Get to know Dean Wardak and the extraordinary journey he and his family have taken from catastrophic injury to rebuilding his life, and helping others do the same.
In Dean Wardak’s collection of memorabilia, there is one item that weighs quite heavily in his heart. It’s a newspaper article that dates back to April 2011. The article is entitled Teen in Critical Condition. It talks about a young man who had crashed into a tree driving 100 km/hr in a 40 zone. The driver was badly mangled in the smashed vehicle. It took firefighters 45 minutes to get him out. He was found without vital signs. In the photo, the scene of the crash was like a war zone with small pieces of the wreckage scattered everywhere. That driver was Dean.
He remembered nothing of that night. In his father David’s account of the story, Dean was attending his best friend’s 18th birthday party that evening. Planning to get drunk, he walked to his friend’s house. By the end of the party, Dean was so intoxicated that he stumbled home without any shoes or a jacket. When he reached his house, with a hazy mind, he got into the family’s parked car and drove off without a destination. When David found out that Dean still had not returned and the car was missing in the driveway, he was hectic and went in search of Dean in the middle of the night. When he finally saw a host of bright lights in the distance, he ran towards them knowing that they were the lights of police cruisers, ambulance and fire trucks. David was in total despair when he arrived at the scene and the only way he recognized the vehicle was by its license plate. Worse yet, when Dean was pulled from the wreckage, his son was beyond recognition.
Dean was resuscitated in the ambulance that took him to Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga. One of the Emergency Room nurses attended the same church as the family. She was not optimistic about his survival and carefully suggested that it might be necessary to call their priest to give Dean his last rites. After a few imagining exams, Dean was found to have sustained a severe brain injury and a spinal cord injury at the C7 level. He was then transferred to St. Michael’s Hospital where there was a more advanced trauma unit.
In the next two weeks, Dean was in a deep coma, attached to every type of tube and machine available to keep him alive. During a family meeting, the doctors brought up the option of pulling the plugs on him since they did not think Dean would ever wake up. His family had already lost Dean’s mother in 2007.
Refusing to give up, they turned to their church and all their friends for prayers. His family congregated in his room every day to beg for a divine intervention.
Dean’s stepmom Ruth is a professional singer and she would sing to Dean every time she was visiting. One night, when she ran out of songs to sing, she started singing Rock-a-bye-baby. Little did she know that when Dean was a baby, his parents received a gift of a mobile to hang above his crib, and it played Rock-a-Bye-Baby. It was supposed to soothe him, but every time it played, Dean would burst out in a crying fit. This time, when Ruth sang Rock-a-Bye-Baby, Dean’s eyes opened. (Later on, they would joke that Dean had woken up because he wanted her to “zip it”.
The prognosis was not good though. For weeks, Dean was unresponsive to any stimulus. All he did was stare blankly at the ceiling, which the doctors said would be the only thing that he could ever do. Prior to his injury, Dean was very active and sporty. He was the lead singer in a band and often performed in the school’s talent shows. He loved baseball, hockey and snowboarding. He played in the Mississauga Hockey League and was a member of his school’s curling team. It was devastating to think that he might not ever be able to speak or move again.
During one prayer vigil, when Dean’s brother Chris was standing at the end of the bed, he thought that Dean was looking at him, but he wasn’t sure. So, he raised his eyebrows at him, and Dean raised his eyebrows to copy him. Chris got everyone’s attention. He raised his eyebrows again. Dean followed. That was the very first time he reacted to anything. Everyone cheered and Dean started laughing too. This glimpse of hope dared them to believe in more. Surely a week later, Dean said his first word by calling his stepmom “Mama.” And for the next few days, he kept on calling Ruth ‘Mama’, until one night, when Ruth came to visit and said, “Mama is here.” Dean responded, “Hi Ruth.” Two months after the collision, Dean’s self-awareness came back, but his mentality was like that of a two-year-old. He was able to participate in simple conversations, but he could not understand where he was and who he was. David was determined to raise him from scratch all over again and believed that he would grow up faster this time.
David took on the responsibility of being the primary caregiver. With motherly tenderness, he helped Dean with feeding, showering, dressing, getting in and out of bed, and almost every single task of his daily living. He was also his therapist. When Dean’s eyes were crossed, David was determined to fix them by placing his index fingers in front of his eyes and asking Dean to look straight at the fingers. Dean also had problems with controlling his facial muscles. He would make funny expressions every time he moved his legs. David put a mirror in front of him to make him more aware of this habit.
When Dean was severely depressed over his disabilities, David had to become his emotional punching bag, sharing his pain and burden. David rarely got angry when Dean had these moments. The rest of the family was also amazing. His grandmother Rena, brother Chris and sister Chantelle took responsibility in caring for him. They would accompany him to doctor’s appointments. When David couldn’t be there, they would help him get in and out of bed and make sure that he was well fed. During his darkest period, Dean turned to his friend Emily who works as an elementary school teacher. Being a great listener and life coach, she helped Dean realize that he still had a wicked sense of humour and an adorable personality. She helped Dean embrace his new self and encouraged him to kick-start a new life.
Today, Dean is almost eight years post injury. With the support of all of his family and friends, he has rebuilt his life in every way. Though his hands and arms are still a work in progress, he is able to stand and walk with aids. He graduated from Sheridan College with straight As and is now enrolled in the Professional Writing Program in York University. He is a motivational speaker who informs young people about dangerous driving habits. His powerful testimony of resilience and human strength has touched thousands of people in local schools and churches. Cancer patients have come up to him and told him how much they were inspired to fight their illness with hope and positivity.
Dean still treasures that newspaper article. At the time, it helped him fully comprehend why he was in the hospital. But today, the article shows him how far he has moved forward from that point. Dean is now looking ahead to make more use of his story and his talents. With his loved ones supporting him, he knows that everything is possible for his future.
Originally published by
Nancy Xia is Information & Resource Specialist at Spinal Cord Injury Ontario.