Michael Kabat, 61, a decorated Vietnam Veteran from Onalaska, Wi. is a people person. As a plumbing equipment salesman, he traveled throughout western Wisconsin, often stopping just to say hello to his customers or the local clerk at a convenience store. If there was something special in their life, a birthday or anniversary, he remembered it, just to make them feel special. When he wasn’t driving from destination to destination, Michael ran there. During the course of his adult life, he had competed in several marathons and had logged over 40,000 miles. Then, one day in September 2008, while cross training for another marathon, he crashed on his bicycle. It all changed, in the blink of an eye.
“I was descending down a hill,” said Michael, “and looked back toward my riding partners behind me. That’s all I really remember.”
Two weeks later, he awoke in a hospital bed with his family all around him. His son was squeezing his feet. “You can’t feel this, Dad, can you?” asked Michael’s son.
“No,” he replied.
“Dad, you’re paralyzed.”
Michael doesn’t even remember his initial reaction to those words.
“Maybe it was ‘wow’ or something,” he says.
He and his riding partners would later connect the pieces of the story that changed his life.
“I had gotten out in front of them quite a ways,” said Michael. “After I looked back, I had fallen into a five-foot ditch on the side of the road. They rode right passed me, all the way to the YMCA. They were kind of curious where I was, but figured I would show up eventually.”
The team had showered and when Michael didn’t show up by then, they jumped into their cars and went looking for him. They saw his bicycle first.
“The back wheel was still spinning and sticking up out of the high grass,” Michael said. “They found me lying down in the ditch. I had been there for about an hour.”
A flight for life helicopter flew Kabat to Gunderson Lutheran Hospital in La Crosse, Wi., where he spent the next three months learning to cope with his injury and facing life paralyzed.
“I’ve never looked at this injury as a punishment from God,” said Michael. “It’s just an extra crutch to bear.”
Michael Kabat returned home to Onalaska in December 2008 just before Christmas. Ahead of him and his wife, Debbie, were major life changes. They had to adapt their entire tri-level home. Take out the stairs? Yes. Install an elevator? Yes. Ceiling lift? Of course. Handicapped vehicle? Absolutely. Plans for the future? All changed.
“Try to imagine life the way you know it,” said Debbie. “And then, suddenly, you are completely dependent on a caregiver. Everything has changed. This unfortunate accident didn’t only happen to Michael, it happened to both of us.”
By 2010, Michael had advanced far enough in his therapy that Recreation Therapists at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center recommended he consider attending the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Denver. Long before a Veteran attends an event of this magnitude or even before he goes home, providers, nurses and therapists focus on getting them back into the community first.
“We try to find out what makes them tick,” said Brian Walker a Recreation Therapist for 20 years at the Clement Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee Wi., who now serves as their Community Relations Manager, “our entire focus is getting the Veterans back into the community, not the hospital, which includes different challenges like getting through doors or how to use transportation.”
Getting a Veteran to attend the games is more of a long-range goal—certainly one suited for Michael’s competitiveness.
“We try to get the novice or a Veteran with a newer injury to come to the games,” said Walker. “To see it, to experience it. The games really show the VA at their best.”
Attracting 580 athletes in Denver in 2010, a new record for the games, Michael Kabat was one of twenty-one Veterans with spinal cord injuries attending the games representing the Milwaukee VA. He competed in four events (motorized wheelchair rally, motorized slalom, powerchair 200 relay and powerchair soccer) earning a gold medal in the motorized wheelchair rally, an event held at INVESCO Park, the home of the Denver Broncos. Although a strong competitor, this year’s games in Denver were more about camaraderie than competition.
“The games are just awesome,” said Michael. “I’m really inspired. I’ve learned so much about things I didn’t know about living in a wheelchair and I met so many great friends.”
Michael Kabat rolled toward the registration table at the 32nd Annual National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Richmond, Va., wearing a Green Bay Packers jersey and bright, red Ronald McDonald shoes. There was one other very noticeable change however—no powerchair.
“Things are coming along great,” exclaimed Michael flexing his arms and flashing a huge smile. “I’ve got my biceps back.”
Three years ago, it took Kabat 1 ½ hours to complete a ½ mile at the indoor track at the local YMCA. Today, he does 5-6 miles in that same time.
“He is super-competitive” said Caregiver Julie Van den Heuvel. “It was kind of funny, when he was running into things, but Michael doesn’t quit. He and I train now for 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, that is, if he’s not talking to someone.”
At this year’s Games, Kabat will compete in the Javelin, Discus, Power lifting and Air Guns, all sports where he must generate his own power, something he could not do three years ago.
“I’m lifting weights, getting stronger,” said Kabat. “I want to take up hand-cycling and do a 5K.”
Since that fateful day in September, there have been good days and bad, some certainly easier than others. But throughout, Michael Kabat has remained positive maintaining his sense of humor. He is still known to friends as “Mustard Mike” for his affinity to mustard. He is certain there will come a time when he will run again.
“I’ll run another marathon in heaven,” said Michael flashing a big grin.