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About health, love for the family and sport

Fast Confession - "Captain" Zdeněk Šafránek: It Was a Photo of my Family that Prevented me from Committing Suicide

Karolína Lišková
17.Dec 2018
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13 minutes to read

Fifteen years ago, 1.5 tonnes of iron fell on top of him and he ended up in a wheelchair. Paradoxically, for him full life only just begun after this accident. Zdeněk Šafránek got married, started a family and began to do a sport; at a top level. In sledge hockey he actually represented the Czech Republic at the Olympics. Nobody calls him otherwise than "captain". But during the last few months he had major health problems which have brought with them also the darkest of thoughts. Thanks to publication of his life-story a carousel of help got going and Luxury Prague Life got a chance to visit the father of three children just after his successful operation; directly at his hospital bedside. In this interview you can learn whether one can be truly happy even in a wheelchair.  

We are in the Prague Vinohradská Hospital, department of plastic surgery. But you don´t look as though you need plastic surgery.

I am here because of an operation of a bedsore because I had a great one on the sit bone. There was a hole so large you could put your hand in it. It was in a place that I relatively feel, so it was quite painful. I have a sixth operation behind me and if this were to be followed by another operation, it could have fatal consequences for me. There is practically no place on my body from where the muscle tissue needed could be taken, because I´ve had so many operations. The muscles have been too damaged already.

Let´s hope that this operation is a final one for me. Mainly we must still determine the reasons for its recurrence. I´ve been fighting it for eighth, ninth year. Every year, a year and a half, it always returns.

What is actually a pressure ulcer? A bedsore?

A pressure ulcer means more than one thing. It is caused by sitting, lying. Its cause is quite logical. But there is another type, interior one, which comes from an inflammation. So even if you sit, lie down, relax, changing positions, it may still appear.

You have an inflammation somewhere in the body, and when your immunity weakens, at that moment something begins to happen, mostly in weakest part of the body, which in my case is the behind. And I find out about it when it is too late, when I already have an abscess there, which is full of inflammation and it must all come out. It may be just a quarter of an inch opening, but when it opens up, there is a two-by-two-inch hole.

Funkcionalistická vila na prodej, Praha-západ
Funkcionalistická vila na prodej, Praha-západ, Okolí Prahy

It must be terribly painful.

The previous five operations were in places where I have relatively low levels of feeling, or almost none. For example, two years ago when I had a sore, I finished the entire sporting season. I was a huge one, ten centimetres by six, an oval-shaped hole, virtually the same size as this one. But in a place where I didn´t feel it. I looked after it, I was not so often on antibiotics and I didn't take any painkillers. I played ice-hockey for the entire season and participated in two professional paraboxing matches. Virtually it didn´t hinder my sporting or other activities at all.

This last ulcer was on my right leg, where I relatively have feelings and it was accompanied by maddening pain. I finished up on opiates, half a year I was at home, suffering, and every second week I had to change antibiotics. It was very difficult, lengthy, with a family at home, with three children. My wife practically didn´t know what to do first; whether to look after me, or to care for the children. I had severe pain and I practically couldn´t do anything at all.

How did it happen that such a sportsman becomes an r invalid?

Up to 21 years of age, I was practically a ´walker´, as we wheelchair users call it. I functioned more or less normally. Although I had a gift for sports, nothing particularly attracted me then. I became part of a group, we travelled to see football matches. Then I did my military service where I calmed down a little. After I came back, I started to work for a company, where I was injured. At work one and a half tonnes of iron fell on top of me, which crushed my L1 vertebrae. It severed my spinal cord completely and since that time I´ve been in a wheelchair.

How long has it been?

Fifteen years, on 9th January it will be 16 years.

And what was the stance of your employer?

That was superb, they were insured. I got high compensation, I used it to refurbish the house, bought a car, and there are still some money left over. I take pension from the company.

How did it happen that the iron load fell down?

It was never found out. I never found out who was supposed to secure it, because there were two shifts. And no one was able to say who and when was supposed to do it. There were a lot of people working there and at that given point of time when it fell down, there were five of us underneath the platform. Mostly we went for a snack by ten or fifteen minutes earlier to be able to stretch out a bit. It was about quarter to ten, and I said to myself: "Guys, maybe we should go for a snack, we are late already." They started to jump off and I stayed under by myself when it fell.

I stood peripherally, with the corner of my eye I saw the arm of the platform, going very slowly down. At that point I told myself “there is something wrong here!” a began to run. When you run, your body points forward, which perhaps saved my life. If I stood there upright, as before, it would have crushed me. But thanks to the fact that I went head and body forward, it fell and stopped at the area of my L1 vertebrae.

Then it had to be a horrific sequence of events. What do you remember?

I just remember that they lifter the platform immediately and at that moment I stopped breathing. When the platform was on top of me, I was still breathing. But when they lifted the platform by a forklift truck, at that moment the pressure decreased and it knocked the wind out of me. I braced myself with my arms using the bottom platform and lifted myself a bit which gave me my breath back.

People began to gather round me, saying that everything will be fine, and I said: "Hey, it doesn´t seem to me that it will be ´fine´." I felt something in my mouth, so I spat on the ground and there was blood everywhere. I said: "Well, now it does not make sense to even call anyone, I am broken, crushed, and anyway, before somebody gets here..." I don´t know why I thought of it, but I pulled up the trouser leg of my working overalls and caught my leg by the hair. I lifted it and dropped it to the ground. "Look, I am cut in half," I said. In those days I didn´t know what a severed spinal cord is.

So you were talking normally at that point?

I was conscious the whole time. People have asked me so many times whether it was painful. But you don´t feel anything at all, shock, contracted muscles. I didn´t feel anything, I didn´t feel my legs, as if I didn´t have them at all, but my arms and everything else I felt normally. Then I told them that I am going to hospital, to bring my health insurance card from my locker.

At that time, those sixteen years ago, mobile phones only started to come into fashion, not everyone had one. Nobody called me to work the whole year I worked there, perhaps I had one phone call. The whole time I was okay, and when they brought by bag, it suddenly began ringing. I thought that this was definitely my mum, because people close to me didn´t even really have my number. They took the phone out and on the display I read "Mummy". At that point I started to cry. There was my mate Anthony with me, so I told him to tell her that I cannot answer it, to answer it himself and to tell her that I went to the toilet or something, and that I will call her back later. Of course he picked it up and he said: "Mrs Šafránková, don´t worry, nothing happened, everything will be fine, he will call you when he´s all right." And he put it down. I instantly stopped crying and said: "Anthony you are such an idiot, it´s not even possible."

Then of course the ambulance sped past twice in a row, even though we specified a red house, and there only was one. They transferred me inside the ambulance and said that they need a helicopter. At that time I had some confused thoughts, for example in the helicopter I wanted to sit by the window. We came to hospital, here at Vinohrady, where I was operated. I remember that a doctor came to introduce himself and I asked him if I would be lying on my belly or back. He replied that because I have a damaged spine I would lie on my abdomen. I remember a lot of things but not so much toward the end.

Byt Smetanovo nábřeží 191m
Byt Smetanovo nábřeží 191m, Praha 1

And what happened next?

I was supposed to sleep after anaesthesia for two days on instruments, but I woke up about four hours after the surgery. I was on the instruments, they breathe for you, and I could not take a breath. All the staff of the Intensive Care Unit run to me, because all the alarms went off, it was like a discotheque, those instruments. They run to me and kept saying: "Don´t breathe, Mr Šafránek, it breathes for you." I was almost purple when the doctor came running and pulled the tube out of me. I took a breath and the first thing I said was that it is easy to say not to breathe, when one breathes his whole life.

Next day the doctor who operated me came to see me. He told me that I have a crushed spine, damaged spinal cord and that if I exercise a lot, I could get two to three per cent of the muscles of my thighs moving again. That I might be able to lift the leg a bit, but to accept great atrophy of muscles. And that from the knees down it will be totally dead. And that is what actually happened.

That must have been terrible, when they tell a young person that he will not walk.

I am weird that way. There was even an article published about me at that time, saying that many people said that I am strange, because it did nothing to me. Originally, when I was at the Intensive Care Unit and looked into the bed, I thought 'the hell with it, I probably don´t even have legs', because I couldn´t see them under the blanket. Okay, good, I need to see what happens next. In the end the doctor told me that I do have legs, and put the blanket away for me to see them. He said that I won´t be able to walk but I wasn´t that concerned at that time. After three days I had to be released from the ICU, because I made fun of the nurses there and because I had so many visitors, even though they are not allowed there at all. While there was a crowd of twenty, thirty people who all wanted to see me. (laughter)

And did you have a wife at that time?

No, at that time I had a girlfriend, with whom I had been for a year before the accident. We stayed together for four more years after the injury, after that it didn´t work out. But I´ve never been depressed about that. The only time I was subject to depression, was the last half a year, when I had pain due to the ulcers. Although I am in the wheelchair, I can practically manage everything by myself. I hate it, and I would never want for someone to have to look after me. As soon as I would realise that someone has to run around me and worry about me, I would know that I won´t be here for long.

You had previously said that you had thoughts of suicide...

Yes, I had. I wanted to do it many times. Yet I think about these things with a bit of a foresight. I do not know whether those who actually finish up committing suicide think that way. For example, I think that if I wanted to commit suicide, I would like to do it in a way so that nothing bad would happen to other people. For example, so that there wouldn´t be holdups on the motorway. So that rescuers wouldn´t be called. What if I did it in the woods, and a family with children would walk there and find me there? Then I thought about hanging myself at home. If it could have been done humanely, in the hospital, to come and say 'give me the injection and use some of the things that are still healthy for somewhere who needs them', it is possible that I wouldn´t be here any longer. If it could be done so simply.

But to bring more "worries" to other people, I wouldn´t want that. So, while I thought about it a lot, and many times I was very close to it, this has always stopped me. Mainly also because of the children. I took the phone, I saw a photo of the family, the children and I thought that I just couldn't do it.

Did you find a new wife and started a family despite such a handicap?

There was some path, some development. We parted ways with my girlfriend and for some time I was alone. I was afraid to break up with her thinking that I might never find another woman. And then I realized that in a wheelchair it is actually a hundred times easier than when one isn´t. Nowadays there are people in a wheelchair visible around the whole world, it is often in the media and people grew used to it. But in those days you never met one. It is possible that this came at a good time, when I was able to come to accept it. If it came later and one would already have a family, it would be worse.

How is meeting someone easier?

When you´re sitting in a bar and invite a woman for a drink, she is more likely to go with a wheelchair user than some strange guy. She feels sorry for a wheelchair user, so meeting someone is kind of easier. Those two years that I was alone, I was enjoying a hell of a lot. When I first ended up in the hospital with a pressure ulcer, I met my wife.

We were together for five years. The first year was wonderful, immediately after one year we got married. We tried to have children, but we could not have them in a natural way. We went five times for artificial insemination, but it didn´t work once. After four years we completely stopped understanding one another, so we got a divorce.

At that time I played for Zlín and we had good facilities for our representation team. When I had a birthday, we went with the coach and another friend of mine to a discotheque. That is where I met Katka. We got talking and exchanged phone numbers. I couldn´t see it, such a beautiful woman… In about two days we met in a cafeteria and there we had a chat. A few days later I flew to paralympics in Sochi. All the time we kept writing and calling each other. And when I returned, we started to see more of each other. After that I invited her to my house. We call this the period when she came for a visit and never left.

That is a beautiful story. And then you had the children?

It was very fast and we didn´t even analyse it. The beginning we enjoyed very much, beginnings of relationships are always wonderful. In the beginning I perhaps thought that it would be just a love affair but we suddenly found out after three months that we are pregnant. Then little Ema was born, it was my life dream, to have a child. And without planning anything further, two years later we discovered that we're pregnant again, and we got our little Filip. In February we will be together for five years and we have a four-year old and a two-year old child, plus Berenika, who is eleven. She is my wife´s child from a previous relationship.

How did you come to sport? You have said that you were not that devoted to sport before.

The biggest stumbling block here is that at the physiotherapy centres they don´t inform people, unless you ask yourself. They do not themselves say what the options are. I have just returned from physiotherapy and I went to my neurology specialist who checked my spine and the sitting posture. She asked me if I do any sport. I didn´t know about anything like that, so she gave me a contact number for one guy from Kolín, who is in charge of sledge hockey. We called each other, I tried it, and it just grabbed me. It is true that I tried other sports, too, for example basketball, but I didn´t enjoy it at all.

Hockey is a sport where I can give it one hundred percent, get it all out. And it is my life, is it what I fill my life with. I have told myself many times that if I wanted to die, then I´d like to die in the ice rink, playing hockey. I love it, it means everything to me. That´s why when the doctors told me not to do sports so much anymore, I´ve always come back to it anyway.

In the end I found out, that my health problems are not caused by sport or sitting down. In my case it is somehow caused by inflammation, which raises the problems. On the contrary, when I talked to a sport specialist doctor, he told me that sport actually heals me. When I do sports, there is more oxygen in my blood for my legs and they live more, have more nourishment. If I don´t do sports, the blood only circulates in the upper half of the body, the legs wither away, the bottom the same. Every doctor who deals with sport a little, tells you, that sport is beneficial.

And you also mentioned something about box.

Sledge hockey is for me really in the first place. Then I caught onto MTB, handbiking. I won the national championship. But thanks to sledge hockey I left cycling. As part of some training and improving of fitness I started to do parabox in our town of Poděbrady. I´ve never wanted to fight, but to finish up I have and then I had one more match. I was supposed to have more, but then my opponents withdrew. I won both of these professional matches. Now already know now that when this heals and everything is fine, I will again play sledge hockey. I will go back to parabox, too.

Do you have any message, either for those who are healthy or those who are ill, and feel that life is not worth living?

Of course, it is nice to have money and a nice life, but people chase pointless objectives. Life is very short. They should be a tiny bit selfish toward people around them, think more about themselves and enjoy life. Do what they enjoy doing, do a bit of sport, so that the body works for them even when they get older. You never know what might happen. You come across a drunk driver and end up in a wheelchair. By that I don´t want to say that their life is over. For me by life only just started then.

Thank you very much for the interview, Zdeněk, I wish you good luck and good health.

Fast confession:

What hurts a wheelchair user the most?

A pressure sore in a sensitive area.

What was the happiest moment of your life at the time when you had not yet been in a wheelchair?

When Sparta won the title.

A recipe for good mood, even when there is nothing to laugh about?

The family, children, sport.

What made you cry the last time?

Lately I cry watching romantic movies.

Name at least three good points about being in hospital.

Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation.

What will be the first thing you will do when you get home?

I will embrace my family and look forward to doing a bit of sport.

Describe what the feeling when you win the Olympics.

Indescribable, only just getting there is indescribable.

What is your Christmas wish this year?

The greatest wish for me now is to be healthy.

The worst nightmare you ever had.

If I woke up and found that there is no wheelchair by my side.

Without what you cannot imagine your life today.

Without my family, without my children.

If you wanted it your next life to be born as an animal, which one would it be?

Black panther somewhere completely free in nature.

What has made you laugh heartily recently?

The children.

Your life motto?

We live only once, enjoy it.

What would you say to the Minister for Health, Adam Vojtěch?

Do it better.
Interviewee asks the editor:

Do you think that you do your work well?

Excellently. (laughter)
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