'I'm lucky I survived': How this 91-year-old van attack survivor has learned to adapt 1 year later

One year later, Aleksandra Kozhevnikova is one of many van attack survivors still struggling to rebuild their lives and return to a sense of normalcy. That struggle has included not just physical and psychological therapy, but also a fight to have her injuries classified as catastrophic to ensure she received funding for all the treatment she required.

'I was in a pile of people, some dead, some wounded,' Aleksandra Kozhevnikova says about the day of the attack

Aleksandra Kozhevnikova, 91, inside the living room of her apartment on Yonge Street near Finch Avenue. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Aleksandra Kozhevnikova remembers the sun was shining on that Monday when she went to the bank to pay her rent on Yonge Street.

"I stopped at the grocery story to pick up some eggs on the way home. I was walking on the sidewalk. It was a lovely day," said Kozhevnikova, speaking in Russian through an interpreter. 

Moments later, the 91-year-old was mowed down by a white van that had mounted the sidewalk and was speeding down Yonge Street. She said she doesn't remember the moments when it happened, just the aftermath.

"I remember waking up in the hospital three days later in pain."

Kozhevnikova can't walk and relies on a wheelchair to get around. She receives regular visits from her case manager Isabelle Zonenberg, right. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

What followed were months in different hospitals and rehab, and the slow realization that she wouldn't return to her previously independent self. 

One year later, Kozhevnikova is one of many van attack survivors still struggling to rebuild their lives and return to a sense of normalcy. That struggle has included not just physical and psychological therapy, but also a fight to have injuries classified as "catastrophic" to ensure victims receive sufficient funding for all the treatment and care they still need.

Life-altering injuries

Kozhevnikova suffered multiple fractures — including to her hip — as well as head injuries and spent several months in hospital before she could go home.

Before the April 23, 2018 attack, Kozhevnikova said afternoon walks were routine for her. These days, she can't walk and needs her wheelchair to be pushed by someone else. 

A snapshot of Kozhevnikova's bedroom, which had to undergo several modifications before she returned from the hospital. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"I am very athletic. I loved going for walks. I was fully functional and took care of all my needs."

Kozhevnikova said her family has been a source of support in her recovery. She also receives regular visits from attendants to help with her daily needs as well as a case manager to help bridge the gaps to different services she requires. Because of her injuries, she must now sleep in a hospital bed and requires a raised commode on the toilet — all things she had to adapt to after the accident.

"Inside, I'm the same person that I was before," said Kozhevnikova.

"I learned how to live with what I have now."

'Catastrophic' injuries 

Michael Taylor, a managing partner with the law firm Taylor, Baber & Megui, has been helping Kozhevnikova with her injury claim, but said it hasn't been easy. 

"We faced ... delays in payments of the benefits, several denials of the treatment," said Taylor, who told CBC News the insurance company, AIG Insurance, disputed the seriousness of her injuries.

Pictures of Aleksandra Kozhevnikova before the accident hang on the wall of her North York apartment. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

"Initially, [the insurance company] denied or delayed payment for medical rehab benefits for attendant care benefits, ands several assistive devices were denied."

CBC News reached out to AIG Insurance for comment, but the company declined.

Taylor said doctors have now classified Kozhevnikova as having suffered what's defined as "catastrophic" injuries — a classification that should make her eligibile for up to $1 million of coverage for treatment services,versus the $65,000 she was previously allowed.

"It's a great relief for us and a great relief for the family of Aleksandra," said Taylor. 

Michael Taylor has been helping Kozhevnikova with her insurance claims. He says he fought to have her injuries classified as 'catastrophic,' which will allow her to continue to have funding for her treatment and care. (Paul Borkwood/CBC )

Taylor is not alone. Darcy Merkur, a partner with the firm Thomson Rogers, represents two other people who were seriously injured in the van attack —  Amir Kiumarsi and a Korean student.

Merkur said he's still waiting to get the designation of catastrophic injuries for Kiumarsi and that it's a source of anxiety for those caring for him. Kiumarsi — a Ryerson chemistry instructor —suffered a traumatic brain injury and several fractures to his skull and spine, among other injuries.

"I can tell you that it has been a major concern of the [Kiurmarsi family] that they will not have long-term financing for all of the treatment needs," said Merkur.

The road ahead

As for Kozhevnikova, she said the challenges ahead of her don't seem insurmountable considering what she has already gone through. One year later, she's still grateful to the neighbour who she said pulled her to safety after she was hit.

"I was in a pile of people, some dead, some wounded. I'm lucky I survived."

Kozhevnikova becomes emotional when she talks about when she learned what had actually happened that day on April 23, 2018. She doesn't remember being hit. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Since coming home, Kozhevnikova said she's been working to change the look of her apartment in small ways — with different decorations and pieces of furniture — to "brighten it up" and make it different from how it looked before the day of the attack. She said it's part of her journey to recovery.

"People adapt to physical pain. People adapt to mental anguish," said Kozhevnikova.

"I'm learning to adapt to the pain that I live with every day."


Farrah Merali is an award-winning reporter at CBC Toronto with a passion for politics, investigative journalism and urban health issues. She previously worked as the early morning reporter at CBC Vancouver. Follow her at @FarrahMerali