Gustavo Almela
Director of Institutional Relations
AESLEME

When I was twenty-one, my life was what could be considered “normal” for a guy my age. I was studying business, had a car (a beat-up Land Rover that was, in my opinion, the best car in the world), a very pretty girlfriend, fantastic friends, I got on phenomenally with my family and I even worked on weekends (and with the money I earned I went skiing in the Alps…). A life very much on track.

Until that Christmas of 1989.

It happened while we were skiing at Avoriaz with a group of friends, as we did every year. I jumped, as I’d done many times before; nothing special, although perhaps with a bit more cockiness. This time, however, it didn’t end well, the heads of my skis stuck like nails in the snow, I did a flip and fell on my head: I broke my neck in three parts (vertebras 1, 5 and 6). Even so, I was lucky because the first vertebra is almost always fatal or else leaves you paralyzed from the neck down. When I tried to get up, I found I couldn’t. I couldn’t move a muscle. I could only speak. My friends, thank God, didn’t touch me, they didn’t hold me or turn me over; doing so can be fatal if done incorrectly. The rescue team appeared in a few minutes, they put me on a spoon stretcher (which is assembled from beneath the body) and took me down by helicopter to the rescue station. There I fainted.

When I woke up, it was night, I was lying face up, immobile; the room was full of flying feathers and I thought I was in heaven, although in reality, in order not to move me, they had cut open my parka to remove it.

They managed to contact my parents, who arrived by car from Madrid; I don’t even want to imagine what that journey must have been like for them, twelve or fifteen hours believing their son was dying (which was true). They moved me to the ICU of the University Hospital of Grenoble and immobilized my head and neck with a special device called a compass (iron, rope, pulley, weights) that wasn’t removed the entire time I was in Grenoble, nor for the sixty-three days I spent in Toledo. I had tubes everywhere, in my mouth, nose, IVs in my arms…

Several days went by, always in the same position, the same situation. They operated on me through the trachea and placed a brace and screws on by backbone. At last, some days later, they moved me from the ICU to a ward. From that moment on, I decided to fight, that I wouldn’t surrender to desperation, that I wouldn’t let the tragedy overcome me. I was lucky to be alive, to have my family and friends, the best doctors and (as I learned later) to be covered by insurance, something of the greatest importance that we should never, ever forget.

After a few days, they moved me to the Hospital de Parapléjicos of Toledo. I was there for two months, face up, unable to make a single movement. Thinking, reflecting, remembering, hoping… In reality, you can’t do anything else, only hope. And try not to give in to despair.

I remember perfectly the first movement I made with my arm, after months of not moving a muscle. Tears welled up in my eyes. I began to prepare myself mentally, to think there was a way out, but it had to be by stages. Although I didn’t know the extent of my injury, nor to what extent I could recover my “normal” life. I went through stages, discovering what I could do and what I would never again be able to do. Little by little, I progressed and adapted, with great enthusiasm and hope. Although I must admit, I was afraid. During those sixty-three days, two companions on my ward died; one because of a medical complication, and the other… through drunkenness (he choked on his own vomit). It’s very difficult for me to talk about this, but I believe it’s important for people to know that such an absurd form of dying exists.

In that atrocious situation, as much as you try to move forward, you begin to ask yourself questions, To live or to die? Will I ever walk again? Will my friends leave me? Will my family continue to love me? Will I be able to study, marry my girlfriend?… Everything, you question everything; and because you don’t have the answers, what you feel is fear and you don’t make any progress with fear. I remember I spent the whole day feeling sorry for myself, crying, impotent, until one day my father said to me, “Look son, it’s very simple; you were supposed to have died there four months ago, so everything that happens from now on is good.”

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My father was right. I began to set challenges for myself, first to move an arm, then to go two corridor lengths in the wheelchair, then ten minutes more of ping pong; and to make an effort to keep my friends, my girlfriend. My friends have always been there, they haven’t failed me and I’ve since made many more new friendships. But preserving them takes effort on everyone’s part, it’s a question of positive attitude. I tried not to change my way of being, my relationship with them, but it wasn’t easy. When we went out to dinner, several of them had to take me, put me in the car, if my bag for urinating became unattached (which happened often) they had to take me home to change my clothes; and while they took it all in stride, I ended up getting angry with the world. But then my mother appeared, she changed my wet pants with a smile and said, “Ok! On with the night!”

And it’s true, you don’t have to change, it’s important to try as much as possible to do the same things you did before. I’ve often been asked what my life would have been like if I hadn’t had the accident and I answer, sincerely, that I don’t know if it would have been better or worse, but what I do know is that it wouldn’t have been my life. This is the life it’s been my lot to struggle with and to enjoy and in which I must try to be as happy as possible. It’s not good to live feeling sorry for yourself, asking yourself, “Why me, why has such a tremendous tragedy happened to me?” What you have to ask yourself is not “why”, but “for what”; and the answer is: to value what truly matters. The small things. I feel lucky when I go out for an aperitif with my friends, I give thanks for having a house in Denia, and for being able to enjoy an ice cream or go for a stroll…

Amid all these reflections, I decided to leave my studies (I didn’t like them and they weren’t going at all well). My uncle offered me a job in a new project he was creating, a funds management company, where I spent ten years of my life, working hard, training myself as a professional. I was very happy during those years, I learned a great deal, but physically it was exhausting and in the end I was overwhelmed by many pains. So I decided to set my life on a new course.

And on that new course, I had the enormous luck of meeting Mar Cogollos, who was by then with AESLEME. I began collaborating with the association, giving talks in schools and institutes. Later, I got more and more involved, forming part of the board of directors as secretary and as director of external relations, head of sponsorships and grants. A privilege. I’ve been truly fortunate to have shared more than thirteen years of my life with Mar and the entire family of AESLEME. Above all with Mar, because she’s one of those medicine-people who charge you up with positive energy, who always gives you a smile; by her side, you never stop learning in all respects.

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In 2013, I began to suffer more physical problems and I told myself I needed to slow down a bit. After more than twenty years working, I decided to focus on things differently. I left the daily work at the office, although I continued to collaborate with the association, now more focused on giving talks.

After so many years of physical wear and tear, I requested my condition to be recognized as a severe disability, but I was refused; I believe I’m the first quadriplegic in Spain to be refused. This is something that has caused me much pain both personally and economically, because it would have given me the possibility of providing greater help to the people I love. But then I reasoned that I wouldn’t let this sour my life; I will make fewer plans, but I will go on. They don’t deserve even an ounce of my suffering.

Among other things, I began to study history at the UNED, because it fascinates me and also keeps my mind active and offers a new challenge. We must always undertake new challenges. It’s what keeps us alive.

Because life doesn’t end after an injury like mine. There is another, different life, neither better nor worse; it’s simply our lot. Why should I feel sorry for what I’ve lost, even if it’s a lot, when I can enjoy what remains for me, which is also a lot? Sports, family, friends, travel, plans, books… And, above all, a great sense of humor. Often, it’s what saves us.

Life doesn’t end when you’re in a wheelchair, but anyone can end up in a wheelchair through a silly act of carelessness, or out of bad luck, or however you want to call it. And it’s something that very often can be avoided simply by taking precautions. By being careful. Especially in a car.

I had a terrible experience on the road. On my first free weekend in Toledo, five months after the accident, my cousins organized a party for me some kilometers outside of Madrid. My parents picked me up at three in the morning and on the way back, a kid on the road who’d had too much to drink bumped into us terribly. We bounced from one guardrail to the other and the car ended up flipping over and over on the road. A total accident. My life was saved by my seatbelt, as was my father’s. But when we turned to the backseat to see how my mother was… she wasn’t there. She had been ejected through the rear windshield and had fallen 150 meters away from the car, in the middle of the road, in the middle of the night and with a bunch of cars speeding her way. Miraculously, she was unharmed, aside from an inconsequential head injury.

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My message is that no one, no one, has the right to cause an accident that kills others, with the excuse of having a good time and drinking alcohol. My mother was almost killed; and it would have been unfair, because I probably wouldn’t have been able to overcome such a thing. It would have killed us all. You can’t play with the lives of others that way.

The problem is that young people have a mistaken idea, or no idea at all, of risk. Not only when driving: when diving in swimming pools, practicing sports that involve a degree of risk, riding motorcycles, beaches, windy storms, crossing the street while looking at your mobile phone… This is why it’s essential for there to be more campaigns of education and raising awareness, and for them to be at all levels: in families, in schools, in companies, on the television. This is the work we do at AESLEME, to try to get people to see the consequences, for them to be more aware, to have more knowledge. To learn to enjoy life but with a bit of common sense. And this is why the work of Emotional Driving is so important. It’s an initiative that should be extended to all of society.

We make increasingly safer cars, we design increasingly safer roads, but we don’t train safer drivers. I’m not talking about accidents, numbers or statistics, but human lives. Yours and mine. This is the reason for the importance and urgency of good education in terms of safety and values, of responsibility towards oneself and others. Life is too precious to risk over arriving a bit sooner.

 

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