When viewers first meet Alex Dritsas' in Part 1 of CBC's new six-part series Keeping Canada Alive, his story seems tragic. The armed forces veteran has been seriously injured in a hockey game — paralyzed from the chest down.
But thanks to his determination, his tale soon becomes one of perseverance and triumph. After intensive sessions at Toronto Rehab, he slowly learns to walk again.
The audience was so moved at a pre-screening in Toronto, they gave him a standing ovation.
When the accident happened, Dritsas knew it had been bad. He was playing goal in his hockey league's championship tournament when two players collided and crashed into his head.
It was incredibly painful — "like all the nerves in my body exploded," he says. And it felt like his arms and legs were stuck up, pointed towards the sky. But when he asked his friends to help him put them back down, they told him he was lying on the ice.
"They said, 'they are down,'" he says. That's when he knew: He'd been paralyzed.
Dritsas would spend the next 133 days in the hospital. Four days in, a doctor came to his room and told him that he would never walk again. She was wrong.
Keeping Canada Alive recorded Dritsas midway through his journey, on a particularly bad day. The Afghanistan vet had an infection that he was trying to ignore to be able to complete that day's physiotherapy sessions.
'I had to see for myself if I could get back to whatever normal is.'
- Alex Dritsas
"Alex was sick; it was a very bad day for him," says Jamie Young, the inpatient physiotherapist at Toronto Rehab who worked with him. "On that day I thought, did I overestimate what he could do?"
The episode showcases Dritsas' determination as he fights against his body to lift a Styrofoam cup to his mouth with his right arm. Later in the day, he tries to stand for a moment, wedged between his brother and Young, eyes closed and teeth clenched in concentration.
The physio exercises are physically and mentally taxing, says Young. "It can just wipe people out."
In Young's first assessment of Dritsas, he saw that the then-28-year-old had a small amount of strength in his legs and trunk, which gave him optimism that he may be able to walk again. The fact that Dritsas was physically fit also helped, as did his tenacity. "He was like, let's just do it," says Young.
"This has taken pretty much everything I have out of me, and it's been hard to get through it … [But] I had to see for myself if I could get back to whatever normal is," says Dritsas.
'I felt more vulnerable in that moment than Id ever felt'
After a month of hard work, Dritsas was standing on his own. A few months after that, he took his first steps.
Now, he can walk unassisted. "There's not even a limp in my step," he says, adding he does use a cane because he doesn't quite have his balance down, and "it gives people the idea to give me a wide berth."
He also has full use of his right arm, while he says his left is at about 40 per cent. And his pain, while still there, is manageable.
Dritsas is back to work as a real estate agent, and thanks to twice-weekly physio sessions, he's still getting better. Young says many people continue to see gains a year or two later. "I'm hopeful for him, still, because it hasn't been even a year yet since his injury," he says.
Watching himself on the series Keeping Canada Alive was "interesting," says Dritsas. He had forgotten the pain that he'd gone through and how little he'd been able to do. "I felt more vulnerable in that moment than I'd ever felt in my life," he says. "The truth is, I didn't remember what I was like then… to see where I was 40 days after the injury was a huge wake-up call. I got quite emotional."
He hopes his story will inspire others who've been in accidents to push through the inevitable bad days and fight to get better. He knows he's lucky that his body was capable of such improvement. But he also knows not everyone who can physically do it is mentally and emotionally up for the challenge.
"Some people can do it, and if they quit, they won't," he says. "If my story helps that one person walk again, keep their head up through the hell of the whole situation, and not quit on themselves, I'm happy."
Watch an unprecedented 24-hour stream of health care stories from across the country on cbc.ca/keepingcanadaalive