Three incredible journeys define the strength of the human spirit in overcoming debility.
Alicia Hatori Images by John Hook
Kurt Tateishi and Daren Choi Images by Cheyne Gallarde
“NOTHING IS PREDESTINED: THE OBSTACLES OF YOUR PAST CAN BECOME THE GATEWAYS THAT LEAD TO NEW BEGINNINGS.” – RALPHY BLUM
PADDLING THROUGH ROUGH WATERS
When Alicia Hatori was 17, a swarm of bees flew into the truck her uncle was driving near her home in Kāne‘ohe, causing them to swerve into oncoming traffic. Though minor, the accident dissected Alicia’s spinal cord, leaving her confined to a wheelchair. “I just closed my eyes, and I felt like I was floating,” she recalls. “So when I opened my eyes and I saw that my legs were still there, I was so scared and confused.”
That was 23 years ago. Right now, she’s in front of dozens of eyes, about to take her first step since that fateful day. Members of her family, who she cites as her “solid rock,” are in the front row. She lifts herself with crutches, her arms shaking slightly but still strong, and gets to her feet. Step by step, she walks across the room at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific with the aid of eLEGS, a new robotics technology that imitates the movement of actual steps. “I wish there was some amazingly poetic way that I could get it across to you, but to feel my whole leg going through that motion of stepping, after 23 years of not walking, feels so incredible.”
Alicia’s strength of spirit is resounding. She paddle surfs, plays tennis, even goes on wild, crazy adventures around the world. Her very first trip after her accident, in fact, she made by herself. “I’m the oldest of seven kids, so I always had a sibling or mom to constantly just hover around me. I remember someone telling me, ‘You’re never going to be able to travel by yourself. How are you going to do that? How are you going to go to the bathroom?’” Discouraged at the thought of never being able to be free, Alicia, at 21, booked a flight to Los Angeles without telling anyone and left.
Sure enough, Alicia encountered trouble with the bathroom: “The flight attendants had to wheel me through the plane on this little aisle chair, and I had to transfer onto the toilet with the door open, while a whole row of people sat there trying to avoid eye contact. Then, trying to get my pants off on that disgusting bathroom toilet,” she recalls with a laugh.
“I crack up about those things now, but there were times when I just wanted to cry, to tell somebody to just come and pick me up. But on that trip, I realized that I was going to be okay and independent, that I’m going to live my life how I was going to live my life. If it’s a 12-hour flight, then I’m gonna have to make two trips to the bathroom and everyone is just going to have to deal with that.”
Since that time, Alicia has traveled all over the United States, Mexico, Italy, Malta, Ireland and Canada. She recalls going to Waitomo in New Zealand, the dark caves illuminated by glowworms; “zorbing” down a massive hill in a huge inflated ball, worried her flaccid legs would knock her teeth out; and hiking all over Italy (“The places where I couldn’t maneuver, my friends just threw me on their backs,” she says).
Though she says her quality of life is amazing, she contends, “There is still a boundary that I can never cross. I have so much freedom, but at the same time, there’s a level of being a prisoner all the time.”
More than anything, Alicia hopes to encourage anyone going through difficulty, whether it be an obvious physical disability, emotional or mental, to keep fighting. “The ebb and flow of life hits everybody. Some days you’re good, and some days you’re not,” she says, the pain of past days choking her up. “Don’t give up,” she continues in a whisper. “Don’t let other people dictate to you what your limits are or where you have to stop. It’s just finding the path of where you want to go. I might have to take three extra steps more than the average bear, but it’s so worth it.” She trails off. “It’s so worth it.”
So where to next for Alicia? “I think Thailand,” she says. The possibilities, it seems, are endless.
REFIRING TO NEW LIFE
Kurt Tateishi’s ceramic pots are exquisite. His hands are steady as he pulls thrown clay higher and wider, the wheel rapidly spinning all the while. He concentrates intently to make sure the cylinder bowl in his hands doesn’t turn to mud. He moves to examine a newly fired pot. Shimmering wisps of glaze dance across the smooth, round bodies.
“Art is really good for the healing process,” he says. “It takes you away for that moment. It saved my life. It saved my family.” In Thanksgiving of 2005, Kurt was hit in the head with a steel beam while working at a construction jobsite. Despite suffering a skull fracture, he stood up and attempted to go down a ladder to get out of the building. While on the ladder, Kurt had a seizure and fell, hitting his head again.
The next two years for Kurt were rough for him and his family. He was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and struggled with memory and motor functions. His days were slow and monotonous. He would lie around the house, thinking about how he could get back to work. He suffered seizures daily, nearly every hour. “My son – he was only 9 years old at that time – he saw me go through seizures. He would go, ‘Dad, just stay like this,’ and he would put me on my side. I always going remember that.”
Kurt was in and out of hospitals during that time and tried to run away from nearly every hospital he was in. Eventually he was sent to Casa Colina Center for Rehabilitation in California. “I tried to run away the first two days I was there. I ended up in a housing area and didn’t know where I was and walked across the freeway to try and get away from the hospital staff. I was the superintendent at my company, so if you know anything about construction, you know nobody ever used to tell me what to do. I was really high-strung, yelling at everybody. I had a reputation.”
Then, Kurt rediscovered art. He started painting in Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific’s art program and eventually got back on the pottery wheel, something he had given up 15 years to ago to work construction. With clay, the process is a long one. There’s the molding, the drying, the firing, the glazing and then the firing again – an all-too-perfect metaphor for Kurt’s journey. “If I look at it now, I was more dysfunctional and disabled before the accident than I am now,” says the 50-year-old artist.
Kurt has made countless pots, donating them to charity auctions and giving them away to friends and family. “If my pots can make somebody happy, it’s worth everything. Art can mean a lot of different things for people, but you know what?” he asks with a big smile. “I think I get more out of art than what other artists get, because it’s money to them. It’s healing for me. It’s what my life is now.”
GETTING BACK INTO THE POOL
“I was facedown in the water, and I couldn’t move.”
After falling 15 feet from a hiking trail in Western Samoa and hitting coral in the shallow waters below, Daren Choi was left paralyzed from the neck down. “My whole body was tingling – you know the feeling, like when you fall asleep on your arm? I was yelling for help even though my face was in the water and wondering why I couldn’t just turn on my back.”
The Pearl City High School junior, who was ranked first in backstroke in the state and top three overall at the time, was fresh off three bronze-medal finishes at his first international swim meet in Western Samoa. His friends, who had seen Daren fall, quickly scaled down the cliff and pulled him 25 yards to the shore. After spending a couple days in a hospital in Samoa, he was taken to New Zealand, where he was fitted with a halo (that Frankenstein-like head brace), which he wore for two and a half months.
When Daren finally made it home to Hawai‘i, the doctors broke the news to him: His his chances of ever walking again were 50-50, and that it wasn’t certain that he was ever going to have complete function in his whole body. “It was really heartbreaking to hear all that,” says Daren.
Not even sure if he would ever walk again, Daren had to push through and relearn everything. The simplest tasks, like brushing his teeth or feeding himself, took every ounce of strength Daren had. Like the scene in Kill Bill, when Uma Thurman’s character commands herself, “Wiggle your big toe,” Daren had to command even the smallest of his muscles to move. The first movement he gained back was in his right arm. Then slowly, week by week, movement of another body part would come back. “I felt so helpless and frustrated, like someone always had to take care of me,” he says. “My first steps walking were like a baby, unsure and unbalanced.”
Five months after the accident, Daren got back in the pool. “At first, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go back in the pool,” he says. “I think I was kind of scared because of the fact that I was facedown in the water and I could’ve died right there.” Today, he is practicing again with Kamehameha Swim Club and is nearing his old times, though he isn’t sure yet if he will compete again. For now, he’s focusing on the things a normal 17 year old would, like having his driver’s license and where to go to college. “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something,” he says. “If they tell you otherwise, prove them wrong. You have nothing to lose.”