Earlier this year, when his friends gingerly approached him with the idea of turning Oct. 20 into something to celebrate, Travis Roy was all in.
That was the day, in 1995, that Roy was paralyzed from the neck down, 11 seconds into his first shift as a Boston University hockey player.
“I liked the idea of changing the meaning of that day,” Roy told me. “I didn’t want the tragedy of that day to define my life.”
So his friends changed the meaning of that day. Last Tuesday, on the 20th anniversary, more than 400 people gathered on the covered BU ice surface off Comm. Ave. and turned tragedy into triumph.
Led by the irrepressible John Butterworth, the Boston business community, including all of the city’s professional sports teams, raised $1 million for the Travis Roy Foundation. The charity, which Roy oversees, has, over 18 years, raised and given away more than $5 million to buy adaptive equipment for those with spinal cord injuries, and for research.
Then, on Tuesday night, Roy learned that BU, from which he graduated after negotiating the campus in his wheelchair for four years, had received $2.5 million from anonymous donors to endow a professorship in rehabilitation science and provide office space at BU for his foundation.
But for all the extraordinary philanthropy on display, it was Travis Roy’s words at the end of the event that put everything into perspective. What he said deserves to be shared with a wider audience, and at length.
“Most of you are aware that 20 years ago tonight I lived out my dream of playing Division I college hockey. To this day, those 11 seconds I spent on the ice at Walter Brown Arena playing for Boston University were the best 11 seconds of my life. As unfortunate as that night ended, I still have a sense of peace in knowing that I accomplished that goal, and lived out that dream.
“When they put me on the stretcher and rolled me out of Walter Brown Arena, I knew that my hockey career was over, that my life as I knew it, was over. Lying in the intensive care unit on a ventilator for the next two months was tough. But what was even more difficult was wondering whether or not I would ever live a life that was worth living. I didn’t know anything about paralysis.
“I assumed I would spend the rest of my life living with my parents, not living a life with much value or meaning. I figured I would live, only so that my parents and family wouldn’t have to deal with what I assumed would be a greater loss if I chose to be removed from the ventilator.
“Once I decided I did want to live, I realized I had to rely on the same values that made me successful before my accident. Primarily it was my sense of pride to do something with my life, that helped me with my first few steps. I could still hear my dad’s voice in the back of my head, telling me to get up, that I wasn’t hurt, that everything would be OK.
“A couple months after my accident, I couldn’t help but dream a new dream. It was the same dream every other spinal cord injured survivor dreams. That dream was to walk again, and hopefully within the next five years. In hindsight, I realize that was naive, but I thought for sure it would happen in 15 years, and certainly by 20.
“I can’t deny it’s been frustrating to watch my friends move on with their lives, build their careers, get married, and have children. I’ve missed out on a lot, and my friends and family have also had to swallow the losses that have come with my paralysis.
“Even more frustrating is the fact that I can’t do it alone. I can’t make it happen through practice and hard work. The community of spinal cord injured survivors is at the mercy of so many others. Our fate is in the hands of politicians, doctors, researchers, and lab assistants, all of whom rely on the resources events like this and people like you are able to provide.
“At the same time, as much as we all want to walk again, I never forget the people with spinal cord injuries who need our help today. All things considered, I am fortunate to live a comfortable life, thanks to great insurance, family and friends, and the money raised shortly after my accident. It’s incredible what can be accomplished with a disability if you just have the necessary support and resources.
“Those of us who are paralyzed will continue to need your help to accomplish our dreams. I want to be able to hug my mother. I want to be able to bathe and feed myself again. I want to be able to lie in bed with a woman and feel her next to me. I want to go to the hospital and meet with new families dealing with a loved one with a recent spinal cord injury, and tell them that everything is going to be OK, that there are therapies available that will prevent paralysis from setting in. These things can all happen.
“I want to be careful not to over-promise what is realistic when it comes to research. The truth is the initial breakthroughs won’t be pretty, but I don’t need pretty. If you just give me the basics of functional recovery, I assure you that would fulfill my dream. In fact, I figure if it works out just right, I’ll get back just enough independence to get out of bed and come and go as I please, but hopefully not enough mobility so that my dad can tell me to go out and shovel the driveway or mow the lawn. I joke. The truth is, I can’t wait to do the things that I hated to do. I will wash every dish, for the rest of my life, if you can just help me get back the ability to do it.
“I can tell you that tonight has provided the catalyst I needed to face the next 20 years. My life does have value, my work, along with my friends and family, have helped me create a life that is very rich. It’s become clear to me that although marriage and kids might not be in the cards for me, my life has tremendous meaning. That one way or another, with your help, that my fingerprints, that our fingerprints will be on one of the medical advancements that changes the lives and future for people with paralysis. I don’t know when the breakthrough will occur, but I do know it will happen.”
Travis Roy, the richest man in Boston in ways that have nothing to do with money, paused a moment, looked around the hockey rink, then said, “I feel so loved. That’s my energy.”