Neil Cassar’s life was about to change.
It was early morning. The sun projected a golden glow across the island of Malta and the air was hot and sticky. Just like every other day, Neil was meeting up with his friends in a World War II bomb shelter before class. They’d make out with their girlfriends and smoke cigarettes. However, that day went differently.
On his way to the shelter, Neil’s principal spotted him. Trying to warn his friends they were about to get busted, he quickly climbed down the ladder. When it was his turn to climb out, he lost his balance on the last step and fell four stories.
He was flown to a nearby hospital, not knowing who he was. The fall caused temporary amnesia. Two weeks later, Neil regained his memory. However, he had no recollection of the accident, only faint memories of intensive care. The fall left him with two punctured lungs, a broken air pipe, five broken ribs, a shattered T4 vertebrae and severe nerve damage.
Neil was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Fgura, Malta at age 13. Two years later he had the accident. The doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to use his legs again and warned they may have to be amputated. At that moment, Neil lost all hope. He decided to jump out the hospital window. He tried to crawl towards it, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. They began shaking. That’s when he knew they could work again.
The doctors discovered Neil had a rare condition where his nerves regenerated, allowing him to regain 75 percent of mobility in his legs. When he first attempted to get back on his feet, he sat on the edge of the hospital bed in a full-body cast made out of carbon fiber. He was able to stand for five minutes with his crutches. But learning to walk again took time.
“I was pretty stoked that I was finally on my feet. I thought, ‘I’m standing this is awesome.’ The doctor asked if I was feeling nauseous. Right when he said that, I threw up all over him and I ended up passing out. It was tough,” said Neil.
Neil spent the next six months in the hospital. Every night his mother slept on the chair next to his bed. She took over the hospital kitchen, brought new pots and pans and made him breakfast every morning. His parents brought a TV and VCR to his room. In the evening, all of the nurses would gather around and watch movies. Neil said he made the best of his time in the hospital:
“I was racing old men down the hall in my wheelchair.”
When Neil was able to use a walker to stand up, the hospital could no longer accommodate him due to limited space on the island. His mother then hired one of the best physiotherapists she could find. Neil spent six months working with her until she passed away from cancer. That’s when things took a turn. With no therapist and a lack of mobility, Neil fell into a deep depression. He felt helpless. He had convinced himself that no one would want him and that he was going to die alone. He eventually turned to drugs.
“Four stories didn’t kill me, surgeries didn’t kill me, let’s see if drugs will kill me,” said Neil.
By age 21, Neil was using ecstasy, coke, LSD and marijuana to escape his pain. The drugs let him feel invincible while his body was numb. It wasn’t until he saw a photo of himself that he realized he didn’t like the person he had become and stopped using drugs immediately. He began to rebuild his body.
At first, it was trial-and-error. He hurt himself a lot in the beginning, straining muscles from moving the wrong way. But after a while of learning from his friends who were personal trainers, his motivation to train others developed.
He started by training his neighbour. Together, they worked out in the backyard. “I enjoy pushing people,” said Neil. “Once I knew I could motivate one person I knew I could motivate a lot of people.”
Today, Neil is a personal trainer at One Health Clubs in Oakville. His advice for other people with injuries or disabilities who are wanting to work out is to start off with small goals.
“Remember, nothing happens in just one day and that doesn’t just go for someone with a disability, for anybody coming to join the fitness industry or change their lifestyles there’s no quick fix.” He says despite struggles and setbacks it’s important to believe in yourself and to not give up.
“We all have issues, we all have injuries, we’re all going to suffer from some sort of pain, but it’s working around it. The hardest step you’re going to take is into the front door, once you’re in there it’s hard to turn around.”