A life with purpose and meaning; There have been years of milestones in the challenging,
rewarding life of quadriplegic Paul Legault
Byline: Andrew Duffy Andrew Duffy; Canwest News Service
Section: Weekend Review
Type: Feature; Profile
Memo: Profile of Paul Legault.
From his hospital bed, Paul Legault eyed the typewriter parked in the corner of his room. It was
an arm's length away but might as well have been on another planet. He could barely move a
Legault had suffered a catastrophic neck injury during a high school football game. Two of his
cervical vertebrae had been crushed, damaging his spinal cord beyond repair.
For two months, he had been in Toronto's Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre with only flickers of
movement in his left bicep. Prospects for recovery were grim, although no one had told him that
Alone, with his family and friends back in his hometown of Kirkland Lake, Ont. -- he had been
flown to Toronto for rehabilitation -- Legault was growing increasingly despondent.
Then his physiotherapist decided to seize on that twitch of electricity in his arm. She rolled
Legault's wheelchair to the corner, placed his left arm in a sling, attached it to a spring fastened
to the ceiling, then perched his hand over the manual typewriter. A splint on his left hand held a
Legault wriggled and bounced to gain enough momentum to mash the old keys with the pencil's
An hour later, exhausted, he had finished the first sentence of his new life: "I've just turned
As a boy, growing up in Kirkland Lake, Paul Legault didn't aspire to a writing career.
His report cards were peppered with words like "lazy," "disruptive" and "class clown." Never much
of a student, he dreamed of life as a professional athlete like some of the town's hockey
luminaries: Dick Duff, Ralph Backstrom, Bob and Barclay Plager.
PRO SPORTS PROSPECT
Legault had every reason to think he'd follow in their footsteps.
As an outside linebacker for Kirkland Lake Collegiate and Vocational Institute, he had attracted
the attention of Canadian Football League scouts. The Toronto Maple Leafs had expressed interest
in him as a goalie prospect.
At 15, Legault held two Junior Olympics swim records -- in the backstroke and individual medley
-- and had been invited to the 1976 Olympic trials. (His official invitation arrived while he was in
He figured on joining the RCMP if his athletic career didn't materialize.
But on Oct. 9, 1975, all of his collected dreams were left behind on the football field. In hospital,
Legault came to realize that his childhood also ended that day, that he would never again know its
carefree, kinetic bliss.
That's when a typewriter entered his life and, quite possibly, saved it.
This is a year of milestones in the life of Paul Legault.
In July 2009, he celebrated his 25th wedding anniversary by taking a boat cruise with his wife,
Janet. In late October, he will mark his 50th birthday with a party at his home in Ottawa.
For Legault, the passages invite reflection, which is a godsend for someone wrestling so heroically
with his memoirs. Legault has been trying to put his life down on paper for more than 25 years.
There is much to write.
Four years after the injury that left him a quadriplegic, Legault moved to Ottawa to pursue a
university degree. Carleton University had agreed to admit him, even though he had not
completed high school.
Legault's goal was to return to Kirkland Lake with a law degree to fight on behalf of other accident
victims. He had received only $20,000 in an out-of- court settlement for his injury.
But he found the courses dull, so after two years, he transferred to Algonquin College where he
earned a social services diploma. With a pen in his mouth, he took notes in class.
He went on to earn bachelor's degrees at Carleton University (social work) and the University of
Ottawa (education). In each case, he graduated summa cum laude, one of the top students in his
He married a fellow social worker, Janet Graham, in 1984, and together they've raised two
children. Jason is now 17 years old; Jacob is 14.
Legault has coached hockey, diving and baseball. (He was so intense that his softball players once
disconnected his wheelchair battery to prevent him from confronting the other team's coach.)
He has worked as a co-ordinator with the Canadian Paraplegic Association; as a counsellor for
students with disabilities at Algonquin College; and as a consultant on accessibility issues.
His love affair with writing has never wavered. For the past decade, he has devoted himself to it
exclusively as a freelance editor and writer. He has published a book of poems, Life's Path,
children's books, Doc the Hawk and Stringbean and the Giant, and written several teen novels.
He's focused now on his autobiography, Backbone. The writing of Backbone has been fraught with
false starts and wrong turns. After struggling for two years to pen the first 30 pages, Legault
turned to a professional writer for help. Countless interviews followed. But the end product -- it
had ballooned to more than 700 formless pages -- did not reflect Legault's vision.
"The biggest message of the book is: 'Never give up'," he says.
Legault has received two Canada Council for the Arts grants to work on the project, which remains
half-finished. He has completed about 200 pages, but the work is painfully slow since he tries to
orchestrate full chapters in his head before committing them to print. He uses a mouthstick and a
portable computer to write and edit. "It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," he says.
"But I will never give up on that book until it's done."
His memoir begins on that fateful October day.
The second Thursday in October 1975, arrived as a crisp blue gift in northern Ontario.
In the town of Kirkland Lake, a community built to mine the gold of the Canadian Shield, 15-year-
old Paul Legault inhaled a bowl of Cheerios, before bolting out the door for an early morning
Legault had a bottomless appetite for physical activity. Football, baseball, hockey, soccer,
swimming, diving, Legault was good at them all. His father, Marcel, a hotel manager and former
gold miner, had once been a professional boxer. Those skills had been useful to his son.
"You'd either fight or you didn't survive," says Paul Legault, who was a muscular 5-foot-10, 180-
What would prove to be the longest day of Legault's life started badly soon after he arrived at
school. That morning, his girlfriend of eight days, Sally, announced that she didn't want to see
him any more. She offered him the money he'd paid for her ticket to the movie Jaws the previous
Then, his English teacher gave him the gears for showing up to drop off a note that excused him
from class for a football game. He often skipped English class altogether.
It left Legault in a stormy mood as he boarded the team bus later that morning for the three-hour
drive to Timmins, Ont. Everyone on the football team was in a suit and tie.
That day's game was an occasion as the league's undefeated teams, both 3-0, were to square off.
Legault remembers the grass feeling so rich underfoot that he thought he might like to be tackled
In the first half, the contest belonged to the Kirkland Lake Red Devils. The team had scored four
unanswered touchdowns to take a 28- 0 lead. Two minutes before halftime, Legault lined up for a
kickoff following his team's latest scoring drive. His job was to keep "containment" -- to ensure
the Timmins kick returner didn't turn the corner on his side of the field.
Some Timmins girls on the sidelines heckled him as "useless." Legault thought again of Sally --
"Watch this," he replied.
ONE TERRIBLE MOMENT
The kickoff, however, sailed to the far side of the field and Legault relaxed for a second. But the
other team's return man, Mike Kardis, managed to avoid tacklers as he steamed toward the far
sideline and daylight.
Legault was the only one left between him and the end zone.
He ran straight toward Kardis and lowered his helmet, preparing to meet the 6-foot-2, 210-pound
running back. He remembers trying to turn his head at the last second to avoid a helmet-on-
helmet collision. He didn't make the adjustment in time.
"At that instant," he writes in his memoir, "I was sure a cannon had gone off in my ears.
"I could feel myself falling backwards and everything appeared to be happening in slow motion.
The sun was bright in my eyes as I lay on the field looking up at the perfectly blue, cloudless sky
and I remembered my earlier thoughts of how I wouldn't mind being tackled, falling on the thick
soft turf. Little did I know.
"I kept trying to get up, but I couldn't. My legs and arms felt like they were pointing straight up in
the air, like a dog on its back, but I could not see them. Panic ... I began to panic because I
couldn't see my arms and legs sticking straight up. Where were they?"
The referee held Legault's head to the ground as he struggled to get up. A crowd gathered.
Legault grew frantic. He demanded to know what had happened to his limbs. He was assured they
were still at his side. Then the referee asked if he could feel him pinching his legs. Legault didn't
understand what he was talking about: He felt no pain. He couldn't feel a thing.
Janet Graham knew something was afoot when the same young man kept wheeling past her
receptionist's desk at The Ottawa Hospital's Civic campus.
He had long brown hair, wide-set green eyes and a devilish smile that beamed out from his rakish
beard. Some people said he looked like the actor Freddie Prinze, star of the popular '70s sitcom,
Chico and the Man. Janet didn't think so.
"He was pretty cute, though," she remembers.
One day, during that summer of 1982, the young man stopped at Janet's desk. He asked her out
for dinner; she suggested coffee instead.
Paul and Janet began to meet regularly in the cafeteria. He would faithfully deposit a polished
green apple at her desk every morning. Eventually, he summoned the courage to ask her out
again, to a friend's wedding. This time, she agreed.
They danced together at the reception, Janet in his lap. A photograph from that night reveals a
strikingly beautiful young couple aglow in each other's company.
He wrote her poetry. They camped and travelled. Many people thought she was his nurse.
"It was a fairly natural assumption to make: People were kind of shocked," she says. "I know my
friends would say, 'Are you going to marry him? You're not going to marry him, are you?' "
Janet told her friends she wouldn't not marry Paul just because he was in a wheelchair. Besides,
she thought it complemented him.
"The wheelchair, I think, probably even made it more real," she says. "It showed me what a
determined person he was: The wheelchair didn't slow him down. It made him a better person."
Paul had told friends he had met his future wife after laying eyes on Janet for the first time. But
he didn't really believe his own bravado. "After the accident, it was not something I ever thought
Yet, one year after their first date, Paul Legault and Janet Graham were engaged. On their
wedding day, Janet was a half-hour late for the church service. Paul worried she had
reconsidered, but the truth proved less dramatic: Her father had stopped to get the car washed.
They spent their honeymoon in Niagara Falls.
On a visit to Marineland, they went to the petting zoo, where a deer took a shine to the wooden
joystick that controlled Paul's motorized wheelchair. The deer licked and chewed the salt-stained
control, jerking Paul in every direction. When Janet steered the animal away, another deer took
The newlyweds laughed and laughed.
In 34 years as a quadriplegic, there have been dark moments.
Legault remembers pondering the abyss one day while parked in his wheelchair behind Toronto's
Lyndhurst Centre, about one year after the accident. He thought about rolling into the Don River
Valley below, but worried he might only ruin his face. "I thought, 'Ah, I'll just be ugly and be in a
wheelchair.' I was too vain to kill myself."
He remembers returning to Kirkland Lake and going with friends to the park where he used to
play baseball. A ball rolled against the side of his wheelchair, and although he tried mightily,
Legault could not pick it up. He brooded for a week -- he realized then he would never walk again
-- before resolving to work harder on his rehabilitation.
Legault remembers in 1986 waking from surgery that removed a cyst in his spinal cord only to
discover the movement in his left arm and hands -- movement he had worked so hard to build --
had been lost in the operation. It meant he could no longer propel his own wheelchair, feed
himself or lift himself into bed.
None of it, though, led him back to despair. He has never again contemplated suicide since that
day atop the Don River Valley.
He knows he will never walk again. He doesn't waste time thinking about it.
Instead, he concentrates on the gifts in his life: his wife (a cancer survivor), his children, his
ability to write, to motivate other people. He insists, too, that he's thankful for his life's central
"I'm glad I had this accident for a lot of reasons," he says. "One of them is because I'm the
person I am today: I think I'm a well-adjusted, loving, caring person. And I don't know if I would
have been that had I not had the accident."
His wheelchair has taught him much about sacrifice. His parents, Marcel and Barbara, mortgaged
their home to help him; his two younger sisters, Christin and Sandy, nursed him for years.
"I didn't realize, until later in life, how hard it must have been for them. But I love them for it."
His wheelchair has given him faith in himself. Few thought he could succeed in university after
his desultory high school career, but he proved himself an academic. Last year, Legault lost 80
pounds on an extremely low-calorie diet -- he can't exercise to lose weight -- that also brought his
diabetes and blood pressure under control.
Legault is not religious. He believes his exceptional willpower courses straight from his athlete's
"In sports, I was just so determined to do well at everything. This, being in a wheelchair, was just
another thing I wasn't going to fail at."
SALVATION IN WRITING
Paul Legault's one-storey home is set in a forest beside the Mississippi River. His backyard is so
thickly treed that he must use his imagination to visualize the river from the window of his
bedroom, where he spends most of his days, writing.
Legault has a bedside table with a portable computer mounted in a wooden frame. Its steeply
angled keyboard allows him to use a thin mouth stick, about half-a-metre long, to type while
sitting in his adjustable bed.
Legault has spent much of the past decade in bed. He has been struggling to recover from a
massive pilonidal cyst discovered in 1999. Writing has been a salvation of sorts. He began to write
as therapy for both his body and spirit; he does it now to keep himself engaged.
He believes his life holds an important message.
"I don't want people to read this and pity me. I want them to read it and go, 'Wow, if he can do it,
I can do it ...'