One man overcomes his spinal cord injury and achieves his dreams

Charles ‘Chuck’ Mealing’s life was changed forever when he suffered a spinal cord injury. He was just 18 when he fell off a ride at Crystal Beach Amusement Park.

After the incident, he had to re-learn how to do many of the things most people take for granted; tasks like how to go to the bathroom, how to get himself in and out of a bed, and how to put on a pair of pants.

Adjusting to life in a wheelchair wasn’t easy considering Mealing was an active runner before he became hurt.

The Crystal Beach resident used to run everywhere. It didn’t matter whether he needed to get somewhere, or just wanted to run up and down the beach for fun.

“After the accident, it took me six weeks just to learn how to put a pair of my own underwear on,” he said.

Mealing makes no bones about his experience with drug and alcohol addiction and the depression he battled with for years after he became injured.

But one day, he says he “woke up” and decided he didn’t want to hurt his body anymore. That’s when Mealing worked on getting himself clean.

His decision to overcome his addictions led him to have an amazing once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  In 2008, he went on a 10,000-kilometre journey through the scenic views of British Columbia, to the flat prairie land in Saskatchewan and to the Nova Scotia shoreline in an attempt to raise money for spinal cord regeneration research.

Mealing undertook the handcycle marathon across Canada called Wheel to Walk with three of his friends, Charlie Cetinski, Les McLaughlin and Harvey Uppal. They began their three-month trek in Victoria B.C. and crossed the finish line in St. John’s, Nfld.

The cross-country ride took a lot of planning and was a special celebration to mark the 10th anniversary of the annual Golden Horseshoe Marathon that Mealing and his friends participated in.

Mealing said Cetinksi was the organizer of the annual marathon, which began in Niagara Falls and ended in Toronto.

His fellow riders trained daily for the big marathon, first by riding five kilometres a day, and slowly increasing to 10, 15 20 kilometres. But Mealing wasn’t interested in training that way.

He got on his bike and didn’t keep track of the kilometres as he whizzed by on his handcycle. He just enjoyed the ride.

That’s exactly the attitude to he took when he crossed the starting line of Wheel to Walk.

He managed well enough for the first few days, but by the tenth day, Mealing says he hit a brick wall. He couldn’t imagine carrying on and nearly quit.

His body was sore and the journey ahead of him was a long one.

But his friends encouraged him to go just one more day. And one more day turned into another, then another and another.

“I kept telling myself that Charlie is not going to beat me and I thought, I am not going to let a senior beat me.”

They cycled about 120 kilometres a day. At night, each rider could feel the burn in a different part of his upper torso.

“I felt it in my shoulders. But each guy was different because each one’s spinal breaks are different.” He said.

He was challenged by steep hills, the heavy rains and the scorching hot days, but Mealing conquered it all. All the pain and struggles he endured during the marathon was worth it because he has unique memories that he will never forget.

“I remember we were coming down a hill and all I could see at the road’s edge was what I thought was water. That’s what it looked like,” he said.

But when the hand-cyclists got to the bottom of the hill, they found something much different.

“Although it looked like it was water at the road’s edge, it was actually a field of flowers. It’s one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” he said.

While the team was short of their $10 million goal to help fund spinal cord research at McMaster University, Mealing says the marathon was also intended to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries.

“Research is close to finding a way to regenerating the nerves that are hurt after a spinal cord injury,” he said.

“If a cure for spinal cord injuries is found in my lifetime, it means I’ll be six feet taller again.”

It also means Mealing could walk down the beach, be intimate with his wife, Sunny, and do all the things a person without a spinal cord injury can do.

What does he miss most about being able to stand on his own two feet?

Running, or sitting on the beach and really feeling the sand between his toes.

“I can sit on a beach with sand in my toes but I can’t feel it. I miss that feeling of the sand on my toes and I wish I could feel it again.”

Perhaps the biggest reason Mealing challenged himself in such a dramatic way was to make sure no child ever has to live the rest of his or her life with a spinal cord injury.

Mealing was inspired to participate in the cross-country marathon because a close friend of his had a 13-year-old son who had suffered a spinal cord injury and was paralyzed from the waist down.

“It ripped my heart out when I found out about my friend’s kid. No child should have to go through that. No child should have to live with a spinal cord injury for the rest of his (or her) life.”

As International Day of Persons with Disabilities was celebrated around the world earlier this week on Dec. 3, Mealing said he wants people to know that even though he faces challenges, he is still able to find his own way of doing most things.

He went to school to train in a two-year carpentry program and later worked as a master carpenter specializing in ramps and deck work.

“I completed the program but I didn’t complete the apprenticeship part of the program because I couldn’t find someone to hire me as an apprentice because of my wheelchair.”

It hasn’t been easy for Mealing, who admits he has often lost out on jobs because of his injury.

“I’ve applied for jobs over the years, and I have all the right qualifications on paper. But, I come in for an interview and they see my wheelchair and they wonder how I can do the job,” he said.

But Mealing is determined to not let his disability stop him and he wants people to know that just because someone requires a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of working or living a normal, healthy and fulfilling life.

It’s taken a little bit of creativity, but Mealing has found ways to do a lot of the renovation and carpentry work around his house.

He even built the deck and ramp in his own backyard.

What he can’t do, he often relies on support from family and friends.

“If you think about the things you can’t do, you forget about the things you can do. I like to think about all the things I can do,” he said.