Editor's note: This column originally ran on Oct. 8, 2009.
Life, 10 years later
His blurry memories of Oct. 6, 1999, include getting dressed for another routine day of high school and hitching a ride in his buddy's car, but Rob Komosa recalls nothing of the after-school football practice injury that ended his football career, nearly killed him and robbed him of his ability to walk, move his arms and legs, and breathe on his own.
"I remember it being a Wednesday, the last day of hard (full-contact) practice," Komosa says from his bed on the 10th anniversary of the injury. "I don't remember the practice or the carry that got me hurt."
His mornings now are easy to remember as they all begin the same, with his body naked under the covers and his mom at his bedside.
"She'll turn me on my left side and give me a suppository," says Komosa. His hair receding now, he still is quick with a smile or a joke, and remains an inspiration for countless people who have helped with or followed his journey since he was a 17-year-old kid.
Barbara Komosa, 55, raises her son's bed into a sitting position, makes coffee and pours it into a bedside cup with an extra-long straw. A Polish immigrant who came to Chicago, met and married fellow immigrant Stanley Komosa and became a U.S. citizen, she speaks mostly Polish to her "Robby Boy" as she feeds him.
The wait for that suppository to kick in can be minutes, or chew up an entire morning.
"I'll have a bowel movement. My mom will clean me," Komosa says, as a sheepish grin spreads across his
face. "I never envisioned myself 27 years old and wearing a diaper, and my mom having to feed me and clean me."
For the next 20 minutes or so, his mom, a former forklift driver, pulls, pushes and tugs her son's 6-foot-2, 180-pound frame into a pair of black jeans and a "Blues Brothers" sweatshirt reading, "On a Mission from God." It can take longer if he has spasms, Komosa says, explaining how even though he can't feel them, his arms and legs sometimes twitch despite an antispasmodic drug he takes.
He is constantly tethered to a ventilator, whether it's the one near his bed or the one on the back of his wheelchair that enables him to travel in his van, attend a White Sox or Bears game, accompany his mom on a shopping trip, or even hang out at a bar with his sister, Ann, and their friends.
With her son dressed, the mom puts a salve around his tracheotomy, shaves him, brushes his teeth and wheels over a hydraulic hoist.
"She's obviously a strong woman, but I can tell it's taking a toll on her," Komosa says, as his mom rolls him from side to side to work the harness under his frame.
"It's just like an engine lift," says Komosa, who once thought he might become an auto mechanic after high school.
"You have to have good technique and a good system," his mom says. She hoists him into the air, swings his body away from the bed and lowers him into a high-tech wheelchair that "costs as much as a new car," Komosa says.
Using his head to push a blue button on the left side of his headrest, Komosa adjusts settings that enable him to use a "Sip-N-Puff" straw near his mouth to tilt his chair, turn it, or send it forward or backward. It's not one of those Corvettes he used to drive as a teen during his part-time job as a car porter at a Schaumburg auto dealership, or even his late father's old 1987 Chevy Celebrity, "but at least I'm able to drive my wheelchair," Komosa says.
"The straw can get plugged and then the chair has a mind of its own," he says, acknowledging "a few accidents" where he "scratched up the walls."
Maneuvering is better now that he and his mom and their black-and-white cat Beaulisha have moved into a large, new Barrington Hills house that Komosa helped design to meet his needs. The hallways and doors are wide. Electrical outlets are plentiful. Extra rooms serve as medical supply closets, filled with tubes, pads and other equipment.
An elevator takes Komosa from his first-floor bedroom to the second floor or to the basement where he plans to hang with visitors. Most importantly, Komosa says, there is a first-floor bedroom for his mom, who lost her factory job because she couldn't rely on the home medical service that was provided before her son graduated from high school.
"You leave him alone and he could die," Barbara Komosa says.
For the last four years, she has slept on a mattress placed on an exercise mat in a bathroom/office next to her son's room so she could be there for him at all hours of the night and day. And she was grateful for that.
In the wake of Komosa's injury, the community rallied around him, raising tens of thousands of dollars to help the working-class family move from their cramped home in Arlington Heights to a larger, handicapped-accessible home in Mount Prospect. The Duchossois family, owners of Arlington Park, gave him a handicapped-accessible van.
Various churches offered tons of support. Catholic Deacon Don Grossnickle has been a friend and advocate since he prayed with the team after the injury. Barbara Komosa, a Catholic who has a crucifix in Rob's room, says her faith never wavered.
"I've met so many friends who have helped me so much," Rob Komosa says, repeating that sentiment often. "I know my mom and I and family couldn't have gotten this far without so much help from the community. I just want to thank everyone."
In 2005, Komosa was awarded a $12.5 million settlement that ended his lawsuit against Northwest Suburban High School District 214, which owned the field where the injury occurred. Lawyers and medical costs took most of that money, Komosa says, but some was used to set up annuities and build the "dream house," in which they are still unpacking.
Komosa says he is better off than other people with disabilities who don't have his financial wherewithal or support from friends, family and strangers. He notes that he never had a date with a girl, but he did get to visit Poland before his injury.
Komosa's ability to persevere and inspire fueled Grossnickle's push for The Gridiron Warriors Alliance, a charity helping other injured athletes. That has been one of the "good things" to come from his injury, Komosa says. He figures his quadriplegic status might even have made him into a better person, or at least one who appreciates each day more.
"I love talking about my friend Rob. He is my hero," Grossnickle says. The deacon says Komosa inspired so many, and "a sleeping giant of community goodness was awakened."
Ann Komosa, just 13 months younger, says her brother has been an inspiration to her, her friends and so many others.
"You feel guilty for being able to do all these things," Ann Komosa admits. "But we still treat each other the same. He's always been like a boy's boy. My boyfriend comes over and they'll talk about sports."
Rob Komosa says he's looking forward to his longtime buddy, Tim Guza, his sister and their friends watching games on his TV in the basement and enjoying some beverages.
"Gin and tonics," his mom says, laughing. "They're talking. They're drinking. They're crazy."
While she has an apartment in the city, Ann Komosa visits the new house often.
"I think he's dealt with it a lot better than some people would have," she says of her brother. "He tries to focus on what he can do instead of what he can't."
Not everyone in the family could manage that adjustment to the 17-year-old boy's new life as a quadriplegic.
"It took a big toll on my dad. I don't think he ever got over it," Komosa says of his father, who died of heart complications in 2006 at age 63. A machine operator in a small factory, Stanley Komosa used to take his son fishing every weekend.
After the accident, they never spent another minute alone "because he couldn't take care of me by himself," Komosa says. "He was afraid to take care of me."
They didn't discuss the injury, but "he would sometimes say he wished I went into soccer instead of football," Komosa remembers.
"I have a lot of mixed and different emotions, but for the most part I know you can't really control the world," says Komosa, who always loved sports and still watches football.
A member of the Rolling Meadows High School scout team that practiced against the first-team defense, Komosa says a friend told him he had broken through the line of scrimmage and was making a nice gain when he was tackled out-of-bounds and into a fence post near the sideline, breaking bones at the top of his spine that left him paralyzed from the neck down.
"At least I went out in style, a big running play," Komosa jokes.
He knows the kids who tackled him, but doesn't identify them.
"I don't blame them one bit. They were just playing the game. I don't feel any animosity," says Komosa. He says he talked briefly once with one of the tacklers, and the father of another helped raise funds.
"I think it was hard on the guys who tackled me," Komosa says. "If it would help them, sure, I'd talk with them, but I'm OK."
It took a while for Komosa to come to grips with what happened.
"I was either in the helicopter or the hospital and I couldn't see at all. It was dark," Komosa remembers. "They told me, 'Blink once or blink twice if you can feel this or feel that,' and I couldn't feel anything."
He remembers a doctor getting ready to dismiss him from the hospital weeks later.
"I kept saying, 'I'm not leaving here until I can walk and breathe on my own,'" Komosa says. "He just shook his head no, and that's when I knew it was pretty serious."
Using a $4,500 voice-activated remote control that has to be reprogrammed for his new house, Komosa is able to watch television. He keeps up on the news and health care reform, and still loves his Bears.
Once his Internet connection comes through, he plans to spend time on the computer. He says he loves to get email at email@example.com, look at the financial markets as a possible career option for him, and maybe even use his Sip-N-Puff straw to play a video golf game.
Acknowledging his mom's fatigue and stress, Komosa says he hopes to hire additional caretakers now that they are in the new home. Knowing that quadriplegics on ventilators have shortened life spans, Komosa is realistic.
"I know they are working on a cure, but realistically, if they do find a cure, how long will it take?" Komosa says. "I know my mom will have to watch me die. That's hard on her. I know she wishes I could be normal. She can't watch me live my life the way I want, and she can't live the life she wants. But there's so many people worse off."
Komosa puffs on his straw to move his wheelchair into the foyer, and again thanks those who have helped him during this last decade.
"I'm still a happy person," Komosa assures, adding that he's looking forward to visits with his best friend, his sister, her boyfriend, and others.
If he's lucky tonight, he'll have a stretch of two or three hours of sleep without spasms, coughing, thirst, a need to have his airway suctioned, or something else to wake him.
"I've had dreams of me driving, me in my wheelchair being half-paralyzed but half-able to do things on my own," Komosa says. "I've had dreams where I'm walking and still have the ventilator and the chair behind me. I wake up and see that I'm in my room still paralyzed, and wishing I could go back to my dreams."