“He told me I'd never be able to walk again”

By Ólöf Skaftadóttir and Viktoría Hermannsdóttir
Pétur Kristján Guðmundsson
Pétur Kristján Guðmundsson Vísir/Ernir
Pétur Kristján Guðmundsson, an Icelandic filmmaker, woke up in a hospital in Austria after an accident he suffered on New Years Eve, 2011. Pétur lost all feeling in his legs when he fell down a mountainside. Pétur had just moved to Austria, with his fiancée.

Ten meter free fall

“We had just began working and planned on staying that whole winter, we had found an apartment, settled in and planned on snowboarding that whole season. On New Years Eve my fiancée was working so I headed to a party. We ended up taking a bus ride up into the mountains to watch the fireworks.

It was midnight and people were having a lot of fun. After the firework show people started heading into town again, and the bus was full of people. So I suggested to a friend of mine that we would just walk down and meet everyone in town to continue partying. He wasn’t excited about it and to this day I wish he would have stopped me. But I got him to take the walk with me.

It was on this walk down the mountain that I fell and began to roll down the mountainside. I remember thinking: “This is okay, I’ve been in plenty of situations before which I don’t have complete control over.” I had been snowboarding for so long. I wasn’t worried about something happening to me at the time. And then I fell, a 10 meter free fall, and landed on a road. I don’t remember falling but I remember waking up, not knowing what had happened, trying to stand up and not being able to, since half of my body wasn’t working.”

“I’ll be fine”

“And since we were in the woods it was difficult to find us. They couldn’t use a helicopter or anything. My friend was on the phone for two hours. And I just lay there, for 2 or 3 hours.”

While Pétur waited for help, unable to move the lower part of his body, he remembers not realizing the severity of the situation. “I told my friend: “Just keep going. I’ll be fine.”

It took three hours for the rescue team to find them. “I got hypothermia. The road was icy, and my body temperature was down to 32 degrees when they finally found me. I remember them giving me a shot, and then I don’t remember what happened after that.”

The only one that got up

Pétur was in an induced coma for three days. When he woke up a serious-looking doctor was the first person he met. He told Pétur there was a 99,9 percent chance he’d never walk again.

Pétur describes the experience as unreal.

“I couldn’t take it in. I didn’t understand him, even though I knew exactly what he was saying. It took a while to really understand the significance of what had happened to me. First of all, I had no idea what it really meant to be in a wheelchair. Secondly, I had just woken up and was disoriented. All of a sudden you wake up and you’re in an alternate universe – that you hope is a nightmare.”

But Pétur got up. And he is the only person in the history of Grensás, an Icelandic rehabilitation center, with serious spine injury that does.

“The reason why I’m the only one is probably because it’s a lot of serious work. I have to admit that it is extremely difficult to get up after an accident like the one I suffered. To learn to walk wearing splints, the balance and everything. Nobody does that.”

A wheelchair is no solution

When Pétur returned home from Austria he went straight to an inpatient-program in Grensás, to begin his rehabilitation.

“I was met with a team of professionals. Doctors, psychiatrists, physiotherapists, an occupational therapist and a lot of others who do everything that has to be done. But they just teach you how to use a wheelchair, like that is the only choice – your only future.”

Pétur simply didn’t accept the fact that he would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

“I just wouldn’t hear it. A wheelchair is no solution. It has been used as a solution for 500 years but it isn’t one. You’re not using your legs at all. If you sit on a couch for your whole life the body would dissolve into nothing, and the same thing happens when you are in a wheelchair. After a few years in a chair you begin having complications related to that, like osteoporosis that makes it even more work to ever get up again. That is why I got up. I had to fight for it. I had to really want it. I had amazing physiotherapists and others who supported me and helped me to learn to walk. But there were a lot of things I had to learn on my own. Nobody could teach me, because nobody knew how.”

Pétur KristjánVísir/Ernir

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