Charbel Rouhana is living proof that a little hope — and a lot of love — can go a long way.
Seven years ago, on Sept. 27, 2005, the recent King’s-Edgehill School graduate — a stellar athlete with dreams of becoming a professional rugby player — was returning to his hometown of Windsor after writing a personal trainer certification examin Halifax when a traumatic accident drastically altered the course of his life.
Charbel does not recall the moments leading up to the accident — or the year that followed — but his mother, Norma Rouhana, and father, Chaker Rouhana, vividly remember the moment they learned their son, the strong young man many fondly refer to as Maximus, was seriously injured in a car crash on Highway 101.
“They said, ‘Norma you don’t have time; we have to move him to Halifax and it’s pretty bad,’”Charbel’s mother recalls.
Charbel’s vehicle was struck, pushed into a line of oncoming traffic and crushed by a large truck. He was intubated on the scene and rushed to the QEII in Halifax with life-threatening injuries.
Norma says doctors interpreting Charbel’s scans for his family said his brain was shaken to the point that “nothing was in place anymore.”
“It was like soup,” she said.
Surgeons performed multiple emergency procedures to limit the swelling on Charbel’s brain, and temporarily removed a piece of his skull to lessen the severity of the inflammation. But, his doctor insisted the odds of a full recovery were slim.
“She said he will never talk and if by a miracle he will talk, you’ll have to teach him the ABCs. He will never walk, he will never feed himself, he will never dress himself,” Chakerrecapped.
But the Rouhana family refused to accept Charbel — a known fighter who always overcame obstacles in pursuit of his goals — was gone.
“I didn’t leave his side,” Norma said.
Chaker tended to the family business, Chaker’s Rite Stop on King Street in Windsor, while Norma spent 12 to 15 hours a day in Halifax. The pair would switch roles on occasion, but they always ensured someone was with Charbel, talking to him,praying for him, moving his limbs, massaging his muscles, keeping him company.
“I was not listening to the doctors. I was listening to my heart. I didn’t care what they said,” Norma said.
“I would go and listen to them and always in my heart I would say they don’t know everything. It’s not in their hands. They can do what they can, but the rest is in God’s hands.”
The Rouhanas yearned for an indication Charbel felt their presence while he rested in a hospital bed, unresponsive. They’d regularly gather inside his hospital room, close the doors and play music in an attempt to stimulate their son’s mind and body.
“Norma and I, we’d take his hands and his feet and we’d dance with them,” Chaker said.
“We put music on for him because we knew he could listen even though he couldn’t talk or make movement to prove he was listening.”
Giving up hope was never an option — not for Charbel, not for his mother, not for his father, not for his sisters, not for his grandparents.
By February 2006, Charbel was stable enough to be transferred to the Hants Community Hospital in Windsor, where his father could visit him daily before the store opened and after it closed.
He’d prop Charbel, who was still in a minimal state of consciousness, in a wheelchair and take him for walks around the hospital.
“I always talked to him about something he loved before.”
Chaker admits it was not uncommon for the nurses to catch a glimpse of him crying while he wheeled his son through the hallways, but it was usually when he had an important message to relay to his struggling Maximus.
“I always told him,” Chaker began, his firm voice suddenly cracking.
“Your destiny is yours. Don’t let anybody take it from you. Don’t give up.”
A slow but miraculous recovery
The Rouhanas were able to bring Charbel home for a few hours at a time about six months after the accident. In the beginning, their “Charbie” would sit in the family’s store, resting in his wheelchair, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.
“He was not responsive at all,” Chaker said.
Customers would often ask how Charbel was doing, and some would talk to him, but Chaker says “he was looking so out of this world” many did not know what to say.
The Rouhanas modified an apartment neighbouring theirconveniencestore to make it wheelchair accessible in anticipation of Charbel’s homecoming. Norma stayed with her son and provided 24-hour care while the entire family worked hard to regain some semblance of the life they once knew.
“It wasn’t easy, but we did it. It’s just something the mother has in her heart,”
“You go on and on and on and you don’t think about yourself until you can’t do any more.”
Norma says she always believed her son would wake up, but she did not know what to expect once he did.
“When he smiled the first smile, we didn’t know what he would be like, if he would remember us.”
Charbel eventually started communicating with his family by blinking his eyes, and moving his hands.
By Christmas day, 2006, Norma says Charbel gave her an unforgettable gift.
She greeted Charbel, who had been mouthing words at this point, with “Good morning, my love,” in Lebanese Arabic and, to her surprise, he repeated what she said in a low, raspy whisper.
“That Christmas, it was the best Christmas for me. I could not stop smiling that day,” she said, adding that Charbel would not speak Lebanese before the accident.
“It was a good time to be with us.”
Charbel had not lost his knowledge of the English or Arabic languages, but it took years of intense rehabilitative therapy for him to regain the motor control necessary to use his arms and stand on his own again. He would often scream out in pain when he was eased back on his feet with tilt table exercises intended to make his legsstrong enough to bear weight.
“In life you can either sit at home and think of yesterday or you can get up and live in today.” - Charbel Rouhana
“We told him to play boxing with us so he wouldn’t think a lot about his feet,” Chaker said.
In June 2007, Charbel could stand. About two years later, he could walk with assistance and, by December 2011, he started sauntering along without a walker.
“After he woke up there was not a single day where he didn’t do much,” Chaker said.
The Rouhanas say a team of friends, relatives, teachers and medical professionals kept Charbel motivated in his darkest days. The former weightlifter still requires an occasional pep talk, but there’s no shortage of friends or family for Charbel to turn to for a little push now and then.
“His recovery is amazing. Every year if we look back we see a big improvement from last year,” Norma says.
Charbel says he lives on because of his parents’ unwavering commitment to his recovery.
“My parents never gave up on me and that’s the reason I’m still here today,” the 27-year-oldsaid, taking a brief break from charming a few guests, and enjoying one of Chake’s Crepes, at the small dine-in section ofChaker’s Rite Stop.
“They didn’t give up a shred of h-o-p-e. Those are the best letters in the English language,” he said with a contented grin.
“It’s all about hope.”
When asked how he was able to overcome such obstacles, the upbeat extrovert said learning how to redo the simplest things in life is extremely difficult, but it is drive that has always made Charbel Rouhana succeed.
“The answer is heart, my sister,” he said, his contagious smile fading for a short moment.
“Through all this madness, heart, heart, heart — that is exactly what it took and I’m quite proud of that.”
Charbel says it is important to live in the present, and live honestly.
“In life you can either sit at home and think of yesterday or you can get up and live in today.”
Aside from focusing on his balance, Charbel jokes that he is now working toward another goal that may take a little longer to achieve.
“I don’t feel like the world revolves around me yet and I won’t rest until it does,” he lightheartedly declared, drawing a few giggles from a group of women sitting at an adjacent table.
He hopes his story may inspire others dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event to look to the future and see possibilities.
“I’m back, baby. I am back to be the champ that I was born to be.”