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GoFundMe for Canadian who crushed his spine at gym raises over $70,000



‘There’s always hope,’ says Toronto’s Warren Chang

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A fundraiser for a Toronto man paralyzed from the waist down in a bizarre gym accident has raised more than $70,000.

On Aug. 30, 2023, two weeks after his 40th birthday, Warren Chang fractured his T11 vertebra, the 11th vertebra down in the thoracic section of his spine, near the bottom of the ribs. He was weightlifting at the Academy of Lions gym in Toronto’s west end. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down with a complete spinal cord injury and no muscle control or sensation below the injury site.

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“Since my injury, I don’t really think I’ve had a truly happy day,” Chang said in an interview with National Post. “I’ve had days where I’ve felt OK, and for the most part, that’s a good day. I’ve also had many days where… it’s rock bottom, you feel like half of yourself, you’re not there.”

Chang came to Canada from Jamaica around 25 years ago and, for the last 16 years, the 40-year-old has been into fitness, especially Olympic-style weightlifting.

His injury occurred while doing a snatch, a type of barbell exercise best known for its use in Olympic weightlifting competitions. Chang said that when he brought the barbell over his head, his shoulder buckled and the bar came down on his spine, fracturing his vertebra and causing a complete spinal cord injury.

“It was a freak accident,” Chang said. “I’m not pointing fingers anywhere… In my mind, there’s no negligence on anyone’s part… If I relived that day 1,000 times (the injury) doesn’t happen, but it’s just the one reality where a lot of things that could go wrong, did go wrong.”

National Post contacted Academy of Lions, but the gym did not want to comment without first consulting Chang.

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Warren Chang weightlifting
Chang fractured his T11 vertebrae while performing a snatch. The snatch is used in Olympic weightlifting competitions and involves quickly lifting the bar over your head. Photo by Courtesy of Warren Chang

After his injury, Chang was hesitant to ask for monetary support from others, but his company, Canadian Mortgage Loan Services (CMLS), where Chang is a residential underwriter, started a fundraiser for him, initially limited to other CMLS employees. Later, they handed off the reins of the fundraiser to Chang and he converted it into a GoFundMe in December of 2023.

“(Chang) is a great person and had anyone been in a similar situation, he would be a person that would instigate what has occurred for him right now…,” said Darren Todd, Chang’s manager at CMLS. A close friend of Chang’s, Todd was the one who set up the initial fundraiser. “That he’s OK for his story to be shared and that it hopefully helps other people down the road, (shows) just the type of gentleman he is.”

To date, the GoFundMe fundraiser has more than 440 donations totalling more than $70,000.

Currently on short-term disability, Chang said his work insurance covers some of the medical supplies and equipment that he needs, but he has expenses that are not covered.

“I do have private nursing caregivers that come in every day, because we find sometimes with the (PSWs) provided by the government are not always consistent, sometimes they come at different times,” Chang said. “Eventually my benefits are going to run out for physio, but if I hope to have any chance of recovery, we just have to keep trying to do physio and hope something sticks.”

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Since his injury, Chang said he’s had multiple urinary tract infections (UTIs) and he is currently in the hospital for a pressure wound infection.

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According to data from Praxis, a Canada-based not-for-profit that researches spinal cord injuries and treatments, the average lifetime cost for a Canadian with paraplegia, what Chang has, is $1.5 million, and $3.1 million for quadriplegia. Life expectancy can also vary depending on where the injury occurred. People with high quadriplegia (C1 to C4) have a significantly lower life expectancy compared to those with paraplegia (T2 to S5).

For people who need wheelchairs, there are many costs to consider: the cost of the wheelchair, renovations to accommodate a new lifestyle, medical supplies and, for some, a personal support worker.

“People probably think ($70,000) is an extraordinary amount of money, but when you look at purchasing devices, renovating your home and medical supplies… there are a lot of unanticipated expenses that people need help with covering,” said Cathy Craven, the Cope Family Chair in Spinal Cord Injury Health Systems Innovation at Toronto Rehabilitation Institute. “People spend the most money in the first two years after their injury and then the last 10 years before their death.”

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According to Craven, cost can also be exacerbated by how and where the injury occurred.

“We essentially have a bit of a two-tiered health-care system,” Craven said. “It’s a different set of resources available for people who were in a car accident or have a (work-related) injury, versus those who do not have insurance coverage.”

The majority of paraplegics and quadriplegics cannot control their bladder or bowels. This means that they have to use a catheter around five times a day to urinate. However, the cost of medical equipment is not completely covered by the Ontario government, causing some people, who are either unable to pay or looking to save money, to avoid using catheters or to reuse them, both of which increase the chance that they develop UTIs and kidney failure.

“It costs us money every time we go to the washroom, to the point where people are recycling and boiling catheters,” said Barry Munro, the chief development officer of the Canadian/American Spinal Research Organization and the associate director of the lived experience team at Praxis. “People only have certain funds built into their government assistance, but that doesn’t cover all of their equipment.”

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Despite the grim financial challenges, recovery is a possibility for some people.

“Probably two-thirds of the people who are admitted have potential for substantial recovery,” said Craven. “There’s a proportion of people who have what we call motor complete injury, and that’s the group that doesn’t have recovery but is really looking to relearn how to do things for themselves.”

According to Chang, his doctors are still unsure how much he will be able to recover.

“‘There’s always hope,’ that’s what I tell myself every day,” Chang said. “(Before my injury) I was the strongest I’ve ever been, the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life, so I have to hope that I’ve made the right lifestyle choices to put myself in a position to be able to recover as much as I can… Right now, I’m basically playing the waiting game.”

Since his injury and throughout his physiotherapy, Chang said he has been able to inconsistently move one of his toes as well as feel some sensation in his thighs on occasion.

“I just want people to know that life is short. On any given day, your life can change in such a drastic way,” Chang said. “We take so many things for granted, myself included, and I hope people out there can read my story and start to appreciate the small things.”

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