For the first time in nearly five years, Chico Guzmán-Ramírez took his first steps last week without his tibial orthosis – a device to help his walking pattern and support his muscles – and walked from his bedroom to the dining room for breakfast.
Since he could walk again, he has strived to improve with each try. On his first attempt, he walked 75 metres in 45 minutes with a cane. By the following week, he had cut down the time to 20 minutes. But even with the progress, the road ahead sometimes seemed to be never-ending. “At one point I realized that I wasn’t going forward. I was doing all this great exercise but I was kind of stuck,” said Guzmán-Ramírez.
Despite the willpower and determination, a looming thought at the back of his mind persisted: “I never know how long it’s going to last,” he said.
Since the accident, Guzmán-Ramírez has had to re-learn how to walk, how to read. “It’s like you’re reverting to childhood,” he said.
A bike accident in June 2017 on Hawaii’s mountainous roads left Guzmán-Ramírez suffering from left neglect. The head trauma was so severe that it caused an arterial dissection. Although he was taken to a trauma centre, the severity of the injury wasn’t assessed properly and he was left in a room overnight only to be treated the following morning, which may have exacerbated the extent of brain damage.
The accident reshaped Guzmán-Ramírez’s life – limiting his physical and cognitive capacities, mobility, and independence – and saw him through a life-altering transformation. But this transformation extended to the relationships with his family as well.
“It is a huge loss because the person who goes through that is changed or transformed, but also, the nature of the injuries means that they’re changed,” said Treena Delormier, his partner for nearly 30 years, who initially took on the role as his primary caregiver. “After the accident the person they were before, it’s not quite the same, although they’re still the same person. That’s really difficult because you are grieving or you lost the person, but then you’re coping with the new situation.”
Chico’s daughter, Sofia Delormier-Guzmán, was with him when the accident happened. “I remember he wanted to go on a bike ride up this mountain that we had done a million times. We’d do it all the time. It was like a very regular ride for us,” she said.
By the time Sofia reached the bottom of the hill, she found her dad lying on the ground.
Being in Hawaii – where the family had moved – and away from home for the first months following the accident meant relying on one another was the only way.
By December, the four of them had returned to their home in Montreal, where they adapted the interior with a chairlift on top of readjusting with all other aspects of moving back to the city. Kahnawa’kehró:non set up a GoFundMe, raising over $30,000 to help alleviate costs from the accident.
The family navigated their new relationship with Guzmán-Ramírez and adapted to who he’d become as much with their interactions as with their behaviour with him. “It’s kind of just like getting to know a different side of a person that you already knew,” said Sofia.
Over time, their relationships to one another evolved, putting their limits and values to the test, but the quartet remained as close as ever. “Relationships get redrawn in many different ways…People go through their things at their own moment, or are ready to deal with things at different times. So we’ve all been really supportive of that and each other,” said Delormier.
She was juggling the responsibilities of being a caretaker while also taking care of herself, a balancing act that proved itself difficult.
“The strongest thing is that we have such a strong family, me, Sofia, Diego, and Chico. We’re a very strong family. We have good communication, we get along,” said Delormier.
Eventually, Chico’s son, Diego Delormier-Guzmán, took over as his father’s primary caregiver. He quit his job and moved in with Chico and Delormier moved back to Kahnawake.
“It’s been an extremely transformative experience. That being said, I think transformation is one of the greatest gifts we can be given, and in difficult circumstances, understanding and accepting that transformation is a part of life,” said Diego, barely 26.
“Understanding that every time we have a transformation, be it perceptively, emotionally, we have to accept that there’s a death of a part of us,” said Diego. And it’s important for us within ourselves to understand how to let go of those things. Not just let go of them, but let go of them with grace, because that is the art of living.”
Calibrating a supportive presence is a skill those around him have had to learn, finding the blurred line between finding words that would comfort with those that would vex.
“Keep hopeful, and if the person has a goal for themselves, and you might think that it’s not realistic, it doesn’t matter. Just let them have that goal,” said Treena. “I found it important to encourage Chico’s goals,” she said.
During his recovery, Chico took up reading again, loading his e-reader with some of his long-time favourites mixed with new discoveries.
“When I would finish a book, it was always a big step,” he said, noting that reading was a helpful exercise to retain storylines and sequences which he has had trouble with since the accident.
Aside from reading, Chico also found his way back to art, a deeply rooted fascination and interest from his childhood that wasn’t always accessible to him at the time.
It all began when a childhood friend lent him his iPad during a visit, and Chico began doodling. Shortly after, for his 50th birthday, Delormier gifted him an iPad. He downloaded several apps and began experimenting with different textures and brushes.
He hasn’t stopped since. He doodles daily, before and after every walk.
“It’s all expression. I don’t draw anything in particular. I start by just drawing lines and eventually it becomes something,” he said.
“That’s the part of Chico that is still there. He’s always been incredibly creative, incredibly resourceful,” said Delormier. “He’s an artist at heart, and he’s remained an artist. So it didn’t surprise me. But it’s been really interesting to see how it’s a different creation and different creative process.”
Eventually, he launched an Instagram page. “I would share it because I’m able to tell people that you can improve by doing little things and just keep working on whatever you’re working on,” he said.
As time went on, his goal to walk again became intricately linked with improving his drawing skills.
“My improvement would show in the drawing, and in my sleep too. I would have beautiful dreams. If I had a good walk I would have dreams of me biking, swimming, running.
“To be alive is progress. To wake up every morning, to be able to walk with a cane is progress… everything is progress. It’s the only way to go forward for me,” he said.
Although the road to recovery has been pebbled with taxing hardships and countless highs and lows, Guzmán-Ramírez has got his eyes set on his next step: “I’m hoping that by the summer, I’ll be able to go in the park and make those walks without (the brace) and improve radically.”