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The Day One Bruin's Game Suddenly Stood Still

Club hockey: A routine body-check paralyzed MBA student Sean Gjos. Now his attitude and friends help him through.

June 07, 1999|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The worst part is in the morning, when Sean Gjos emerges from the forgiving fog of sleep and is suddenly jolted back to reality.

He remembers that his life, which had been progressing so smoothly, changed irrevocably in an instant because of a freak accident in a hockey game. He remembers he can't walk and that because he hasn't gotten a car with hand controls, he's dependent on friends to get to doctors' appointments and classes at UCLA's Anderson School, where he will receive his MBA on June 18.

Not that he can ever completely forget. But first thing every morning, he is reminded anew of the March 3 accident that crushed his 11th thoracic vertebra and damaged his spinal cord, leaving him without the use of his legs and with little feeling below his waist.

"I have to deal with reality all over again," he said softly. "Sometimes that takes a split second, sometimes that takes an hour."

There are so many cruelties in this, so many reasons he could lament the unfairness of fate. Friends say he has maintained a remarkably positive outlook, but it isn't easy. It can't be.

Sitting in his wheelchair in the living room of his airy Santa Monica apartment--he had to leave his old place because he couldn't negotiate its multilevel layout--Gjos constantly fidgets, turning the chair this way and that, lifting the front wheels to tilt the chair at a precarious angle. When his restlessness was pointed out, he laughed.

"I never was very good at sitting," he said. "Now I'm sitting all the time. I always used to be moving around."

Gjos (pronounced Joss) isn't a professional athlete. Nor was he a scholarship athlete. He paid to play club hockey for UCLA, joining an enthusiastic group of undergrads and graduate students who shell out more than $500 each for the privilege of skating at Pickwick Arena in Burbank before tiny crowds at odd hours in the middle of the week.

He didn't even play last season, his first at the Anderson School after graduating from Brown University with a degree in international relations and spending several years in investment banking. Gjos, 28, figured he was too busy with his MBA work, but love for the game he had played since his childhood on Manitoulin Island, Canada, drew him back this season.

"He came in and fit in really great," teammate Zachary Rynew said.

The play that changed Gjos' life appeared innocuous, a routine hit in a game against Life College of Marietta, Ga., in the first game of the national club championship tournament at Salt Lake City. There was no sickening thud, just a collision that sent him sliding back-first into the boards.

"He had the puck and he was passing it. It looked like he wasn't expecting to get hit," said Rynew, a graduate student in architecture. "It seemed pretty square and pretty clean. It didn't seem like he fell that hard. I didn't see him hit the ice. Everyone watching didn't even follow the hit because it just looked so routine.

"I was on the bench and we had been laughing, then we realized something bad had happened."

Team captain Mike Siegel, a history major, also thought nothing of it.

"I've seen a hit like that a thousand times," Siegel said. "He was off balance when he got hit, but we expected him to get up. When he didn't get up, that's when we got scared."

Siegel's mind flashed to Travis Roy, the Boston University hockey player who became a quadriplegic after being hit 11 seconds into the first shift of his college career. "Then Sean started to move his upper body, so we thought he had just gotten his wind knocked out," Siegel said. "Then they came to take him out on a stretcher, and that's when the panic started."

Gjos also sensed nothing ominous about the hit. "I remember skating into the corner after the puck with another guy," he said. "We were probably six feet away from the boards. We body-checked each other. It was a clean hit. He just caught me off balance. I went into the boards--I don't remember how I went into the boards. I just remember numbness swept up from my toes. I don't remember much after that."

He was fortunate an orthopedic surgeon was in the crowd to provide rapid and appropriate treatment before an ambulance arrived. At Latter-day Saints hospital, he underwent a seven-hour operation to insert two 18-inch rods on either side of his vertebra, essentially reconstructing it and easing the pressure on his spinal cord.

"The only 'why me?' I've ever heard from Sean was right after the surgery," teammate Ralph Vogel said. "He said to me, 'I really started to have it all. I really started to have it together.' "

After the surgery, Gjos was given less than a 5% chance of walking again. After intensive therapy three times a week and exercising with the help of his girlfriend, Roz Emmett, he believes his odds have improved. He won't ask what they are. He's intent on walking again and he's sure that day will come, in part because of recent research sparked by the accident that left actor Christopher Reeve a quadriplegic.

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