Head Above Ice

UCLA Daily Bruin, June 1999
Paralyzed in a hockey game, UCLA’s Sean Gjos is facing his toughest battle yet as he struggles to walk again.

If you were to ask Sean Gjos about his accident, you’d find there’s a lot he could tell you.

He could tell you how he ended up on the bad side of a routine body check that sent him flying into the boards.

He could tell you how, as he lay helplessly on the ice, he just kept wishing the pain in his back would end.

And he could tell you how, as the numbness swept from his toes to his waist, he was very, very scared.

“I really don’t remember what I was thinking – it was a combination of fear and wanting the pain to go away,” Gjos said.

The memories don’t end there. There was the quiet solemnity of his UCLA teammates. The six-hour surgery to attempt to fix his fractured vertebrae. The surprise he felt when the doctors told him his chances of ever walking again were less than 5 percent.

And his immediate determination to beat those odds.

“I felt like I had a challenge,” Gjos said. “I wanted to prove them wrong, and I wanted to do everything that was in my power to rehabilitate, to get back on my feet.”

The accident is a tragic end to an otherwise incredible season for UCLA’s club hockey team (25-3).

For the first time ever, the Bruins won the Pac-8 title and continued into postseason play. It was in the first national championship game in March against Life University, the eventual club hockey national champions, that Gjos, a defenseman, was injured.

“He’s a very good hockey player, and one of the leaders on the team,” said forward Ralph Vogel of Gjos, a defenseman, adding that the 1998-99 team is the best team UCLA has ever fielded.

So when they saw Gjos go down against Life, the team was “stunned, unsure and hoping for the best,” Vogel said.

“These guys are people like myself, they just love to play the game. For something that serious to happen was quite a shock to them,” Gjos said.

As soon as the game ended, the team headed for the hospital. They waited four hours in the visitor’s room before learning Gjos was going into surgery, and then, individually, headed in to see him before the surgery.

“The players gave him encouragement, their best wishes and their prayers,” Vogel said.

But after the surgery, Gjos, a former undergraduate and hockey player at Brown University and currently a graduate student at The Anderson School at UCLA, learned of his bleak condition – and began handling it with a dignity that continues to surprise his friends.

“You’re friends with someone, and you like and respect them, but then something like this happens – my respect and admiration for Sean just grew,” said Jimmy Young, Gjos’ roommate at the time of the accident and a fellow Anderson School student.

“I was expecting him at one point to break down, and he just hasn’t. He has never said, ‘Why me?'” Vogel said. “He’s never felt sorry for himself.”

In fact, both add, he even jokes about his situation. Vogel recalled the time he, Gjos and others were in a room, and someone said, “Maybe we should just walk right out of here.”

“No, maybe I’ll be rolling,” Gjos quipped.

Just a few days ago Young picked up Gjos and greeted him with a friendly, “What’s new?”

“Not much,” Gjos replied jokingly. “I woke up this morning and still couldn’t walk.”

It is this lighthearted attitude and determination not to let the injury get the best of him that so impresses his friends.

“He attacks his situation with humor, makes people realize he’s still the same guy – the same intellectual and funny guy,” Vogel said. “He just happens to be doing it from a chair for now.”

Still, Gjos says that there are times when he gets frustrated, mainly when he finds he can’t do something as easily as he once did, or can’t do something at all, like go dancing or running on the beach – “all kinds of things we just take for granted.”

“Often when I wake up in the mornings, that’s the hardest part, because you need to deal with reality all over again,” Gjos said. “You tend to forget for a split second what’s happened.

“Usually it doesn’t take more than a minute or so to deal with that. Sometimes it takes a half-an-hour, but I get over it pretty quickly.”

This hit upon his body – resulting in a fractured 11th thoracic vertebra – is by far the biggest challenge he has ever had to face.

“I don’t think the doctors gave him a lot of hope,” Young said. “Statistically speaking, he’s not going to walk again.”

But that’s just statistically speaking.

“I’ve stopped asking for percentages because I have a pretty good idea of what it’ll take to walk again,” Gjos said.

“Whether they tell me the percentages are now 10 percent or whether they’re 50 percent, it doesn’t matter. I’m just going to keep working my rehab to get where I think I’ll end up.”

According to Young, Gjos sees his paraplegia as temporary.

“He’s going to overcome it,” he said.

Meanwhile, Gjos is striving to prove his independence, ordering a new bike with hand pedals and leasing his own car with hand controls.

“(This is) for if I go anywhere where I need to drive,” he said. “Hopefully in the next few weeks I’ll be truly independent.”

The night of the surgery, two steel rods were placed in Gjos’ back and bone was taken from his hip to rebuild the fractured vertebrae.

Now, physically, Gjos notes that he has started to feel just a bit of sensation in his thighs, calves and, at times, even his feet. He has also gotten some movement in his hips.

“It’s been really gradual since the time of the accident. It’s not like I woke up one day and, all of a sudden, my hips move. It starts with a little movement, you exercise, you work it to strengthen it,” Gjos said.

“Given the prognosis that I had originally, I think anything at this point is good.”

Despite the prognosis, Gjos has been determined to see the bright side of things. During the wait before his surgery he called his parents to tell them of his condition and word quickly spread throughout his small hometown in Manitoulin Island, Canada. Then he went into surgery and afterwards, was given his unhopeful prospects.

But when Vogel saw him right after his meeting with the doctors, the first thing he recalled Gjos saying was, “At least some good has already come out of this. My aunt (in Canada) just called my dad, and they haven’t spoken in years.”

Likewise, the way the Anderson School has rallied behind him, the way strangers find it easier to open up to him and the way people he hasn’t talked to in years contact him to wish him well, are other positives Gjos has found in the situation.

But the best positive, and that which he hopes will be the most helpful and lasting, is the founding of SCORE, or Spinal Cord Opportunities for Rehabilitation Endowment.

About one month after the accident, upon realizing just how great the medical costs would be, Young, Vogel and Eric Eisner, another Anderson School friend, got together to plan SCORE. Calculations totaled about $500,000 – the amount Gjos would need to be ready for life.

To make sure the organization was tax deductible and visible to the community, SCORE was placed under the wing of the California Community Federation and a web site (www.scorefund.org) was set up.

“Sometimes the resources aren’t always there, as I’m finding out. You need a little outside help,” Gjos said.

But the idea of having an organization solely to support him didn’t sit well with Gjos.

“He wasn’t comfortable, initially,” Young said.

“Sean’s wish at the time (when we were creating SCORE),” Vogel said, “was to make a positive out of a negative and to help other people.”

So, SCORE broadened its horizons; now it aims to help out any UCLA or Brown alumna or student, as well as any hockey players who are suffering from spinal cord injuries. At this point, however, the majority of the proceeds will help Gjos.

“The money will allow me to hire therapists to work with me above and beyond,” Gjos said, “and we’re hoping to raise enough money so that SCORE will be able to do the same for other people.”

SCORE is on the right track. Already, the Anderson School, where Gjos still attends class twice a week and where he will graduate from in a month, has had drives which have raised nearly $100,000. Around 65 percent of the Anderson School has participated to raise about $40,000, one anonymous donor gave $25,000 and Roger Enrico, the chairman of Pepsi Co., donated $10,000.

The hockey team is also doing its part by selling T-shirts on Bruin Walk to raise money for SCORE. Currently the T-shirts sell for $15 apiece, though Vogel says the price might lower so that the shirts could sell out by the end of the year. The shirts were bought from Eyecatcher Screen Prints at no profit to Eyecatcher.

Gjos is extremely grateful for all those who have aided him.

“Thank you to all those people who have been supportive, both in terms of financial and non-financial support. Both have meant a lot to me – it’s made this battle easier.”

He especially is thankful for the support from those closest to him.

“It’s not easy on my family. It hasn’t been real easy on my friends. It’s tough on my girlfriend,” Gjos said, but added, “They’ve been very encouraging and very supportive of my belief that I can beat the odds.

The saddest irony of his accident is the fact that this happened to someone who worshiped the game since he first donned skates at the age of five.

Even his home page on the internet conveys this love. Included among his “hobbies” links is a link to In the Crease, a professional hockey journal, and a link to a page on Ken Dryden, a former all-star goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. After all, Gjos wrote with the Dryden link, “What’s a web page without homage to a childhood hero?”

The home page also opens with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”

Though he included the quote because it “struck a chord with (him),” Gjos’ actions also epitomize the quiet strength revealed in it. Despite the obstacle of paraplegia, he has proven that he is determined to make the best of things, to heal and to move on.

And also to make things stay the same.

“Short-term, things may have been disrupted a bit, but in the longer term, my plans haven’t really changed that much,” Gjos said.

With a background in finance and entrepreneurial studies, he plans to go into business and hopefully work for a start-up.

“There isn’t a whole lot that I can’t do now; it may be more difficult, it may take me longer, but I don’t think that there’s too many things out there that I want to do that aren’t within my reach.”

Young says that this view is the way Gjos has always seen things.

“He’s not going to take this lying down,” he said.

Or, as the last quote on his web site says, “A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”