorama of the Boston skyline and Fenway Park. “I can see to Fenway Park,” he says, maneuvering his wheelchair closer to the window, “but not into Fenway Park.”
For several hours in the living room of his meticulously neat two-bedroom apartment, and later in his kitchen over a tuna and Swiss sandwich which he permits an interviewer to feed him Roy talks about the adjustment he’s made from the past as a star athlete to the present as a quadriplegic, from the memory of the days when he flew down the ice to his confinement today in a wheelchair, still paralyzed from the shoulders down except for slight movement in his right biceps.
It’s been a busy decade. He’s been in and out of love. In 1997 he published a book, “Eleven Seconds.” He founded the Travis Roy Foundation, which provides grants for research and for victims of spinal cord injuries. He’s developed a career as a motivational speaker; last year he delivered 40 speeches at schools, hospitals, and corporations, sometimes to audiences of thousands.
“That first year was the worst,” he says, wincing. “It’s pretty dismal trying to figure out how to make everything work again. What you feel is a numbness you live with 24 hours a day. You don’t think. You don’t react. You don’t feel anything.”
A year after the accident, Roy returned to BU to complete his degree in mass communications, and he recalls the loneliness that day when his parents left him in the dorm in his wheelchair.
“There was a sense of, `How the hell is this going to work?' I mean, you’re dealing with bowel care, bladder care, and urinary tract infections; and every once in a while you have a bladder accident on your way to class, and when you realize your pants are wet, you’ve got to go back to your room and be changed. You feel like a little baby.”
He recalls, in teenage years, being curious about people in wheelchairs.
“I couldn’t imagine being disabled like that, and I’d wonder, what kind of life can they have?”
Now he knows the answer.
“There’s an inner spirit we all have. Athletes and politicians use it to accomplish great things, and people facing catastrophic events use it every day, fighting to be better.”
Still, there’s some bitterness.
“Yes, but I play a game. I remind myself there’s someone worse off than I am, and then, automatically, you say, well, I’m going to do the best I can.”
But isn’t Roy himself already in that “worst” situation?
“No, just the opposite. I say to myself, what about people in Third World countries? How could they handle this? I mean, I’ve got great insurance, 24-hour-a-day care, and a family that loves being with me. I’m so far ahead of people who have only a few hours of home care or no financial support or no family.”
The key, he says, is to focus on what you have, not what you don’t.
“If you start thinking how bad your life is, that’s a bad road and it will bring you down. Sure, there are times when I see something and say I wish I could do that when I go into an ice arena, for example. That kind of wipes me out, you know?”
He recalls a day at Walter Brown Arena, watching hockey players skate. “It makes me feel sad, and I wonder, how did I end up in this wheelchair?”
An even greater frustration, he says, is women.
The relationship he had before and after the accident about which he wrote in his book with affection dissolved in 1997, and so did a three-month relationship with a graduate student he recalls as very attractive.
“I don’t know that you could have expected much to come from it,” he says of the first relationship. "It just got to be too much for her, but I don’t blame her.
"I’m a romantic guy. But whether you’re in bed with a woman or just walking down the street, there are things you want to be able to do for her, and not to be able to do them, that’s frustrating. I still have sexual appetites. I still crave, you know, a beautiful woman, and I enjoy the beauty of a naked woman. That hasn’t changed, but now, physically, my body doesn’t I have no sensation from the shoulders down, no sensation.
“I used to be a decent-looking guy, active and athletic, and I had a lot to give. Now, I see an attractive woman and, you know, they walk right by like you don’t exist. That’s when you feel it’s tough. I’m sure there’s a girl out there at some point, and maybe I’ll get married and have kids. I’d love to have kids, although it wouldn’t be the natural way. It would be in- vitro fertilization.”
One of Roy’s pleasures is dining, and he loves to cook.
How does a paraplegic cook? With imagination.
“I had a craving the other day for beef stew, so I pulled a recipe off the Internet, and while I read from it, I had the home caretaker cut the beef, mushrooms, onions, and carrots, and I tell him how long it should cook. It turned out great. You have to be careful how much you eat, though, because you can’t exercise.”
Among his favorite restaurants are Legal Sea Foods and Bertucci’s. “But I don’t like to go to new restaurants. If I’m with somebody new, I don’t want it to be awkward for them. I want to make sure everybody is comfortable, that the table is the right height and that I’m not blocking traffic. I think a lot about stuff like that.”
For Roy, the day begins with the change of shift.
"I hear my night person leave and my morning person arrive. They bathe me and dress me. They have to shave me, brush my teeth, everything. They help me move my bowel and bladder and get me in my chair and it takes two hours. I’m very conscious about how I look. In a wheelchair, it’s difficult to get your pants straight and you have to be sure your body is squarely in the chair. They have a lift that lowers me into the chair, and right away I go to a mirror and make sure my knees, feet, hips, and shoulders are lined up, because it’s easy to look crooked.
“There’s so much to think about: Am I taking my pills? Do I look all right? When is my next home health aide arriving? Are my medical supplies ordered? Have I moved my bladder? Am I reclining back in my chair every hour so that I don’t get a pressure sore? It’s exhausting. And I have to look as normal as I can so that people aren’t asking themselves, why is his foot crooked? The more normal I look, the more people will see Travis and not the wheelchair.”
Roy enjoys visitors but often dines alone. His parents come to Boston monthly, and he summers with them in Vermont, where he gardens with his mother, advising her, from the wheelchair, what plants might look best where.
He spends time at his computer a software program enables him to speak words that are then typed on screen. He tends to foundation business or, on warm days, wheels himself around Back Bay, sometimes traveling as far as the State House or even the aquarium.
“I don’t think I’ve ever told anybody this, but sometimes I fight back tears when I’m watching sports, and when I see that moment of accomplishment, of hitting the home run or scoring the big goal and raising your arms and having your teammates come over. Every time I see that, it hits me. I don’t know if many people get to experience those feelings, but there’s nothing better than putting your team up by a goal. When I watch sports, I see that. I miss it, and I haven’t found anything in life that touches it.”
Roy is deft at making a visitor comfortable. In the kitchen, he rolls to the counter and provides a lesson in how to feed him: “Take your time. Go back and forth. Feed me, then yourself, then me, and there’s no rush. Pick it up and bring it to my mouth . . . good.”
Roy never disposed of his skates or golf clubs, an expression of confidence he’ll walk again.
“I believe I’ll use them again. After my accident, I was sure there’d be a cure in five years. But now it’s been 10 and it’ll probably be 10 more. I hate to say it, but it’s political. When Clinton was in, everything was lined up to allow stem cell research. With Republicans, it’s been stopped cold.”
After playing hockey and competing against a clock, Roy is now competing against another clock.
Before his talk, he shows a video that includes his father saying, “I know that I will see Travis walk in my lifetime.”
The words haunt him.
“My father turned 60 this year. In 10 years he’ll be 70, and in 20 years he’ll be 80, and so, yeah, I do have a concern. I’m worried they won’t find a cure in time for my dad to see me walk.”