Nfld. & Labrador

This man had both feet amputated. He thought it was the end, but it was a beginning

Nearly four years ago Zachary Lavin decided to go for a hike through the Rocky Mountains in Kananaskis. But things took a dark turn after he got disoriented and couldn't find his way back.

Men's national sledge hockey team playing in Paradise for big international tournament

Zachary Lavin sits down with CBC News in St. John's while visiting for an international sledge hockey tournament. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Some of the players fans will see in Paradise — at the largest international sledge hockey tournament of the year — have been through some trying times.

Some have even come close to death.

Almost four years ago Zachary Lavin decided to go for a hike through the Rocky Mountains in Kananaskis, Alta. 

The mountains were intriguing to Lavin, who had moved from flat farm county in Essex, Ont.

But on that day in February, his leisurely hike soon took a dark turn. He became disoriented on a trail called Death Valley and couldn't find his way back. 

Without my accident I wouldn't be the person I am and I wouldn't have learned the lessons I have.- Zachary Lavin

Three days later, Lavin says, he was still walking, hallucinating and eating snow to try to stay hydrated, fearful over the pain he wasn't feeling in his legs.

"I remember sitting down at one point getting pretty emotional, thinking this might be the end," he said.

"Luckily it wasn't." 

This was the picture the RCMP sent out to alert the public Lavin was missing. (Facebook)

Lavin said there were some "crazy things" running through his mind, but there was one constant thought that kept him going through those three cold winter days.

"Family was huge for me, and that was a big part of why I think I got out of there because I kept pushing through the pain and just wanted to see my family again."

Lavin said at one point he remembers climbing over a fence and finding a road, the first manmade thing he had seen in days. 

Shortly after that, a search and rescue crew called out his name, wrapped him in a blanket and got him to the hospital. His parents, who had been searching alongside the RCMP, rushed to be with him.

Although he was still breathing, Lavin knew something was wrong. 

His hands were swollen, red and painful. He could no longer feel his feet. 

The second fight

On March 3, 2016, doctors amputated both his feet about 30 centimetres below his knees due to severe frostbite. 

"It was an emotional time, for sure," was all Lavin could say about it, sighing as he spoke about the hours after surgery.

But just like during those days in the woods, Lavin was ready to put up a fight.

This picture was taken after Lavin's feet were amputated. He says the situation was made a little bit easier with his family by his side. (Submitted by Zachary Lavin)

After healing in the hospital he spent a few months in rehabilitation, learning to use his prosthetics. The first day out of rehab, he met another amputee in the gym. 

"He was a jacked dude and he made the prosthetic look pretty good, so he brought me out to the rink and [I] started trying out sledge hockey."

Lavin, who had played almost every other sport but hockey, found it extremely challenging at first. He didn't have any hockey IQ and had never played a sport in a seated position.

New challenges, new goals

But what didn't take him long to understand was the idea of camaraderie. 

"I love the brotherhood aspect. Every guy on my team has been through some pretty crazy things, and we use that to fuel for games," he said.

Just a year after his accident, Lavin was selected for the 2017-18 National Para Hockey team.

Lavin rushes up ice during a game against Czech Republic Sunday night in Paradise. (Meg Roberts/CBC)

Despite Lavin's lack of hockey experience, his coach told CBC Sports he was learning rapidly and had a lot of potential.

Lavin, who is still getting adjusted to his new feet, also has new goals: including making the 2022 Paralympic sledge hockey team. 

Lavin said there will always be some ups and downs, but he wouldn't change the life he has now. 

"Without my accident I wouldn't be the person I am and I wouldn't have learned the lessons I have," he said.

"I think I would be living a different life, but this one is pretty good."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Meg Roberts is a video journalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John's. Email her at meg.roberts@cbc.ca.

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