Marta Pantůčková: Barriers are mainly in one’s head

The life of Marta Pantůčková was first turned upside down at the age of 21, when the mother of then three-year-old Jakub was diagnosed with lymph node cancer. She says, “It started in the neck. After the node removal, I got my histology report. The doctor told me it was an inflammation and sent me to ‘Žluťák’ (Masaryk Memorial Cancer Institute on Žlutý kopec, or Yellow Hill, in Brno). Of course, my immediate reaction was that people don’t get sent to Žluťák with inflammations.“ That was in 1989, shortly before the Velvet Revolution, and those were different times when such diagnosis would not be shared with the patient bluntly and openly. Public awareness was virtually nonexistent. „At home, I opened the envelope and translated my diagnosis using a dictionary of foreign terms: a malignant lymph node tumour. I was scheduled to be hospitalized the following week, and I really thought I would not be coming home. When I was saying goodbye to my son, I told my husband in the doorway that he had to find Jakub a good mom.“

Against all the odds, a chance at recuperation

At the hospital, Marta met a doctor who saved her life. “He was young, fresh out of school, full of energy and optimism. I was bent on refusing treatment until I got to know what my condition, procedures and prognosis were. This doctor patiently answered all of my questions and I began fighting – my son was my greatest motivation,” Marta recalls. She began undergoing powerful chemotherapy, complemented by radiation therapy. She did not lose faith despite having stage III cancer. The scale for measuring the severity of oncological diseases only comprises four stages.

In the early phases of treatment, Marta had to deal with another calamity. After hospitalization at Žlutý kopec, she found out she was two months pregnant. “I was really wishing for baby girl. Unfortunately, my treatment could not wait any longer. I had no choice. For years and years, I could not talk about it.”

Art as therapy

Right from the first hospitalization, Marta, who had always been artistically inclined, immersed herself in drawing and painting. „It helped me cope immensely. At first, I had no ambition to showcase my art, but soon I was painting for my friends and acquaintances. Then it occurred to me to offer my paintings for sale at the Zelný trh Christmas market.“ During one of the afternoons she spent selling her pictures there, her stall was chanced upon by her doctor. „I was standing there in the freezing cold at a time when I was supposed to be resting and avoid catching a cold at all costs. Suddenly, I felt someone’s gaze on me and looked in that direction. And there he was in a huddle, my doctor shaking his head in disbelief,“ Marta remarks with a laugh.

No time to rest

After about a year, Marta finished her oncological treatment and was getting back to normal rapidly. She started her own real estate agency, her full-time occupation for the next 17 years. “It was a high-stress period of my life, full of making appointments, contracts and mortgages. But I enjoyed it a lot because I am the type of person energized and driven by crunch time.” It might have been the stress of a hectic lifestyle that were behind the next major turning point. In 2003, she began having trouble walking.

From crutches to wheelchair

Once again, she had to get on the carousel of medical examinations. “For long, they could not figure out what was wrong with me. It kept getting worse, so I started doing rehabilitation exercises. My neurologist opined that exercising would not help because the problem was neurological, not muscular. But exercise did help, so I ignored him. I regularly used to spend a quarter of a year at the rehabilitation center in Kladruby and always made notable progress,” recalls Marta. Although exercising made her feel better, her walking ability continued to decline. “My condition deteriorated little by little but abruptly too. At first, I had some trouble walking and next, I could not do without crutches. That was in 2012. When it became clear that there was no other choice but to use a wheelchair, I paid from my own pocket for a pair of extremely expensive carbon-fiber shoe orthoses, clinging to the hope that I could somehow retain the ability to walk. I was fighting tooth and nail against the inevitable.” Eventually, Marta had to throw in the towel.

Life in the fast lane

Marta admits that for a while, she felt embarrassed by the wheelchair. Refusing to socialize, she preferred to stay home. Gradually, she was encouraged by her friends to come out of her shell. Like many others suffering the same fate, she was also deserted by a number of fair-weather friends. “The wheelchair caused quite a purge. All in all, I am glad – the true friends stayed,” she says with a smile.

“Reminiscing about it all, I realize that I always lived really fast. I gave birth to my son at age 18 and started work soon after. The lymph node cancer at such a young age should have been enough of a warning sign to calm down. But I didn’t pay attention. I kept rushing and pushing forward. So I had to get another hard wake-up call to finally take the hint.” Today, she accepts her illness, as well as the paralysis of her lower limbs associated with it, as a gift. Marta’s spinal lesion is actually an effect of the radiation she underwent in her youth. “A few people asked me why I had not sued my doctors for leaving me crippled. I replied, ’How could I? Their treatment saved my life.’” She knows that if it had not been for the doctors, she would not have raised her son Jakub and could not see her grandchildren grow up. She continues, “I never asked, ‘Why me?’ I tried to figure out what happened to me and why, and what kind of signal life was sending to me. It was a price for making it out alive. That’s what a doctor once told me, and that’s how I take it.”

In fact, Marta suffers from one more ailment which resulted from the drastic oncological treatment: a rare nutrient malabsorption syndrome. Again, she learnt to cope. “The doctors actually saved me twice. First at Žluťák, then at the Bohunice hospital when they figured out what had been behind my gastrointestinal problems. Before my operation, I weighed 44 kilos (97 lbs) and could only suck on hard candy. Nowadays, I am on a very restrictive diet and have to stay away from a lot of foods. Nonetheless, it is a huge improvement, compared to what I went through before. I am grateful to them.”

Glass always half full

Marta is an optimist by nature, trying to live her life to the fullest. She competed in curling while she was still able to walk. In a wheelchair, she has explored all kinds of options – she took up photography, archery and athletics. She rides horses and regularly models at fashion shows. She has been making tinned jewelry since 2009. She has recently joined the team of the HandMedia project, aiming to map barrier-free public spaces and promote them among wheelchair users. “My long-term mission is to further the integration of wheelchair users. My dearest wish is for the walking population to treat us as equals. We want to live the same lives; in spite of the limitations we face.”

Her wheelchair is a part of her now, Marta says. Barrier-free accessibility is increasingly discussed and the conditions for people with disabilities or reduced mobility are improving, so it’s not a great obstacle anymore. She concludes, “A stair is not a barrier. Barriers are primarily in our heads.”

Kamil Vašíček: The kind of prevention that makes sense

At elementary school, Kamil played floorball, did athletics and regularly participated in skiing competitions. His fondness for skiing stuck with him throughout his studies at the Secondary Industrial School in Jedovnice, a trade school where he specialized in mechanical engineering, particularly computational systems and CNC machine programming. “I finished school and graduated. I had three months off ahead of me as I got admitted to the Brno University of Technology, and school was supposed to start sometime in September,” says Kamil about his life as a student.

They made an exception and I got to stay longer

Alas, Kamil did not get to enjoy the carefree summer holidays in full. In late August 2004, he got seriously injured riding an off-road motorbike. “I was supposed to be enjoying one more month of holidays, but instead I spent three months in an anaesthetics and intensive care unit because of respiratory problems and pneumonia. The next three months were spent in a spinal injuries unit,” he explains. Once his condition had stabilized, Kamil went to the Hamza rehabilitation center in Luže-Košumberk where he would stay for ten long months, coming to grips with his new life as a quadriplegic. “You are typically entitled to six months of treatment, but they made an exception and let me stay longer. In the latter half of my stay, I could go and visit my parents once a month,” Kamil continues.

We realized that mine was not a passing condition

During Kamil’s visits to his parents in Blansko, it became clear that the house would need some accommodating to adjust to the new situation. “We realized my condition was not going to pass so we began remodeling the bathroom. Luckily, we didn’t have to make big modifications – we all just moved to the ground floor where my grandparents used to live.” In the end, the house underwent all the necessary modifications while Kamil was still staying at the rehabilitation center.

I was never the diligent type of student

Kamil spent the first two years after rehabilitation mostly at home. “I was fortunate in that my mom decided to stay home with me and help me,” he adds. It took a while to get hold of all the needed compensatory aids. As soon as he could use special assistive control devices and a computer, he started working on an occasional basis. He never returned to university where he had interrupted his studies for two years. “I was never the diligent student type. Plus, it is all about mathematics and calculations at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, and my heart wasn’t in it. I figured I would look for a part-time job.” Nowadays, Kamil’s skills pay dividends as he composes technical drawings for a Brno-based company.

And I have been in the first league ever since

Kamil first learned about boccia (bocce) which is currently his greatest passion during a visit to the Paraple Center in Prague. A few years had passed before he decided to take it up seriously in 2009. “First I used to practice once a week at the Kociánka Center. Then I discovered ParaCENTER Fenix and started coming to Brno three times a week to both practice boccia and exercise.” Kamil also attended rehabilitation in his hometown, which he later limited to one session per week. “The ladies at ParaCENTER Fenix are simply better at stretching me. I eventually decided that exercising in Blansko wasn’t cutting it for me, so I dropped out and committed to Brno,” he adds. Kamil’s successes in boccia came one after another rapidly. “In my first year, I was in the third league. The year after that, I advanced to the second and, finally, in 2011 I entered the first league in which I have been competing ever since, winning 5 national championship titles,” says Kamil, recounting his sports career. It did not stop there, however. Since 2013, he has been on the Czech national team, regularly participating in international tournaments. Kamil also qualified for the Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro from a fantastic ninth position in the world rankings.

To Kamil, ParaCENTER Fenix is more than just a place where he comes to exercise. “I attended various lectures and social events – contact with other clients helped me a lot in gaining new information and experiences. The recuperative stay in Březejec in the summer is also fantastic for relaxation and spending some time in nature.” Among other things, ParaCENTER Fenix tries to support Kamil in his sports career. “When we ran a crowdfunding campaign for boccia tournaments, the people at Fenix were really helpful,” he adds. Kamil is also actively involved in Fenix’s awareness-raising, preventive lectures at elementary schools. “I always like to take part whenever a school is barrier-free and accessible to me. It’s for the schoolchildren to see a quadriplegic and get a sense of what life can bring. I believe that is the kind of prevention that makes sense,” he concludes.

Blanka Cabalková: Mingling with people is better than staying home

Blanka Cabalková had worked as a civil engineer for over twenty years, devoting her time to the development of her husband’s business. “I’ve got to say this part of my life was quite hectic,” she admits. The two spouses liked to spend their free time on bicycles, exploring new corners of the Czech Republic.

I kept saying to myself that I must not fall on my head

A biking trip to Orlické (Eagle) Mountains in 2007 left a permanent mark on Blanka’s life and memory. While riding downhill, a brake cable snapped and she flipped over the handlebars. She can hardly recall the moment she fell and injured her spinal cord, and she has no recollection of what preceded the accident. “The only thing I can remember is that I was saying to myself that I must not fall on my head because I was wearing no helmet,” she remarks.

Immediately after the injury, rescuers transported Blanka to the University Hospital in Hradec Králové, from which she was moved to the spinal injuries unit of the Trauma Hospital of Brno. After about fourteen days, the doctors decided to transfer Blanka to a rehabilitation center in Hrabyně. “I spent seven months there, undergoing a standard rehabilitation program – physiotherapy, MOTOmed®, occupational therapy, and so on,” says Blanka, describing the initial phase of her convalescence.

Our doors were all too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through

During her stay at the rehabilitation center, it quickly became clear that before Blanka’s return to her apartment in Brno, there were some necessary barrier-free modifications that the couple needed to arrange. “We lived in a three-room apartment in a panel building, but the living quarters were so small that they required changes. Predictably, the doors were too narrow for a wheelchair to pass through, the bathroom was unsuitable, and there were other obstacles as well,” she explains. Blanka’s health insurance helped cover the costs. “With the money from the insurance company, we decided to move to an apartment that would fully accommodate a person with a disability,” she adds. Two years after Blanka’s accident, they were able to acquire a barrier-free home.

Fenix helped me better communicate with people who went through the same ordeal

In the months after her injury, the thought of going back to work did not enter Blanka’s head at all. Civil engineering, which had been her lifelong occupation, was not known to be particularly accommodating towards wheelchair users. After rehabilitation, she mainly focused on improving her physical condition. Describing her life after rehab, she says, “At first, I was searching for opportunities to exercise, which there are few in Brno – but I found ParaCENTER Fenix and swimming.” At ParaCENTER Fenix, Blanka started attending regular rehabilitative therapy as well as gaining new insight from people who suffered the same fate. “Fenix really helped me better communicate with people who went through the same ordeal as I did. I found the sharing of experiences useful too. The people who have been wheelchair-bound for long can give you good advice on various challenges – and everyone can draw lessons from that and devise their own way of coping with the disability,” she remarks.

For some time, Blanka would return to ParaCENTER Fenix, until she was eventually offered a job with the organization. “At first they asked if I would help with administrative work. I thought it was high time that I went back to work, because staying home can get kind of dull and it is just better out there among other people,” she explains. Blanka’s involvement with Fenix deepened and she is now an active board member responsible for personnel management, among other things. She also puts her civil engineering knowledge to work by advising Fenix’s clients with barrier-free modifications. “In the future, I would like to focus on consultancy regarding barrier-free travel. I have had a handcycle for a while and my husband and I travel a lot, mapping and figuring out what is reachable to wheelchair users. So I can advise on possible trip destinations,” she concludes. Besides work and traveling, Blanka dedicates a lot of her energy to her family, most of all to her grandchildren.

Ladislav Loebe: Movement is what I live for

Before his injury, then 23-year-old Ladislave Loebe worked as a bouncer at a nightclub. “You could say I walked on the wild side. I spent a lot of time doing sport and I liked to drive fast,” he explains. It was his passion for putting the pedal to the metal that turned Ladislav’s life upside down. In 1999, he was in a car crash which put him in a wheelchair. “I was driving alone with no seat belt and that is why it went down the way it did,” he sums up concisely.

I could muse and contemplate what was next

Next came the shock and the convalescence – six months at the Trauma Hospital of Brno and another three months at a rehabilitation center in Luže. After rehabilitation, Ladislav, now diagnosed with quadriplegia, was to return to the reality of everyday life. „It took me about a year to pull myself together mentally, and five more years to do so physically,“ says Ladislav, describing his condition. He lived with his parents in Znojmo and underwent physical therapy on a daily basis. As soon as he started getting used to the wheelchair, he took to riding around a nearby housing development vigorously. „They say walking is tremendous for your health,“ Ladislav explains, „so for quadriplegics, it’s riding one’s wheelchair. It made me fitter and gave me an opportunity to meditate on my future.“ He made the decision to study at the business academy in Žatec where he graduated and earned his baccalaureate (maturita) degree in 2009. “Although it was far-off, it was the only secondary school that was offering distance learning,” he remarks.

Around that time, Ladislav found out about ParaCENTER Fenix where he would come to exercise and have fun at various social events. “I see Fenix’s greatest contribution in helping me get admitted to a university. Dr Vašíčková put me in touch with Karel Sobol who works at the Teiresias Centre (the Support Centre for Students with Special Needs at Masaryk University). Karel got me into a preparatory course for the entrance examination and assisted me with my admission to the Masaryk University Faculty of Law,” says Ladislav when reminiscing about partnering up with ParaCENTER Fenix.

Fenix helped me get into university

Gradually, Ladislav began the process of leaving the nest in Znojmo, until he permanently relocated to Brno, where his providence helped him get an apartment. “I petitioned the city council for an apartment in my first year of study while staying at a dormitory. They eventually allocated one for me in my third year,” he adds. During his studies, he began partaking in ParaCENTER Fenix’ activities more frequently – first as a client, then as a law student. Our mutual collaboration flourished, so much so that Ladislav became the chairman of ParaCENTER Fenix and our lawyer.

Even though Ladislav’s life took a major detour pulling through the injury and the disability, one thing has not changed at all – his love for sport. He likes to ride an off-road handcycle and exercise on a custom-modified rowing machine at ParaCENTER Fenix’ barrier-free gym. “Movement still comes first for me, that is what I live for,” Ladislav concludes.

Marek Šrůtka: Anger and remorse went beyond me

Marek Šrůtka grew up with his parents and younger brother in the village of Tvrdonice. He likes to remember his childhood, saying he was practically always outside. After primary school, he trained as a mason, then he joined the army in Řečkovice, Brno, for a year. He came home just before Christmas. He spent it with his family at home, then went to visit their grandmother in Krkonoše. “We always drive on the 26th. On the 28th, my brother and I went skiing that morning. In the afternoon we went skiing at Černý Dúl. At that time, there was only one ski lift in the area, no big resort as now,” Marek recalls. He adds that there wasn’t much snow, the piste was icy, they went down the hill ten times and made their way back.

“We wanted to do downhill skiing very quickly straight to the car. I stopped halfway through, and suddenly I realized that it is not possible to do downhill skiing. And when my brother got to me, I let it go again. And then, at one point, I was skiing at high speed.” In the gloom, he did not notice the track from the tractor and drove right into it at high speed. “I lost my poles, my skis, I don’t know for sure, but I guess I had to fly through the air. I ended up about fifteen meters from the slope among the trees.”

My brother thought it was a joke

“Nothing hurt me at all, but I couldn’t move. And when I hit my feet at that moment, I couldn’t feel it anymore.” After a while, a brother arrived, not believing that something serious had happened to him. “First, I begged him, then I scolded him, he kept thinking I was kidding. When I started calling out for help, he realized I wasn’t kidding.”

For about an hour and a half, Marek waited for the mountain service’s help, which in the meantime, intervened elsewhere. The locals brought Mark warmer clothes and gloves, it got dark, and the temperature dropped quickly. “When the paramedics arrived and loaded me, I felt pain in my back for the first time. My dad told me that when they dragged me on the sleigh, my legs hung immobile on the sides, and I dug up the snow with them.”

Probably a wholly broken spinal cord

Mark was taken to Černý Dúl, where he waited for an ambulance for the next half hour. “Then, the old ambulance was finally there; that ambulance gave the impression of being the same ambulance from the Czech movie Básnící (The Poems). I told them I was still wearing ski boots, so I wanted to take them off. They said I had them down there a long time ago,” Marek recalls. Paramedics couldn’t get Mark to the ambulance because of his height. Only with an injection and bent legs, he was first transported to a hospital in Vrchlabí. From this part, Marek does not remember anything at all. He had already passed the examination at the Liberec hospital, where he was transported that evening from Vrchlabí. He underwent surgery at 11:00 p.m.

Two days after the surgery, while in the intensive care unit, Marek pretended to sleep and listened to the doctors’ conversation while having a ward round. “They talked about the fact that I had a completely broken spinal cord from what they saw, at ninety-five percent. It was all my fault, so some accusations or anger; it all went beyond me,” Marek adds, saying that he never blamed himself. It just happened.

I signed out against medical advice and went home

Four months later, followed in a hospital in Brno, he underwent one more spinal surgery, and in May, he was transferred to a rehabilitation institute in Hrabyňe. “That was horrible. While they were letting me home from the hospital on weekends and normally working in a wheelchair, here, in Hrabyně, they threatened to leave me after spinal surgery, gave me a stabilization brace, and didn’t let me go anywhere. I don’t have good memories of it. After five months, I signed out against medical advice and went home.”

Hard school

“There were a few people behind me in the hospital who asked what I was going to do next and if I would be able to try the sport,” says Marek. He tried athletics; from time to time, he concentrated on the Championships of the Republic in swimming, from where he returned with medals. He was most attracted to basketball, even though it wasn’t that easy with the coach at first. “I’ve suffered half a year. Even though our team won with a big lead, sometimes they didn’t even put me up for the last five minutes of the game. There were much better players, but I had no way to get close to them.” Besides, he began to suffer from decubitus for more than half a year. He spent several weeks in the hospital, where his ischial bones were slashed, which should prevent the decubitus problem. “And when I got home, I got a call from the basketball school saying they had the money to get a tailored wheelchair. Subsequently, I also bought a better civilian wheelchair and a seat.” Then things suddenly turned in a better direction. About six months later, he and his team went to a Paris tournament, where a foreign coach looked up and asked if he would be interested in a contract in Germany. “I didn’t hesitate for a minute. At first, I went there to show up, and we signed a contract straight away. I stayed there for two years and got an adamant basketball school with everything.”

Two years of vacation

After two years, he fought with the coach, and it looked like he was coming home. Instead, he met a friend who lured him to an engagement in Sardinia. Marek says he didn’t hesitate for a moment. “It was actually like two years of vacation. There were many foreigners on that team, I was a little bit extra, but they kept me there, I trained with them, and I used to go as a substitute for matches.” He and a friend lived near the sea when it was beautiful, they said they could see the whole of Africa. After two years, the club got into trouble. “A year after I left, it ended up there completely. It looked bad when I left,” Marek recalls.

Huge pain

In addition to his sporting experience, he brought one significant social evil from Italy. “I started to drink alcohol there. I bought a bottle now and then after the match and drank it in the evening. Until I became a regular alcoholic for the next six years.” Although it seems he had a comfortable lifestyle, he was suffering from a huge pain. As every human in a wheelchair suffering from spinal lesions between the vertebrae Th12 and L1, Marek was suffering from phantom pains.

“Sometimes, the pain was unbelievably aching, and so I drank; it helped me. On the one hand, my legs didn’t hurt, but on the other hand, alcohol was killing me.” It helped him when doctors managed to find suitable drugs to relieve his pain. “From the moment I started taking them, I did not need to drink. My legs didn’t hurt; I didn’t need a glass anymore. The drugs help because they’re opiates. So, you could say that this is the same as drinking alcohol. I’m not an alcoholic anymore, but i’m a bit of a junkie,” adds Marek with exaggeration.

Marek today

He currently lives in Brno, where he moved some time ago. “I was with my parents for four more years when I came back from Italy. They helped me; they took care of me. I owe them and my brother a lot.” Marek is employed in the Fenix Social Enterprise. He helps people in wheelchairs with a selection of incontinence products. He recently started with a floorball, still playing basketball for the Brno team, although he had already finished his 10-year playing career some time ago. Teammates call him “Hammer of Tvrdonice (Tvrdonické kladivo).” “I still enjoy it. Sport helps me not to get lazy. At least not more than I am now,” says Marek with a smile.

Jaroslav Náhlík: Self-pity man achieves nothing

For Jaroslav Náhlík, the last holiday day of 2001 was a turning point. “Long before that, my friends and I had agreed to go to a disco that day. We worked in the concrete shop all the holidays to save money. We wanted to enjoy a great day,” says Jaroslav. It was arranged that his then-girlfriend’s mother would take the whole group of friends to the disco. “But at the last minute, she said she couldn’t. It was just the day of the disco. My then-girlfriend got a replacement ride. The driver was arrogant. We knew about him, and we didn’t like him,” recalls Jaroslav. But they were looking forward to the disco all their holidays; they didn’t want the plan to fail. And so, they nodded to the replacement solution.

Watch out; there is a sharp turn

“We left Nová Ves at eight o’clock and crashed at eight-fifteen, about four kilometers from the village. I was looking out the window at the time. I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on in the car. Suddenly, in the corner, a friend next to me yelled: “watch out, there is a sharp turn!” That’s when I started paying attention, but it was too late. I didn’t have time to lean in any way,” explains Jaroslav. The car Škoda 120 drove at high speed, and the car blew up. “A right-hand turn followed, so the driver turned the wheels to the right in the air. When we hit the road, it blew us up in the right ditch where we broke the apple tree. It threw us into the left ditch, where we broke another tree and rolled for the next seventy meters,” says Jaroslav. The old Škoda was missing seat belts; the passengers were not fastened.

Shock, no pain

“When a car turns around, you feel like a rag in a washing machine. My friends got caught. I broke my head during the first turn by the driver’s seat belt. There was this plastic cap missing, and the screw made a hole in my skull. Moments later, I flew out through an open window and smashed my back against the roof,” he says. He landed next to the damaged car, which, fortunately, had just stopped rolling. The list of his injuries of the car accident is long. In addition to the fractured skull, he had broken four ribs and two vertebrae, a ruptured spleen, a torn eyelid, and part of his ear. “At first, I didn’t feel any pain. I sat down; my friends came to me. My girlfriend told me my face was torn and my blood was running so bad. I reached for the wound and found myself sticking two fingers in the hole in my head. That was a big shock. I experienced another one when I wanted to stand up, and I couldn’t,” says Jaroslav. My friends called an ambulance; she arrived in about half an hour. A helicopter couldn’t land at the scene of the accident. “Nothing still hurts me yet. There are various shiny moldings in the ambulance, and I tried to catch a glimpse of my face in some of them. But I didn’t see anything.”

I don’t think the young man can survive

“When we arrived in Brno, the original shock began to subside, and I felt a terrible pain in my back. When they pulled me out of the ambulance and two doctors came to see me. They saw a hole in my head, a lot of blood everywhere. One of them said, “I don’t think the young man can survive.” That was another shock,” he recalls. Because of his concussion, doctors couldn’t give Jaroslav anesthesia. So, when they sutured his ear and eyelid, he felt everything. As soon as the shock subsided, two surgeries followed. In one, doctors fixed the fractured vertebrae with two iron plates.
In the second, they performed surgery from the left side between the ribs, so that they did not have to operate the spine through the chest. “My left lung must have collapsed. I woke up after surgery in the intensive care unit on 11. September, the day the terrorists dropped the Twin Towers. My head was wrapped in a bandage, two tubes sticking out of me, scars everywhere,” he recounts feelings after the anesthesia. A significant moment for Jaroslav that day was a visit to the family. “I’ve seen my dad cry, which I’ve never seen before. Next to him, mom and sister, both looked close to tears. That’s when I decided to start working on myself. If I’m as self-sufficient as possible, it will help them.” At the time, he believed that everything would be good again because, according to doctors, the spinal cord was not broken. In the end, it turned out that Jaroslav had severe spinal cord oppression, and as a result, both lower limbs were paralyzed.

It just happened

He made another crucial decision at the rehabilitation institute. “I’ve been fighting with myself a little bit, which is to blame for it? No one. Then I saw this guy, a biker. He drove into a bend where the road was being repaired. There was a warning before and after the turn, but he ignored it, and at high speed, his bike slipped on the gravel. He blamed everyone around him, didn’t admit it was his fault. I figured I wouldn’t even hang out with people like that. I didn’t blame myself or others. It just happened.”

Jaroslav today

After finishing his stay in a rehabilitation institution, Jaroslav had to change the school. Until then, he was studying as a mechanic. Once it became clear that he was going to be in a wheelchair, he couldn’t continue his profession. He chose another high school. “Then I met people from Fenix. First part-time, then full-time.” He works as a logistician, draws up schedules of exercises and rides, works as a fitness instructor, and a self-sufficiency instructor. He passes on experience to other people with the same fate and tries to get them to rely as much as possible on themselves. “Self-pity achieves nothing, everyone has to look forward, try and work,” he says. In Fenix, he met his current wife, Kristýna, a leading physiotherapist. He says he wouldn’t change anything about his life.

Miroslav Klimeš: There’s always one way to handle it

Miroslav Klimeš used to be an active father of two young children. He and his wife Hana lived in a family house. He used to have a joinery company, he employed five people, and he was great in his business. Everything changed in 2007. Miroslav jumped in the pool at his friend’s house on New Year’s Eve. “I misjudged the pool. There was plenty of water in it, but I thought it was deeper,” Miroslav recalls. Although he hit his head against the bottom and damaged his spinal cord, he remained conscious immediately after the injury. “I couldn’t feel my arms and legs; I couldn’t lift my head above the surface. I thought I had to be calm so that I wouldn’t run out of oxygen. So, I closed my eyes and waited for someone to notice me,” says Miroslav. Luckily, the friends noticed in time that Miroslav was not moving and pulled him out.

The worst part was the separation from the family

For the next three months, Miroslav was in the spinal department. “We had to wait for the space to be released. And then, for the next eight months, I intensively rehabilitated in Luže. That’s where they gradually put me together,” he says. He adds that the worst thing about rehab was not to realize that he would never walk again, but that he wasn’t with his family. “I missed them so much. When I could, they would follow me at least once a week, sometimes I would get a pass, and I would follow them. But it was different than living together and seeing each other every day,” he says. Along with a stay in the spinal department, he eventually returned home after almost a year.

While Miroslav was intensively rehabilitated, his wife Hanka transformed the house, in which they had lived until then, into barrier-free housing. “She did it all on her own. Thanks to her, I was able to come home,” saying that his face is of respect and gratitude. Fortunately, the Klimeš family house was well located and built in such a way that it could quickly adapt to new needs. Miroslav had to sell the company after the accident, as quadriplegic could not return to the carpentry. “I initially thought it would work, but in the end, I was happy to be able to raise my hand like this in front of my mouth. I can do so little without help today. There was no talk about work.”


When he tells his story, most of the time he smiles, the words are easily found, he tells it in a relaxed way. He says he never complained. “Of course, it bothered me at first. But then I met other wheelchair users in Luže. This was the very first time I spoke to someone who had a spinal injury. I used to know that wheelchair users existed, but that I knew someone personally and knew what happened to them, no,” he recalls. He says that after being with his family, he was most grateful for the experience of people who had been in a wheelchair for a long time. “Other people in Luže have told me that there’s always a way to do it. And I finally found out that there’s always a way to do it. Although I still need someone’s help,” he explains.

You won’t notice a pitiful tone of anger in his voice. But there is joy. “I am grateful every time I can do something. When I’m good at something, and I can do it myself,” he says. And he is elated when he talks about his wife and kids. He seems ultimately at peace with the fact that things are as they are. “It’s usually cool. But that’s thanks to the people I have around me. I’ve always had a wife and children. I was helped a lot by wheelchair users and workers in Luže, also in Fenix. If I didn’t have these people, I would never have come to put up with the injury so easily,” he admits, and again knows how grateful he is. “I have some decubitus, but I’m trying to relax because I have to. But only as much as I have to. Otherwise, I want to be with people and do something. If I had to lie still… It’s very long in that bed,” he says. Miroslav’s glass is always half full. Did he use to be like that before the accident? For the first time, he hesitates for an interview. “I don’t know, maybe. I guess so. Ask someone who knew me before,” he adds, smiling again.

Jan Vočka: Spinal injury does not end life

Jan Vočka’s life changed during the last holidays after elementary school. At the children’s camp, he jumped head-first into the water. “I was lying under the water for about three minutes. There were a lot of friends around me, but no one was paying attention to me, everyone thought I was diving,” says Jan. “As I was lying under the water, someone took my head, lifted it above the surface, and told me not to make fun of him. And he put me back; then someone realized I wasn’t kidding.”

His friends pulled Jan out of the water. They asked him to move his arms and legs. But that was not possible. “After the impact, I had a spinal injury; I had pins and needles in my spine, and when they put me ashore, I put my hands above my head. And that was all I could do. I couldn’t move my legs anymore.” Immediately after the injury, Jan was not running short of it. For some moments, he felt unconscious several times. His friends tried to get him to communicate when he was conscious until the ambulance arrived. “Even today, I can’t answer why I did it. I was not at the camp for the first time; I bathed in the same place the year before. I knew it there. I do not know what I was thinking. I cried for a few nights.”

Fevers and Kladruby

The nearest hospital was in Český Krumlov. “But there they said they would not do anything for me, so they sent me straight to České Budějovice,” recalls Jan. The probability of surviving a complex spinal cord surgery between the fifth and sixth vertebrae was four percent.

Even though he did the surgery despite the statistics, he didn’t win—he was suffering from high fever. “And so, I spent a month in the infant. They looked after me like a baby, and it was great. Well, then the six worst months of my life followed in a rehabilitation institution in Kladruby,” he says.

He doesn’t want to think back to the experience of Kladrub. “It’s a long story, I’ve been through a lot of bad things. From bullying to poor care. But on the other hand, I’ve grown up incredibly there.” Like others with similar experiences, Jan admits that other people’s company helped him after the accident. “They assured me that even though it’s going to be harder now than it used to be, life doesn’t end. So, I worked to believe it.”

What’s next

Jan was initially supposed to start a carpentry business after elementary school. That was unthinkable after the accident. My parents wanted me to have an education, so they looked for options. Two were offered – Jedlička’s institute in Prague or Kociánka in Brno. By studying in the company of people with health problems, he became even more at peace with himself. “I realized I was still quite lucky. I met people who knew they had five years left of their life. Their muscles were weakening, and no one could help. They couldn’t have done it.”

He successfully finished his studies at the Business Academy and decided to stay in Brno. “My family is from South Bohemia; they live 300 kilometers from Brno. In that time, I needed to feel a moment of freedom; it was essential to me to live alone.” At the same time, he found his first job. Although he didn’t know anything about computers at first, he started working in a call center as technical support. If a customer called that his internet wasn’t working, he tried to figure out where the error was. “I had to learn everything. But again, it helped me a lot.”

He subsequently worked for four years as an accountant at a company specializing in accessories in gastronomy. Then he took the position of PR manager and website management in the Wheelchair League. At a reconditioning stay in Březejci, he met Michal Odstrčil, director of ParaCENTRa Fenix. “At the time, I thought that I needed a change, but at the same time, I liked that I was doing a job that made sense to me. And so, I found myself here,” explains Jan.

Wedding at the station

Today he works both as a PR organization and as a self-sufficiency instructor. Even with the occasional medical complication, he says he’s happy. For years, he has been in a relationship with Monica, whom he met with a friend who lives in the same house. “I didn’t always treat her the best, but I’m so glad she had the patience and stayed with me. She’s an amazing person, powerful, I respect her very much,” says Jan. Less than a month ago, he proposed to Monica. She said yes. “The wedding should be next year. We don’t know when yet, and we don’t know how. I like trains, I’d love to get to the place, say yes and go back. We had more ideas, and we agreed on this. But maybe we’ll do it differently,” smiles Jan.

Vojtěch Vašíček: I used to ask why this happened to me. Today I take injury as a mission

He was born in Hodonin in 1956. He grew up in nearby Mutěnice, after primary school he trained as an electrician in Kroměříž. During the holidays after training, when Vojtěch was eighteen years old, he crashed on a motorcycle. According to police protocol, a hare ran into his path. “There were hairs in the front wheel at the time. But I don’t remember anything about it myself,” says Vojtěch Vašíček. He was left lying with three broken vertebrae in a ditch. That’s where his friends found him. “They were guys from work, just like me, they were coming back from the assembly. It was an accident at work. One person from the company then tried to reduce my compensation because I didn’t hand the hare over to a hunting association. That was the law at the time. But the judge swept it off the table at the time, saying she was bizarre,” recounts a bizarre story from just after the accident.

There’s nothing left to operate

Friends transported Vojtěch to a hospital in Kyjov. “When they found me in that ditch, I couldn’t tell I was hurt. And as they put me in the car holding me by hands and legs, a spinal cord injury most probably happened.” From Kyjov, they transported Vojtěch to the hospital in Brno. “When they looked at the scans, they knew there was nothing left to operat. The spinal cord was completely severed. They opted for so-called conservative treatment, which was common at the time. So no surgery. That means I don’t have my spine straightened, and the three vertebrae are crooked. Sometimes it makes me feel pain. But somehow, it’s manageable.”

Four hundred meters in six months

At the end of the year, he was transferred to a rehabilitation institute in Kladruby. There, the chief medical officer openly told him that no one could promise him that he would ever walk again. “But he told me that if I tried and cooperated, I’d walk four hundred meters in six months an hour. So I cooperated, tried, and worked on myself. I figured if I walked 400 meters, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t walk four kilometers.”

After three or four months, he understood what the chief medical officer had in mind. “I think I walked 400 meters. But I went under the supervision of a rehab therapist, rather than walking it was sneaking around. Two French sticks, with splints on paralyzed legs. Stomping on the floor by lightening the right and left parts of the pelvis. I went up the stairs, but I was pulling it all with my hands.”

In June, when he ended his stay in a rehabilitation institute, a concentration of disabled athletes was held in Kladruby. Vojtěch saw himself in sport, which, in his own words, became an engine for his next life.

From Mutěnice to Brno

In 1979 he moved to Brno with his then-wife. “I was lucky and managed to get one of the first barrier-free apartments, which were built in two blocks on Cosmonaut street. Until then, there was more of a tendency to lock people up in institutions after an accident or to move them to the periphery.” It wasn’t particularly comfortable in Brno either. “Education was not available because of barriers; employment was not any better. But as I was fully involved in sports, I still didn’t deal with these things very much.”

He bought his first rubber disc, a ball, and later a spear. “It competed mainly on our territory; sometimes we got to Poland, Hungary or East Germany. It was not until before the revolution that we got to the former Yugoslavia, where we met the then leader.”

Friends from abroad

“In 87, we organized a marathon in Brno, which came to the boys from West Germany. Among them is an Errol Marklein.” They became friends, and when the Germans were going back home, Errol said he would leave Vojtěch’s cart. “Until then, I hadn’t heard from him. It wasn’t until later that I learned that this Errol, by the way, a six-time Paralympic champion from Seoul and holder of several world records, didn’t like carts at the time. So he had a locksmith’s friend make a custom-made cart for himself. Narrower and more active center of gravity. His friends liked him, too. And so the company Sopur was founded, which by the time I got the cart from Errol, was already making dozens of carts a month.”

Preparing for games

In 1989 he set a new Czechoslovak record in the first year of the marathon in Heidelberg. The result was, among other things, cooperation on the promotion of Sopur trucks. “Then Errol gave me his training plan, which he kept before the games in Seoul, where he was the first. I held on to him, too. And in the results, I’ve gone up a lot.”

Although he won silver in the disc and bronze in the five-fight world championships in Asen, The Netherlands, in 1992, he did not travel to Barcelona as the favorite. “I was hoping that maybe a bronze crossbar could come out,” recalls Vojtěch Vašíček.

Five-fight under five circles

“My weakest discipline was the ball. I threw her to the limit of my maximum. In the javelin, it was a personal record, I did 200 decently as I trained.” After these disciplines, he was continuously seventh. His strongest discipline – the disc – moved him to fourth place. Before riding at fifteen hundred meters, he knew that the leading competitors were not doing nearly as well in this discipline as he did.

World Record Holder

“After the start, the home team’s Manuel Abal started as if it were only a 200. He set the pace, and we missed a piece. A German and a Frenchman followed him. And then me. As the gap between Abal and us began to widen, I decided to go on a fighter ride, and my friend from the US, Kevin Sunders, came to see me. At 700 meters, we reached Manuel. There was already a big gap behind us. I left my position to Kevin and rested behind him a little. Kevin tried to overtake Manuel, but he didn’t let go and increased the pace again. He knew he was competing for medals. I had the advantage that both Manuel and Kevin were behind me by 6 and 12 points before the 1500m, which makes it one and two seconds behind me on the 15th. I thought I’d give it a try in front of the target. And in the corner, I took the outside, longer track, which surprised both of my opponents. Two hundred meters in front of the goal, I got into the lead, and the last turn, I was already passing in the inside track to the first position. On the finish line, I crossed into the second track and checked the opponent after the eye; Manuel was commuting me on the inside track, but Kevin was already losing a little. When we intersected the target base at the same time, I didn’t know who was first, but I was sure that both Manuel and Kevin stayed behind me. The light board announced that a new world record had been set. When the board with the names and the order came on, something turned out that I hadn’t even hoped for before the final.” So Vojtěch became a golden Paralympian with a world record.

After Barcelona, he considered the end. “I was thirty-six, and I thought there was no point in measuring the forces with the much younger boys. In the end, they convinced me to try and get some sponsors. And so I started preparing for Atlanta.” He finished fourth in the discus throw and seventh in the five-game standings. “In the end, it turned out that the two competitors who placed in front of me in the disc had nothing to do in that category. Two years after Atlanta, they were transferred to the category with lesser disabilities. However, no one returned my medal.”

Founding Member

When he finished his professional career as an athlete, he began to devote himself to the full promotion of carts. He and his colleagues later founded Medico, a still-functioning retailer of compensatory equipment. “But the business wasn’t my purpose in life. Immediately after the revolution, I was at the birth of the Union of Paraplegics of the Czech Republic, and in 2003 its branch was established in Brno. And so the then civic association was formed, now the association ParaCENTRUM Fenix.

He replaced Luboš Krejčí as chairman of the association over time and remained in office until 2015. “There were health complications; I had thrombosis with lung embolism resulting in more than one-third of the lungs, I was banned from burdening the heart. And so I left it to the younger ones. I want to dedicate myself to my family, my grandchildren.”

Great family and a return to faith

The personal life of Vojtěch Vašíček also deserves mention. He has three sons from his first two marriages. Ten years ago, he married dr. Frantal, and he got a stepdaughter. “That’s the third and final try,” he says with a smile.

“I came from a religious family, but then I turned away from God. It took ten years to stop asking myself why this happened to me. I found my way to faith again after my first divorce.” He and his current wife, Liu, even promised love, respect, and loyalty in the church after a nine-year civil marriage.

Be responsible for yourself and the environment

“Just on Monday, I read in the holy father’s mind that one should be responsible first and for himself and then for the events around him. And I’ve kind of been sticking to that all my life. That’s why I started playing sports, which is why I was at the founding of Fenix, which is why I’ve now started on municipal politics. One should be involved and, within the means of trying to influence what is happening around you,” sums up his life approach. “People do things. And it’s important to be able to stand up to life so that one can be useful. I finally started to take the cart as a mission. This gave me opportunities to change the living conditions of the disabled for the better.”

Martin Zábojník: I want to help others seize the opportunities I did not have

Martin Zábojník was born in Luhačovice in 1975 as the youngest of three children. “I was a vivacious kid, still out there, always doing something,” Martin recalls of his childhood. After elementary school, he began to learn metalworking in Uherský Brod. He worked for the Czech Arms Agency for a while, then for ČSAD, and spent a year in compulsory military service.

Drunk driver

The fateful day in Martin’s life marks the 30th day of his life. In 1996, about two months after the end of the war. He went to the bar to see his friends. “By the billiard, we had such a nice idea that we would go to Břeclav picking cherries because they’re ripe. We didn’t know the man who was supposed to be driving was drinking. He’d been drinking coke all night, but no one knew he was adding rum to himself behind the bar.”

At four, they got in their car and set off on the road. “A friend who was sitting in front lived above Luhačovice, wanted to turn home to tell her parents we were going away. We didn’t even get to them,” Martin says. The driver was under the influence of alcohol and was showing off. He does not remember the journey itself, then learned the details from others. “It wasn’t until the hospital that I remembered I was getting in that car. Even for me to get in the passenger seat, but that friend wanted to sit in the front. So I let her go.”

A friend suffered a hamstring injury, Martin had three vertebrae crushed, and both lungs ruptured. “The funny thing is, I said I still wanted a cigarette from the doctor who saved me in the ambulance,” she says with a smile. The last friend involved has been a quadruple ever since. The driver escaped unharmed and unpunished. “I later learned that he had a family member in the police who had cut him out of various troubles several times. Nothing ever happened to him.”

Maybe he’s crazy

After the accident, he spent a month and a half on the ARO, just as long in the trauma department. Because of his ruptured lungs, he had to undergo so-called conservative treatment – without surgery. Doctors have ruled out any major surgery. The patient wouldn’t breathe it. “And so I gradually grew up in the hospital. I’ve never taken it wrong. I was twenty-one, I felt immortal, I thought I’d move it in rehab, and everything would be fine.” He didn’t get back on his feet again. “But I still didn’t lose my temper. Nurses at the hospital and people at the rehabilitation facility in Hrabyni, everyone thought I was crazy. They knew what happened to me, and they knew I’d probably never walk again. And they knew I knew, too. I kind of never took it. I didn’t feel sorry for myself.” After returning from Hrabyna, he moved in with his parents. As in childhood, he spent most of his time away from home. “I drove twenty-five, thirty kilometers a day. Just be out there.”

Beginnings with sport

In 2000, the sledge hockey team was composed in Zlín, and Martin has been offered to participate in the training. “It was fine, I enjoyed it, but the sledges were universal in size, the same size for everyone, and I flew in them terribly from side to side. When I spent an hour and a half on the ice, I had to heal my abrasions for a fortnight. And so, after less than two years, I blew it.”

But the movement kept luring him. “Then a friend told me that his friend was doing leverage and that they would be recruiting new disabled athletes at Brno fairs. He’s known me since I was a kid; he knew I had strength. And I wanted to do something again, so I went there.” From participation in the first race was the first place at the national championships. In six months, he won gold in Europe.

Successful in the world

He competed in the top race from 2001 to 2006, a period when arm wrestling, as the discipline is officially called, gradually established itself as a recognized, technically highly demanding sport. “It went incredibly ahead, and every year everything was different in terms of technique and categories. Not to mention handicapped racers. At first, we all raced together, I was in the category with the boys whose disability was that they bent their knees badly,” he recalls of the pitfalls that the world-class representation brought him. Often it was not possible to rely on the fairness of other competitors.

“At least twice, I was deprived of the title by a Ukrainian who used the cart only at races. Otherwise, you saw him walk, and apparently, he was nothing. Fortunately, today it is completely different, taking into account the severity of the handicap and the weight. She used to be a good word. No one weighed us, and no one checked to see if we met the category, it was enough for a man to nod it off. That’s how I competed for a couple of times with seventy-five kilos, with guys who were roughly over 90.”

After five years of active racing, he decided to quit after a setback at the World Championships in Manchester. “The man who beat me at the time didn’t push me either technically or forcibly, but he just pulled me out of the cart. And then he went to race among the healthy. Under these conditions, I got tired of it, and I was done.”

Kind of back at the lever. And now for coffee

He didn’t return to contact with arm wrestling until 2015. A friend asked him for help preparing for the World Cup in Malaysia at the time. “There was a wonderful bunch of people; we got along great. I enjoyed being with these people, racing again, and passing on the experience.”

Martin’s last major success came from 2017 when he finished third at the World Championships. “I have a dream of starting a club for younger boys. I’d train them, advise them on what and how. In 2024, arm wrestling should be the first time at the Paralympics as a discipline. These guys today have prospects for opportunities that I didn’t even have. And I would like to contribute to the use of them.”

Besides, the last year is devoted to the distribution of Brazilian coffee brand Orfeu. The grains are roasted directly in Brazil, which sets the mark apart from the other coffees that are roasted in our country. He and his companion Radovan got to the coffee through Martin’s older brother, who lives permanently in Brazil. “It’s starting slowly; I certainly can’t say it’s feeding us. The coffee market is pretty oversaturated these days. I believe that one day it will come, we have already acquired a few subscribers. Let’s see how it goes. But I believe it’s just going to work.”

The first public training of arm wrestling under Martin’s leadership will take place on Thursday, February 7, at the ParaCENTRA Fenix gym. You’re all cordially invited.


ParaCENTRUM Fenix, z. s.
Netroufalky 787/3
625 00 Brno
T: +420 733 589 567

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