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November 23, 2010 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

11 Seconds, 15 Years

by Avash Kalra/Staff Writer

Travis Roy and his father, Lee, when Travis\' number was retired, at old Walter Brown Arena.

Travis Roy and his father, Lee, when Travis' number was retired, at old Walter Brown Arena.

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To hear more of the 'Radio Rounds' interview with Travis Roy on Episode 414, visit www.RadioRounds.org or search the iTunes store for 'Radio Rounds.' And to learn more about Travis Roy, please visit www.TravisRoyFoundation.org

Travis Roy may have told his story dozens of times and — no doubt — has reflected privately about it on countless other occasions during the last 15 years.

But you only have to hear his story once, and you'll never forget it.

"I woke up that morning," says Roy, describing the events of October 20, 1995. "It was going to be the best day of my life."

Life, for Travis Roy, started in Yarmouth, Maine, where he was born on April 17, 1975. In the months following Roy's birth, the Vietnam War ended. The first episode of Saturday Night Live aired. Muhammad Ali won the 'Thrilla in Manilla.' And Carlton Fisk belted his famous 12th-inning home run for the Boston Red Sox in Game 6 of the '75 World Series.

Roy, too, had aspirations to be a professional athlete, as he grew up with a love for playing ice hockey. And on October 20, 1995, his NCAA hockey career was set to begin, as a freshman for Boston University, the then-reigning NCAA champion.

It was the Terriers' first game of the 1995-96 season.

Says Roy, "I had spent 19 years of my life trying to become the best hockey player I could possibly be and keep my academics up so I could attend a school like Boston University. I remember walking to the rink that night and just being so excited as a freshman. It was my very first game. My parents were going to be in attendance, and some of my family and my old coaches.

"We happened to be playing the University of North Dakota that night. We were the defending national champions, so [before the game], they raised the national championship banner. The energy in the old Walter Brown Arena that night was just incredible. Two minutes into the game, we scored early, took a 1-0 lead, and as the crowd was going crazy and the pep band playing, I felt the tap on the back of my shoulder that I'd been waiting for my whole life. It was Coach Jack Parker, signaling to me to take the ice."

Ice hockey players, of course, measure and manage their time in shifts. This shift, the first of Roy's college hockey career, would change the rest of his life.

"They dropped the puck, and the puck got shot into the offensive zone," recalled Roy. "I skated in there just as fast as I could. The opposing defenseman picked up the puck, and it was my opportunity to deliver a good shoulder check and make my presence known. As I angled myself just right and approached him and followed through, I hit him not nearly as squarely as I hoped. He moved out of the way a little bit, which was natural, and I lost my balance — which is ironic because I was a good skater. And I went head first into the dashboards and flopped to the ice.

"I didn't really think much of it. I figured I'd fallen thousands of times, I'd get up on my hands and knees and get back in the game. And about as quickly as those thoughts went through my head, I realized that something was wrong, and my body was still. It was at that point I realized I was in big trouble."

Soon after being stabilized on the ice, Roy was taken to the hospital for further evaluation. X-rays showed that he had fractured his 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae and had suffered significant damage to his spinal cord.

"It was my first shift, it was my first game, and it lasted all of 11 seconds."

Certainly, it's as cruel a story as any you'll ever hear, in college sports or otherwise — a reminder of how life can change not only within the span of 11 seconds, but within a margin of error on the order of millimeters.

Roy's story was chronicled in a book entitled Eleven Seconds, a first-hand account authored by Roy and Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift, written in the years following Roy's accident.

Still, despite the tragic and stunning end to his hockey career, Roy has refused to be defined entirely by those 11 seconds. He has achieved many goals off the ice in the last 15 years — goals that are immeasurably more meaningful than any puck that has ever been shot into a net.

Over one million patients in the United States suffer from spinal cord injuries, and Roy has worked hard to be a voice and an advocate for them. Since the night of his injury 15 years ago, Roy returned to school to complete his undergraduate degree at Boston University. He also founded the Travis Roy Foundation, to support others who are suffering from similar conditions.

"We've given out close to a million dollars in the last 7-8 years, and we're excited about that," says Roy. "It might be a little bit of a drop in the bucket in one sense, but at the same time, you never know which lab is going to come up with the big advancement. The more we can fund, the better off we're going to be.

"Maybe the most important part of the Foundation that we have an effect on is the individual grants. We purchase wheelchairs, voice-activated computers and simple home modifications — a ramp to get into the house, maybe a ceiling lift to get in and out of bed. Those things are small, but it just makes life a little bit easier for a spinal cord injury survivor, and even more so, sometimes for the loved ones, the family members. So we've given close to two million dollars in individual grants for items like that. It's been a great way to give back, and I'm proud of the work we do."

Personally, as a third-year medical student, I have had some — albeit, limited — experience speaking with individuals who have suffered severe spinal cord injuries. These injuries drastically and irreversibly alter the lives of the patients and their families.

Scientifically, an injury to the cervical vertebrae can be devastating, with the fragile spinal cord — the consistency of toothpaste — just millimeters away. Immediately compromised are nerves that allow the brain to communicate with all four extremities and also the diaphragm, the muscle that contracts every time we take a breath.

Working with and treating patients in these situations always requires the art of being empathetic. But more than anything, they crave a semblance of the independence that they once enjoyed.

"Independence is the magic word when it comes to paralysis," Roy says, in agreement. "I remember being in the hospital when they realized they found a little bit of a pulse, a little bit of a trace of my right biceps firing. Up until that point, I couldn't move my arm. Even when they said my biceps was firing, I couldn't see it, I couldn't feel it, I couldn't really move anything. And I thought, 'Who cares?' I want to be able to play hockey. I want to be able to walk.

"It didn't take me too long before I could move my right arm and operate a joystick and turn a light switch on and off."

Roy has also been an outspoken advocate for embryonic stem cell research, with the hope that a treatment can one day be developed for both acute and chronic sufferers of spinal cord injuries. In recent years, Roy has testified before state legislators in Massachusetts to provide an all-important patient perspective to the stem cell discussion, as well as in Washington D.C., to encourage the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to continue to provide funding for research opportunities.

Says Roy, "I'll be the first to admit that I don't completely understand the science of stem cells, but it was important to give the testimonials because people down there can benefit from the research — to go down there and testify and make sure that people take the science out of the lab, that they take the technical talk and realize what they're doing it for. It's very simple when you go down there and tell the legislators, 'I'm not looking to play hockey again. I'm not looking to run. I just want to be able to wrap my arms around my mom and give her a hug.'

"I had hoped there would have been a cure by now. Christopher Reeve's accident was just before mine, and he was a believer that a cure would be there in five years, and I kind of jumped on that train. And those five years came and went pretty quickly. Then we thought maybe 10 years. It's been a slow process, but at the same time, I think there's real optimism. There's research out there. Hopefully we'll get there."

In speaking with Roy, the qualities that shine above all are his humility, his grace, and his undying optimism. A twist of fate took away his ability to play hockey, to walk, and to have full function of his arms. But his spirit is reminiscent of former North Carolina State coach Jimmy Valvano's speech at the 1993 ESPY Awards, in which he spoke of his cancer, famously declaring, "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever."

And Travis Roy's message has been immortalized in another way as well. Visit Agganis Arena, the modern home to the BU Terriers ice hockey program, and look up to the rafters to see Roy's retired No. 24 jersey. Then, look around to notice that there's no other jersey alongside his.

Roy is the only hockey player in Boston University history to have been honored with a retired number.

"There's no greater honor than having your number retired," says Roy, clearly humbled but genuinely proud. "The older you get, you appreciate it more and more. When I was first retired, I was honored, and I was excited to have it done, but I felt a little weird in that it just wasn't the way I wanted it to happen. But at the same time, it's humbling, and I do burst with pride in seeing it up there and knowing that it's a recognition of a lot of good things that I've done, and that my family's done, and that the Foundation has done. And it couldn't be done, most importantly, without the hockey community at large.

"When I do see it up there, I don't see it as my banner as much I see it as everybody that's made this story — what very well was a tragedy — and turned it into something very positive."

Roy also praises the Boston University hockey family and, in particular, legendary head coach Jack Parker, who remains a mentor figure for him to this day.

Travis Roy, remember, is a young man. Today, he is only 35 years old — a reminder of just how young he was at the time of his injury, now over a decade and a half ago.

Roy praises Parker for being able to "connect the last 40 years of players" at Boston University together. In addition, he credits players from the past, BU alumni who have supported him and the Travis Roy Foundation through the years — players such as NHL All-Star and three-time U.S. Olympian Chris Drury. Drury was on the ice the night of Roy's accident, as the centerman who won the faceoff that began the 11-second shift.

Roy admits that he still follows college hockey. He is proud of the BU team that won the national championship just two years ago and is currently ranked No. 2 in the nation.

And fans of the Terriers can occasionally see him in attendance at BU home games.

"The one thing that's really neat," says Roy, "that sort of blows my mind is when I'm at a game at Boston University. I will see kids, and I'll roll by. You sort of hear a whisper every once in a while, 'There's Travis Roy.' These kids weren't born until five, six, seven years after my accident. Still, they read the book, and there's an awareness of the banner, and who I am, and that's been a neat thing."

It's been 15 years now, and the time it took for Roy's hockey playing career at Boston University to start and end was, again, a mere 11 seconds. But despite the title of his book and the focus of much of his attention, the truly meaningful moments of Travis Roy's life have been in those 15 years since the day of October 20, 1995 — the day when Roy woke up with the hope that he was starting the best day of his life.

Says Roy now, "What takes place in 11 seconds — from the excitement and the youth and vitality and the strength of my life and the completely open, limitless future — at the same time, that 11 seconds sort of gives birth to a new life. It's not one I would have chosen, and it's not one that I love. But I do know that it's productive, and it's meaningful, and it has purpose.

"It's been a lot better than I ever thought it was going to be."

For anyone who has come into contact with Roy, life's better for all of us, as well. And that message — of inspiration, hope, and undying purpose — is certainly not one that lasts only 11 seconds.

Thanks to Travis Roy, it's timeless.

Avash Kalra is a third-year medical student at the Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine in Dayton, Ohio. He is also the creator and host of 'Radio Rounds' — a weekly national talk show and the only radio program in the United States produced entirely by medical students. Travis Roy spoke with Avash and his colleagues on a recent episode of Radio Rounds (Episode 414), and information on how to access the free iTunes podcast is available on www.RadioRounds.org.

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