Trial by fire, healing by laughter

November 6, 2014

Courage Awards honour remarkable brothers who rebuilt lives, inspired others at Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital

Story by Gregory Kennedy

The bravery and resolve shown by Wes and Wilfred Michalycia — two brothers badly burned in a gas explosion who have had to relearn everything from swallowing to walking to rebuild their lives — has inspired the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation to honour them at its 2014 Courage Awards.

It was Feb. 21, 2013 when the pair entered the basement of a Fort Saskatchewan home on a job for Wilf’s company, Wil-Flo Plumbing and Heating. With them was their nephew, Jason Michalycia, recently moved to Edmonton from Regina to join the family firm.

After a devastating propane explosion that left them badly burned, good-humoured brothers Wes and Wilf Michalycia have helped each other to heal over the past 20 months“When the house went boom, we were tossed around. Then when we did wake up, everything was on fire — Wilf, Jason, me,” says Wes Michalycia, 50, recounting what happened, in an interview with The Edmonton Journal.

“Everyone was screaming and Wes was telling me to kill him,” says Wilf.

 Adds Wes: “It was chaos. I just laid down and thought, ‘This is it.’”

The blast shattered windows, blew the side walls off the house and burned off their clothing. Nearby tradespeople pulled them out of the basement as ambulances arrived.

Wes suffered burns to 65 per cent of his body, his younger brother Wilf, 46, had burns to 90 per cent of his body, and Jason, 33, had burns to 97 per cent of his body.

Jason died within a day, but for Wes and Wilf — who spent two months in a medically induced coma — the difficult, painful journey of the past 20 months was just beginning.

On Nov. 5, both men received awards from the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital for their “remarkable courage and determination” during rehab.

“The 9th annual Glenrose Courage Awards recognize and celebrate patients who have demonstrated incredible courage to overcome and conquer significant challenges,” says Isabel Henderson, Senior Operating Officer of the Glenrose.

“Throughout the 50-year history of the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital, we have been awed and inspired by the courage of patients who pass through our doors,” she adds. “The Michalycia brothers inspire and compel all of us to remain hopeful, stay determined, and do what we can to make a difference.”

Daniel Yeung, an occupational therapist at the Glenrose who worked with the brothers twice a week for months, also says in the Journal interview: “We see a lot of tragedy daily and occasionally we see heroes, and that’s what we consider them,”

“Injury is relative, but when you have something to contrast it to, it really puts things into perspective. Other patients were like ‘If (these brothers) can face through that, I can get through my injury.’”

Sedated and wrapped like a mummy for months, Wes and Wilf — a pair of jokesters at heart — soon found their sense of humour healing even quicker than their many skin grafts. With a playful competitiveness, they encouraged and pushed each other from one rehabilitation milestone to the next.

“There was one-upmanship,” says Yeung. “They really pushed each other to maximize their rehab.”

Both men now need leg braces to walk. Wilf lost most of his fingers and his eyesight, while Wes has only partial use of his right arm.

More recently, Wes has returned to his passion for rebuilding cars, while Wilf has started a new business, Ask Wilf, for small jobs.

“We all have bad things that happen in our lives, and when it happens it happens. You have to go on from there,” says Wes.

“Life goes on and it will get better,” adds Wilf. “Try to stay positive and find the fun times.”

Three others also received Courage Awards for 2014:

Elsie Dykstra

Elsie Dykstra’s determination saw her through kidney failure, bowel surgery and 16 months in hospitalElsie was a caregiver to her beloved husband for several years. Following his passing, her health deteriorated, and with severe diarrhea and hallucinations she was admitted to a local hospital. A total of 16 months, three different hospitals and four different doctors saw her through kidney failure and bowel surgery. Her faith and her family helped her rise above these challenges and together they created a “Tour de Elsie” with goals each day for her to complete.

One day she saw clearly that no one else would do it for her and she had so much to live for. Elsie started to embrace the therapies that taught her how to adapt and tackle the obstacles before her. She found renewed joy and strength in supporting other patients around her. Her dedication has allowed her to return home, drive once again, play with her grandchildren and attend both her niece’s and son’s weddings. She hopes to travel to Victoria Island once again, has taken up knitting and embraces one day at a time. “If I can bring a smile to someone’s face or offer them encouragement it’s all worth it.”

Jordan Hale

Jordan Hale overcame a severe stroke at the age of nine and taught herself, literally, how to eat, walk, play and sing againOne minute nine-year-old Jordan was thriving while enjoying outdoor fun and the next she was suffering intense headache pain and dizziness. Within four hours she succumbed to a coma that lasted three days. Doctors discovered a blood clot between her brain and spinal cord which caused a hemorrhagic stroke. Following emergency brain surgery she arrived at the Glenrose with a feeding tube, impaired vision and an inability to walk, speak or follow commands. Numerous tests revealed an infection in her brain and little body, requiring another brain surgery.

A self-proclaimed Anaheim Ducks fan, she chose to push past her fears re-learning how to swallow and enjoy food again. She gradually progressed from using a wheelchair, to parallel bars, to people assisting her and, with great joy, achieved independent walking. She also found her voice again, starting with whispers, then full speech and even singing. She completed all the therapeutic activities along her rehab journey and came to be known as spunky, determined and motivated. “I hope to skip rope again and might become a hairdresser.”

Tanya Cowan

Tanya Cowan is an exceptional mother who has been an inspired caregiver to the special needs of her daughter for 17 yearsTanya is an exceptional mother with a calm, patient demeanor who noticed that her baby wasn’t reaching typical milestones. She has stood by and advocated for her daughter for more than 17 years, helping her navigate numerous surgeries, multiple diagnosis and treatments. Doctors readily admit that her daughter’s condition is extremely complex including Scoliosis, Congenital Myopathy and Asperger’s Syndrome. In addition to being a full-time caregiver for her daughter, one year Tanya’s mother suffered a broken neck and her husband suffered neck pain, both requiring her support. This saw Tanya helping three different individuals using three different modes of transportation.

As a parent she has shown courage, commitment and dedication. Of her own accord, Tanya spent hours researching in advance of medical appointments to enable her participation as part of the care team. Her goals never wavered: to pioneer new beginnings for her daughter, to have no regrets, and to focus on the here and now. “Growth is a stepping stone — take what you learn and apply it to life.”