Rethinking fatherhood: lessons from Canada's first paraplegic Ironman

Ironman and paraplegic Robert Buren wants his kids to believe that anything is possible.

man sitting and young woman standing

Rob Buren was living his dream life, until the Sunday morning when his spine snapped. The Microsoft marketing manager; his wife, Sabrina; and their two sweet daughters: Zara and Chloe lived in a two-storey house on the west side of Oakville, Ont. Their backyard edged onto a green space with a trail system. Rob loved to cycle on weekends, and it was onto those trails that he took off with friends on mountain bikes, while Sabrina and the girls (aged two and four at the time) were at home, looking forward to making pancakes together on his return. After an hour, Rob and his friend Eric broke away and made for an obstacle course they knew, full of fallen trees and ramps made of out of old lumber.

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   What life is like for parents with a disability

That day Rob decided to try a bigger jump than he’d ever attempted before, a ramp with a four-foot drop. “Worst case, I might need your help getting out of the forest,” he called out to Eric, thinking he might damage his bike if he didn’t quite achieve the perfect landing.

What happened next re-set the course of his life and forced him to redefine his whole concept of fatherhood.

Despite being a self-confessed speed fiend, Rob approached the ramp cautiously and went over it too slowly. When his front tire struck the ground, he didn’t have enough momentum, and the bike balanced there for a second. He waited for the back wheel to touch down, too. But it didn’t. Instead, time slowed down as Rob pitched forward over the handlebars, landing hard on the top of his head. The force of the impact sent a shock of energy down his back, which made a loud popping sound. It also drove his T11 vertebra up on top of his T12 (the two vertebrae that attach to the lowest ribs), pinching the spinal cord between them and in an instant severing all feeling from the lower half of his body. Right away he was aware that he couldn’t feel his legs.

The next 20 minutes tell you everything you need to know about Rob Buren. As Eric took off back down the trail for help, Rob found himself alone and immobile in the quiet of the woods, staring up into the canopy of leaves overhead. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. His first thought was of his daughters: how he wouldn’t be able to dance with them at their weddings. Next he found himself wondering whether he might get back to work in a day or two. Then he thought of his wife, and how he didn’t want her to have to take care of him.

When the paramedics arrived, they carried Rob through the woods to a nearby field, where he was helicoptered to a hospital. With his body now in shock, his temperature dropped, and the swelling climbed up to his T7 vertebra, which is crucial in supporting the spinal cord, ribcage, and chest muscles. That meant the injury would also affect bodily functions such as bowel control and sexual function. Rob was wrapped in a heating blanket when Sabrina walked into the hospital room. Seeing his wife, he finally broke down. “I’m sorry,” he said, over and over again, crying. “I’m so sorry.”

That was the beginning of a grieving process that Rob would have to repeat many more times, for reasons big and small. “I grieve everything I’ve lost: the ability to control my bladder or go for a run or play soccer with my kids,” he explains. But Rob is nothing if not a pragmatist, and he felt it was a waste of time to ask ‘Why me?’ or attach any meaning to the accident. His goal was to move on.

Over the next three months, Rob’s enormous extended family leapt into action, modifying his Oakville home with ramps, widened doors and hardwood floors to accommodate his wheelchair. A neighbour, who was an architect who specializes in designing hospitals swiftly drew up plans to have an elevator installed. Friends-of-friends and even strangers often came to help with the work. “It was like a barn-raising,” says Rob.

As Rob’s brothers and uncles oversaw the renovations, Sabrina and the girls moved in with her mom for seven weeks. “The kids were so little,” she recalls. “Those days were a complete blur. I remember a lot of people speaking to me in hushed tones in hospital corridors.” Sabrina admits she had some pretty dark moments. “You go through all the emotions, but when there are kids involved, you just step up to give them some sense of normalcy. You don’t know your own strength.”

Meanwhile, Rob was in hospital, coming to terms with a whole new way of being in the world. He often cried after Sabrina and the kids visited, but he was determined to focus on the possibilities. (When a chaplain at the hospital commiserated, “I don’t know how I would possibly cope in your situation,” he asked her to leave).

The girls were too young to grasp what was happening. When they visited Rob, he tried to project warmth and calm, so they wouldn’t feel afraid. “I would hate to be the cause of them being scared,” he says. But his extended stay took a toll, which became apparent when Chloe came to visit Rob a few weeks after the accident and showed him a picture she’d made of the family—only he wasn’t in it. “You can’t be in the pictures because you’re in the hospital,” she explained. That hit Rob hard.

Chloe was just trying to make sense of their new reality, but when Sabrina saw the hurt register in Rob’s eyes, she resolved to coach their eldest to draw her dad in his wheelchair. From then on, a new type of family portrait emerged: Mommy was the tallest, then came Daddy in his large-wheeled chair (later smoke would be drawn coming out from behind, to show how fast he could go), then the girls. For Rob, that was the beginning of their recovery as a family.

child's drawing

And Rob hadn’t even left the hospital before he started reimagining his life—he was determined to be a strong role model for his children and get active again. After a paraplegic athlete and recreation specialist visited him in rehab and offered to let Rob try out his hand-cycle, he was doing laps around the parking lot. A few months later, he saw a young paraplegic athlete on TV, who had broken his back doing motocross, competing in the Ironman. “I’m thinking, Holy crap, this kid just did that Ironman with his arms. Could I ever do anything like that?,” Rob says. Shortly after, he was getting fitted for a racing chair.

The road to becoming a paraplegic athlete is long and arduous, and the logistics are intense: there’s a lot of gear to maintain, getting suited up can take almost as much time as the workout itself, and traffic is an ever-present danger. As challenging as it was to get out of the house at all—let alone to train for as many as 15 hours a week on the roads around southwestern Ontario—this regime became vitally important to Rob immediately after his discharge from the hospital. He had been given drugs to control the pain that emanated from his damaged spinal cord, but one of the side effects was that “the medications allowed my brain to contemplate suicide,” says Rob. Though he never seriously considered acting upon those thoughts, he was terrified by their dark nature. After struggling with the meds for three years, he decided to stop taking them and turn instead to meditation and exercise, which he found to be the most effective, albeit far from perfect, natural pain-management remedies.

Even as he was learning how to cope with his disability and become an endurance athlete, Rob’s top priority was the day-to-day work of being a dad. “I had to adapt how I parented,” he says. There were a lot of things he wanted to do, but no longer could, like building a snowfort in the backyard or simply lifting his kids. “That’s been one of the tough parts for me,” he says. “When the kids woke up in the middle of the night because they’d had a bad dream, I couldn’t just scoop them up and bring them to bed.” Early on, before Rob had mastered the skill of transferring from the van to his wheelchair on his own, he remembers feeling heartbroken when the family returned home from an outing one snowy winter night, and he waited in the van while Sabrina had to carry their daughters up to their rooms alone, before returning to assist him.

Other parts of his identity also felt erased. Rob grew up doing construction with his father and brothers, but now simple things like shoveling the driveway after a snowstorm were too much for him. “I used to build houses, but suddenly I couldn’t even change a light fixture,” he says. And Rob can’t work due to his ongoing struggle with nerve pain, but he keeps busy in more flexible roles such as volunteering on the board for Spinal Cord Injury Ontario and speaking publicly about his experience. The family supports itself from a combination of Sabrina’s freelance consultancy work, their savings, and Rob’s health insurance.

Despite the limitations, Rob has found plenty that he can still share with his girls. “I’m always trying to find ways to be the dad I was hoping to be,” he says. Rob appreciates being there when they come home from school, so he can hear how their day was. He has a passion for music (Rob and Sabrina met as university students at rehearsals for My Fair Lady), so he loves helping his daughters with their piano and singing practice. And a friend adapted Rob’s workshop to put the tools within reach from a wheelchair, so the girls have learned to safely use saws, drills, and sanders with their dad—something Rob has fond memories of doing with his own father.

Nine years on from the accident, Rob easily transfers himself into his wheelchair with the smooth, confident movements of an athlete. (Transferring is an art that Rob doesn’t take for granted—the bones in his legs have lost much of their density, so even a small fall could cause a break.) He still struggles with neuropathic pain, what Rob refers to as “fake pain” because it originates from the damaged nerves in his spine but feels like it comes from his feet and legs: a burning sensation that often gets worse over the course of the day. For Rob, it’s a cruel irony that the part of his body that he can’t use is the part that feels like it is giving him so much pain. There are days when it feels like he’s on fire, which can be a serious challenge to his parenting. “I want to be a fun dad, but when you feel like you’re going to explode, your patience decreases,” he says. The girls are mindful of this and often check in with their dad about how he’s feeling, and help in whatever ways they can. “They scratch my head. That helps decrease the pain.”

On top of their thoughtfulness and good manners, Rob’s children have also clearly absorbed his drive. His eldest, Chloe, is now 13 and lives most of the year at Canada’s National Ballet School, in Toronto, where she’s training hard to become a ballerina. Even though Rob can’t model all the things he would have liked—he tries to instill in his daughters strong values, such as perseverance and goal-setting, through his own athletic accomplishments.

It started with a 200-km ride over two days on his hand-cycle in 2009, then a marathon in his racing chair in 2010, a triathlon that same year, a half-Ironman in 2012, and finally in 2013 Rob became the first Canadian paraplegic to complete a full Ironman—with Sabrina by his side, racing, too—less than five years after the accident. After that, Rob set his sights on the Ironman championships in Kona, Hawaii, and after two years of trying to qualify, he finally completed the race last October.

man in wheelchair

Athletics have been a way for the family to connect more deeply, too. Rob and Sabrina often train and compete together and the trips to competitions double as family vacations. Now that Chloe is a serious athlete, training as much as 30 hours a week at the ballet school, Rob adapts the lessons he’s learned from his own Ironman preparation and coaches her on self-care and avoiding injury. Zara is a horseriding fanatic, who boards her pony at local stables. And even though there were many falls at first, Sabrina says “I’ve stopped being afraid because she’s working so hard to get better—that little pony cannot get that kid off her back now.” This year, the girls helped Rob design a large tattoo on his upper arm commemorating the Kona championship, which is a reminder on days when the pain is bad that he can do big things. (Zara also wants him to get a tattoo of the family cat, as well as her own name in giant letters.)

“This story isn’t about the fact that I broke my back and did the Ironman,” Rob says. “It’s about how my kids have come to think anything is possible.”

Man, woman and two young girls on beach

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