A tale of Thanksgiving emerges from the midst of tragedy

Derek Moxam in his ‘happy place,’ his Tehkummah home.

TEHKUMMAH – It was just a momentary bout of dizziness in the laundryroom that led to a loss of balance followed by a sudden catastrophic fall down a flight of stairs—and in that instant Derek Moxam’s life was changed forever. But despite his catastrophic injury, Mr. Moxam has a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving.

“Had I fallen the other way I would have gone down three flights of stairs,” he recalled. “Fortunately I fell the other way.”

Fortunate, perhaps, but after Mr. Moxam’s partner Cliff Sage found him lying injured at the bottom of the stairs, and the Tehkummah first responders had arrived and carefully placed Mr. Moxam on a back board and transported him to the hospital, what followed was more than two months in the Sudbury intensive care unit, then a year-and-a-half in rehab and treatment regime in centres far from his beloved Tehkummah home. 

The diagnosis was grim. Mr. Moxam had suffered a C6 injury to his spinal cord, one of the worst possible injuries that could have happened. A C6 spinal cord injury is one that affects the lower end of the spinal cord, right near to the base of his neck. Injuries to this region of the spinal cord can result in loss of sensation or function of everything in the body from the top of the ribcage on down, including all four extremities, resulting in what is known as quadriplegia.

Now labeled as a quadriplegic, Mr. Moxam faced a tough struggle ahead, one that would eventually allow the Tehkummah resident to finally get back home against all odds.

“The first responders are a great bunch of guys,” Mr. Moxam told The Expositor. He noted that they still drop in on occasion to see how he is doing and what they can do to assist him.

“People were worried about the care that I would be able to access living in a rural area,” he recalled. “It turned out to be the perfect option. The health centre team have been fantastic, all of the health professionals on the Island really.”

Mr. Moxam grew up in Lively, a small community just outside Sudbury, before moving to Toronto for school and meeting his future partner, Mr. Sage. He enjoyed life in the big smoke, settling down in the Village area of downtown Toronto and where he followed his passion for music, getting the opportunity to DJ for many top events and raves while living and learning in the city.

But the couple eventually moved to Nova Scotia, where Mr. Moxam’s career as a corporate travel agent with American Express took him. He eventually was promoted to a supervisory position. (He has since moved into a part-time position with the company.) “Since my injury, it was too much to go back in full-time,” he said. But his injury opened doors for him—particularly in his perspective.

When the opportunity came to move to Manitoulin, the Tehkummah area specifically, it was a dream come true for both Mr. Moxam and his partner. The view from the deck of their home on Government Road is nothing short of spectacular.

“AMEX GBC (Global Business Travel) has dived into diversity and inclusiveness,” Mr. Moxam said of the mentorship and training role he now enjoys. His injury has provided him with a wealth of insight into the special needs of the disabled, both visible and invisible. “Before my injury when someone would say they needed more leg room when they were booking a flight, I might have been a bit sceptical. But I now realize, in the differences when I vacation, everything is more complicated. The hardest part is getting there.”

There are so many simple things that people can take for granted that are not so simple when you have significant mobility issues. “Are the toilets in the resort accessible?” he said by way of example. He no longer makes those assumptions for himself, or for those he is assisting in making travel arrangements. This is true of both apparent and “invisible” injuries. 

Since taking a closer interest in the market, AMEX GBC is “busier than ever,” he said.

Like many during the pandemic, Mr. Moxam now works from home, but there are many adjustments to his workspace that have had to be made to accommodate his new reality.

He uses a trackball in place of a standard mouse, as his motor control in his hands largely precludes the latter. Dragonspeak voice recognition has been a godsend linking Mr. Moxam’s voice to text.

Together with his partner, Mr. Moxam has redesigned their home with an eye to the possible and accessibility. Mr. Sage, of course, has done most of the physical work in making their home a productive space, and it remains somewhat of a work in progress, advises Mr. Moxam. “It really is a good thing that we took this on ourselves,” he said. Letting someone else design the renovations would not have worked out given Mr. Moxam’s challenges. Heights of workspaces and maneuver space is critical to function and highly custom to his circumstance.

But before he could even dream of going to work, there was a huge mountain to climb in his way. A year of laying in a bed with next to no control over his muscles led to significant atrophy of the muscles he would need to cope, particularly in his core and triceps muscles. Then there was the mental wall that descends on someone with his life-changing injuries.

Armed with a set of exercises tailored to his individual needs, Mr. Moxam set about rebuilding his body—as much as possible. “I have been told I have less than a one percent chance of ever walking again,” he admitted. But if there was someone who might buck those odds, it could well be Mr. Moxam and his team of health support workers.

He places a lot of the credit for his advances with the support he has received from his team—particularly Ginger Cranston of the Manitoulin Physio Centre whose expertise in weight training has proven invaluable. Mr. Moxam also cited the expertise of Little Current registered massage therapist Given Cortez (Willow’s Haven Massage Therapy Clinic) and the creativity of both when it comes to thinking outside the box in customizing exercises and treatments to his individual needs.

Turns out living in a rural community such as Tehkummah, and in fact all of Manitoulin Island, is not the barrier that urban health professionals thought it would be.

Mr. Moxam notes that even before his accident, the Tehkummah community was open and welcoming to the couple. “We have made a lot of friends here,” he said. “We know all of our neighbours and they are all wonderful people.” Following his injury, many of those friends and neighbours stepped up to offer their support—a true benefit of living the rural life.

“My story is about how, with the support of family and friends—especially Cliff, I am able to live a full life,” he said. He still has days when he finds himself tired and weak, but he has been able to overcome all kinds of diversity to come to a happy place.

Mr. Moxam hosts a Facebook group, Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation & Recovery, that has risen to over 10,400 members and provides an opportunity for “family, friends, caretakers, trainers, physical and occupational therapists and all other medical professionals including doctors” to focus on rehabilitation and recovery with the motto that “anything is possible.”

While Mr. Moxam may have been on the receiving end of a life-changing injury, it is neigh onto impossible to label this remarkable individual as a victim. As he and his partner live a full and enriched life overlooking the Tehkummah countryside, surrounded by friends and neighbours who drop in to see how they are doing, Mr. Moxam is anything but an engaging and positive, forward looking individual who embodies that Facebook page motto—“anything is possible.”