Gabe Abotossaway demonstrates incredible resilience on 10th anniversary of accident

Parents Max and Bev Abotossaway gather around their son Gabe for a family photo at their Aundeck Omni Kaning home.

AUNDECK OMNI KANING—It’s hard to believe that a decade has passed since Gabe Abotossaway’s life was altered forever following a near-fatal car crash on Highway 69. 

This newspaper has been privileged to have followed Gabe’s progress throughout those 10 years. From being the youngest recipient in the country to receive a diaphragmatic pacer, allowing him to breathe on his own and without an invasive ventilator, to being bestowed with an eagle feather from the people of Aundeck Omni Kaning during the community’s traditional powwow, where Gabe was a dancer, to the excruciating lows and repeat hospitalizations. Throughout it all, and with his family by his side, Gabe has shown a remarkable strength of character, bravery and a positive attitude that would be the envy of most.

The Expositor sat down with Gabe and his parents, Beverly and Max, the week following the 10-year anniversary of the accident. There was a serenity and a sense of happiness among the family that this reporter had not fully encountered in her 10 years of interviews.

“It doesn’t feel like 10 years,” Gabe begins.

The family shares that Gabe’s medical team is very impressed with how well he’s been doing. For a time, Gabe found himself in and out of hospital with one ailment leading to another. His last hospital stay was last summer. It was serious—touch and go even—and required an extensive stay in the intensive care unit and surgery, from which his wounds have yet to fully heal. This last visit to the hospital also required Gabe to be placed on a ventilator. Communication occurred through the family writing on a wipe board and Gabe nodding yays or nays. Gabe is a C4-5 quadriplegic which means he has almost no feeling from his shoulders down.

“There was a chance he wouldn’t pull through,” his mother shares.

“I was super sick,” Gabe adds. “I couldn’t eat at all.”

The one bonus, he says, was having drop-ins from hospital staff at Health Sciences North who remembered him from his stay there years ago, when he became a hospital celebrity for his diaphragmatic pacer. They all wanted to check in and say hello. Even when he’s non-verbal, Gabe’s positive attitude is infectious.

Gabe is very much in charge of his health care needs. After two years of trying, Gabe was approved for Direct Funding, a program that “enables adults with physical disabilities to become employers of their own home attendants,” according to the website.

To become approved, Gabe had a grueling interview where he was quizzed on all manner of employment standards laws, among much more. The accident has made his short-term memory challenging at times, but he studied hard and it paid off.

Having a good business sense comes naturally to Gabe. He recalls the time when he and a group of friends made it to the national round of an Indigenous student business plan competition in Saskatchewan. While his team didn’t win, he felt they should have, he says with a laugh.

The Abotossaway home is the main family gathering place. It’s spacious and well-equipped for all of Gabe’s needs. The pandemic changed all of that, as it did for families across the globe.

At first, no one was allowed to enter the house and Ms. Abotossaway took care of all of Gabe’s needs. After all, Gabe is compromised and COVID-19 could have dire consequences for the young man. Then the family allowed one personal support worker, slowly adding members of the team as the pandemic marched forward. One of Gabe’s favourite team members is Derek Debassige of Manitoulin Physio, who visits him at home at least once a month.

“We talk about everything. He’s more than a therapist, he’s a friend,” Gabe says with a smile.

Gabe is responsible for training each of his personal support workers. After all, who knows his needs better than Gabe?

There is a new spark in the Abotossaway’s hearts these days. Gabe is the proud uncle of Griffin, son of his little brother Wesley. Griffin will turn two in August and his uncle’s eyes light up at the thought of him.

“I’m going to teach him some bad stuff, and some good stuff too,” he grins. “And I can’t wait to fill him in on my brother. He looks like a little Wes.”

Gabe’s parents are at his side during the interview and they reflect on 10 years of the family’s new reality.

“There’s no written handbook on how to do this, we just did it,” Beverly shares.

“You’re always expecting that, with the technological changes, that something will happen,” dad Max adds, explaining that the family always hopes for even more advancements for those with spinal cord injuries although he knows things have come a long way.

“Imagine, even 30 years ago having to stay in a hospital or hospice,” Max says. “It would be terrible.”

“Life is hard for most people, but because it’s hard it makes it that much better,” Gabe says. “When you get through the hard part, when it’s good, it’s really good. The bad can’t really be all that bad.”

Gabe admits to having felt the lowest of lows and to being in “the darkest places” over the past 10 years, but he knows that it will never be bad all of the time. “It’ll eventually get back to being light, happy.”

One of the things Gabe is grateful for (on top of his family and friends, of course) is food. “I’m so happy I can still eat,” he smiles, listing his favourites, like fish and chips, pancakes and sausage and even Twinkies and the odd Joe Louis treat. 

Gabe and his family feel fortunate for all the adventures they shared together before the accident and these memories are things he cherishes. “I’ve been to the tops of mountains and the bottom of the ocean.” While he knows his dreams of becoming an underwater welder might be over, he’s happy to be alive and to be able to communicate.

Bev shares a story of when Gabe was fighting for his life in a Toronto hospital bed 10 years ago. She was out for a walk and could feel Gabe’s presence with her. She remembers stopping and whispering to him an ultimatum: if he wanted to go, she would let him, but if he wanted to fight, she admonished him to get back to his hospital room and fight, and he did, and the world is a better place for it.