Injured hockey player graduates, moves on after accident

Posted: Monday, September 11, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- A few yellow leaves dotted the trees at the Birch Hill Recreation Area as Erik Drygas and his sister, Holly, made their way along one of the ski trails.

Going uphill in the muddy terrain, Erik's wheelchair stalled. He had to wait for the battery to recharge before continuing.

His paralysis occasionally slows him down, but hasn't stopped Drygas, who graduated from college this year, competed in the Midnight Sun Run, went to the nation's capital for a youth leadership conference and worked as a student teacher.

He may be wheelchair-bound, but he is not bound by his wheelchair.

In a freak 1996 accident during hockey practice just prior to the start of the University of Alaska Fairbanks 1996 season, Erik went from playing a rugged, demanding sport, to being confined to a wheelchair.

It happened playing the sport he loved.

''I miss playing hockey more than I miss walking,'' Erik said.

But almost from the moment Erik suffered the injury, he has gotten on with his life.

Erik is a C-5 quadriplegic. That means that the fifth vertebra of his spinal cord, in the lower part of his neck, is damaged, leaving him with some control of his shoulders and arms, but no control of his hands or lower body.

In the summer of 1999, Erik had a surgical implant grafted into his right hand, with electrodes planted on eight muscles.

''It allows me to grasp some things. I can pick up some things, and I use it to feed myself,'' Erik said.

Erik was one of the first 100 people in the nation to get the implant, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration about two years ago. ''I was a perfect candidate for it,'' Erik said. ''It has really helped me be more independent.''

Erik uses a typing stick connected to a wrist brace on his left hand to manipulate a computer and the telephone. He quickly moves from the Internet to his e-mail, glancing at hockey stories and bringing up pictures he has downloaded from his digital camera.

With the attention and money brought to spinal cord injuries by movie star Christopher Reeve Drygas hopes there may someday be a medical solution to his paralysis. But he's not counting on it.

''Some people live their lives waiting for a cure and say then my life will begin again. But I don't worry too much about it. If something comes along, great,'' he said.

After spending a year in the UAF dorms, Erik is back at home, or at least right next door.

''I moved away when I was 16 to play junior hockey, and they probably figured I wasn't coming home after that,'' Erik said. ''But things changed and I found my way back home.''

Erik lives in an apartment attached to his parents' house. The rooms -- a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen area and entryway -- are spacious so Erik can easily maneuver his wheelchair through them. The counter space and tables are low enough for Erik to access things easily from his wheelchair.

Pictures abound, hanging on the walls or sitting on shelves. A photo of Erik playing against the Michigan Wolverines is signed by the Wolverines players along with a ''get well soon'' inscription.

The apartment was built to give Erik privacy and because an extra bedroom and expanded bathroom would have been needed anyway if he was going to stay in his parents' house. It's not far away, though. His apartment is connected to the main house through a door in the bedroom.

Over the past two years, Erik and his sisters, Heidi and Holly, have all lived at home, but this fall Holly is going to Japan to study abroad for a year, and Heidi left for law school in Salem, Ore., in early August.

''Erik, Heidi and I are really best friends,'' Holly said. ''We will be spread out and I think it will be hard on all three of us. I'm sure the phone bills will be high.''

Before being injured Erik used to run with Holly in the summer -- she was training for skiing and he was getting in shape for hockey.

''One of the hardest things to deal with was that we couldn't do that anymore,'' Holly said. ''A lot of our relationship was built around athletics.''

While in Colorado last summer, Holly decided to go for a run on a paved trail in the area and thought, ''You know, I'll bet his wheelchair goes pretty fast.''

So she want back and asked and Erik said he could go about seven miles per hour. Holly queried, ''Do you want to run?''

He did. Erik now runs with his sisters on the paved trails in the Fairbanks area, and sometimes at Birch Hill. Erik uses the word run, but when an incredulous reporter asked, ''You ran?'' he answered, ''I guess a better term would be rolled.''

He has completed a couple of 5- and 10-kilometer races. He competed in the Midnight Sun Run in June.

''There was no need to hurry to set a record,'' Erik said. ''I don't know what the time was -- more than an hour and 45 minutes. I took my time and talked to friends along the way.''

Being injured while playing hockey has done nothing to dampen Erik's enthusiasm for the game. He is as passionate about it as he was when he was a defenseman for the Nanooks.

In some ways, Erik is even more involved in hockey. He does color commentary for UAF's home games, and coach Guy Gadowsky plans on turning to him for advice this season.

''He knows the game. He is somebody we are glad to have around and whose opinions we want to listen to,'' Gadowsky said. ''The players respect what he says and the coaches respect what he says.''

Instead of dwelling on his injury, Erik has focused on what he can still accomplish. He graduated from UAF in May with a degree in education. Despite missing a year because of the injury, Erik still managed to complete the five-year program in five and a half years.

To earn his degree, Erik spent part of last year as student teacher for fifth-graders at Weller Elementary school.

''It took a bit for the kids to adjust to me, but it didn't take as much time as everybody had planned,'' Erik said. ''After one week it was no big deal. I was like any other teacher. The kids just have to be a lot more hands-on.''

Erik plans on becoming an elementary school teacher and hopes to be a hockey coach, but he decided to first take a year off to spend time with the 2000-2001 UAF hockey team doing radio broadcasts and assisting the coaching staff.

''Hockey has always been a part of me,'' Erik said.

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