A Survivor Speaks

The Stunt of a Lifetime

Yanick really shouldn’t be alive. Victim of a major automobile accident at the age of 17, doctors didn’t give him 24 hours to live. Twenty years later, he takes a look back at all the obstacles he’s had to overcome, including cheating death.

By Didier Tremblay

Yanick

Nothing distinguished Yanick from any other typical teen. A gifted high school student, his parents’ divorce brought about a severe adolescent crisis that he drowned in alcohol. He was sensitive, like a lot of other kids his age.

Face to Face with Death

The day started out happily enough. On December 21st, 1990, with Christmas fast approaching, Yanick and two of his friends went out in a car to do some Christmas shopping. The young man was in the passenger’s seat. One friend sat in the back seat and one of his best friends, Martin, was driving.

All three were in a good mood. There were no drugs or alcohol involved. The car wasn’t speeding. Despite all this, their lives were upset forever in a fraction of a second.

They were victims of a head-on collision. The impact projected the passenger in the rear seat towards the front. “He didn’t have his seatbelt on,” says Yanick. Yanick’s brain absorbed the impact. In fact, it was his cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls body movement, that was damaged. “Later on, the doctor explained to me that that’s what controls the brain, and that during the accident it was as if it had been in a blender.”

10 Days in a Coma

Yanick ended up in a hospital emergency ward in critical condition. “The first diagnosis didn’t give me 24 hours to live. By the end of the day they were giving me 48 hours left. Once that had passed by, the doctors had no idea what was going on. But given the impact and the damage to my cerebellum, they expected my coma to last for 16 months. And the longer you remain in a coma, the more serious the consequences.”

On December 31st, 10 days later, Yanick emerged from his coma, to general surprise and against all medical predictions. “I didn’t recognize my mother or my friends. I recognized the father of one of my friends, but not my friend!” The young man was confused and disoriented.

“I wouldn’t wish a coma on anyone. It’s total nothingness. When you awaken you have no idea who you are. I amazed my friends with that accident. I could see snow through my hospital window. But I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know that it was winter.”

Impossible Rehabilitation

One bit of unpleasantness followed the other. Yanick had to undergo a tracheotomy after the tube they’d put in his mouth to feed him had touched his vocal cords, which got swollen. His brain injury had paralyzed the entire right side of his body, which he could not move.

Yanick recalls: “My doctor came to tell me that he didn’t think that I would ever walk or talk again. He listed a whole bunch of things I’d never be able to do. My right eye was closed, and I couldn’t raise my right arm at all. So I raised my left arm and gave him the finger.”

Yanick developed a will to live he hadn’t known before. He emptied all his energy into the fight: “My mother was with me all the time at the hospital. I had a lot of friends come and visit me. But I felt alone because they couldn’t fight this for me. When you’re in a hospital bed and half your body won’t move, you don’t know what is happening. I had to ask myself the question: am I going to give up? The easiest answer would have been yes. But I convinced myself that I could succeed.”

The young man was determined. He’d make liars of all the doctors who didn’t believe he’d pull through. He worked on his attitude: “Someone came into my room and I heard him say, ‘too bad, you were so great.’ I threw him out immediately. I didn’t need that. Other people said, ‘You must be furious at Martin for driving.’ No. I didn’t have the luxury of hating another human being, no matter what. I have to fight for me, for my survival.”

At the Charles-Lemoyne Hospital, Yanick forced his body to respond to his commands. He had to re-learn how to talk and walk. “I got angry at myself sometimes! Because re-learning those things that come naturally, at age 17, it’s tough.”

He walked endlessly around whatever hospital floor he was on. “I was supposed to use a walker. But I never wanted to.” When he saw that the nurses were looking at him he’d grip a rail so that they didn’t impose a walker on him. After 3 ½ months he was released from the hospital. “And I left on my own two legs,” he says proudly.

A Survivor

A year after his accident, Yanick’s life resumed its normal course. He ended up in rehab to re-educate his paralyzed right side. He went back to school, drove his car and even played rugby.

“I went back to see my doctor because I had a problem with cramps in my hand,” he recalls. “It bothered me, for school. As soon as the doctor saw me he told me to get out of his office. He said: ‘Yanik, you shouldn’t even be alive. At best, you should be a vegetable. And yet you walk, you drive, you go to school. You did it all yourself. So do the same thing for your hand.’

The young man left this appointment reinvigorated. He realized how strong his will was. He finished high school and enrolled in business school, at Montréal’s famous HEC (Hautes Études Commerciales). But short of funds, he had to leave before getting his degree. That disappointed one of his professors who appreciated his presence and his commitment.

“If it hadn’t been for my accident, I don’t know what I’d be doing today. But ever since, I’m not content with just being good at something. I have to excel. It’s mental. I put this pressure on myself. That’s what trips me out, like the reaction of my business school professor. I thought I was just good. But when he asked me to not drop his course, I understood that I was better than just good.”

Yanick felt that his will could allow him to do what he wanted. And just as he had cheated death, he savored every moment life had to offer him.

One day, en route to a rehab appointment, he saw a casting agency. “I said to myself, here, then, I could do this too.”

A New Start

He continues: “So I took cinema courses. When people saw me act, they said, ‘wow!’ I did a play, where I had the lead role. Yes, I had to work very hard to memorize my lines. But I have the character to do that.”

Yanick was assured that there’d be many contracts. Until the day he talked about his accident and his brain injury. “I was categorized: incapable, handicapped. I could feel the difference. So I worked as an extra and in dubbing.”

Yanick doesn’t blame anyone. As with his accident, he doesn’t direct his anger towards others. He uses these situations as motivation. He wanted to be a member of the artists’ union (Union Des Artistes, or UDA). No one was going to get in his way.

So instead of being an actor or a comedian, Yanick developed his skills as a stuntman. And it was at the headquarters of the UDA that he met the woman who would one day be his wife.

He ended up giving up his stuntman career for her: “I don’t do it anymore! Because when you’re a stuntman, it’s not only in the movies. You become one in life!”

Yanick looks back at the 20 years that have elapsed since his accident, and he is proud. “Who would have thought in 1990, when I was in my hospital bed, that I’d become a member of the UDA and married to a jewel of a wife? I shouldn’t have survived! Life has given me a second chance. And I am grateful for it. But I’ve had some tough times. It’s crazy to see how people react when they know what happened to me. So I don’t talk about it much. Because people don’t understand. Even the doctors don’t understand. I should be dead. Or a vegetable. And I want more than anyone else. It upsets people. But I’ve only just begun. I’m not even 40 yet!”

Yanick loves life. He does a bit of everything. He works with the disabled, with people who’ve suffered a brain injury. He puts on motivational conferences to explain why and how life is beautiful and what people’s willpower can do for them. And he’s thinking of returning to HEC, to finish what he started there.

Because he doesn’t just want to be good. He wants to be the best.

First seen on Raymond Viger’s blog, October 26th, 2011

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