Nancy Mutrie, mother to a quadriplegic son, holds an unsought position of understanding.
Visceral pain accompanies thoughts of Kyrell Sopotyk, the 19-year-old Kamloops Blazers’ forward who was paralyzed on Jan. 22 in a snowboarding accident near North Battleford, Sask.
“My first thought was shock and heartache,” said Nancy, whose son, Evan, was 19 when he contracted Enterovirus D68, which left him paralyzed from the neck down in the summer of 2014.
“I just ached for them. Another family is going to have to go through something like we’ve gone through. It felt very, very sad to hear.”
Evan and Nancy spoke to KTW, both sharing insight that may shed light on the road ahead for Kyrell and his family, each with the following disclaimer — there is no handbook; each individual and family carves their own path.
Kyrell broke his T5 vertebrae and was told by doctors on the day of the accident he will never walk again.
“He’s paralyzed from the belly button down and it’s a long, long journey ahead for all of us,” Lori Sopotyk, Kyrell’s mother, told KTW. “That was the first thing out of his mouth, his hockey, that he would never skate again. And he felt like he had let everyone down.”
Numbness in Evan’s right arm kept him from playing for his Kamloops Broncos against Langley in B.C. Football Conference play on Aug. 31, 2014.
Six days later, he was paralyzed from the neck down, breathing with the help of a machine.
Six years later, Evan is quadriplegic and still breathes through a ventilator.
“It happens in a split second and now his entire life is turned upside down,” Evan said. “It’s hard to be ripped away from your sport and your life. To have it all come crashing down like that is a terrifying and heartbreaking adjustment.”
The Mutries have been through hell, but they survived and Evan perked up when talking about hope for Kyrell — and hope is a tricky concept.
“That wanting and pining for things that are unachievable was really messing with me,” Evan said. “He’s not walking next week. But he might be walking one day. That’s the thing to keep in mind. Maybe it’s just been years and years that I’ve been forced to be patient, or forced to let go of certain things, but I’m more concentrated on what I can control, even if it’s small things. I’m not so focused on the things that are out of my grasp.”
Evan wants to walk again, but it took him and his family about three-and-a-half years to truly come to grips with the prognosis.
“We went in looking for best-case scenario and they instantly told us worst-case scenario,” Nancy said. “We didn’t toe the line very well with what they were telling us. There was a conflict with how we were dealing with it right from the get-go. It was very significant that we all realized that if things did change just like that, it wouldn’t happen for some years to come, if at all.”
Added Evan: “I’m a little more cautious about hope. If you start leaning too far to one side, your expectations or hopes are going to get crushed. You’re in the land of denial. The line you have to walk is straight down the middle. It’s 50-50.”
The road to cautious optimism began when Evan embraced the rehabilitation process.
“You want to lay around and sit and wallow, but I think the best thing you can do is get started as soon as you’re ready,” said Evan, who raves about the G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver. “Sometimes it’s hard to hear what other people have to say when it’s all so fresh. I think what I would say to him is just hang in there, stay as strong as you can and try to access your support network. It's very possible there's a window for Kyrell to regain some movement.”
Added Nancy: “Community and family support will astonish you, with how they can care for you and truly give you some light to keep you going through this very dark time.”
The Sopotyks have wasted little time in researching and pursuing the medical care at Kyrell’s disposal.
“We’re going to do whatever it takes to move him forward and research and see if we can get him walking again,” Lori said four days after the accident. “He’s staying in good sprits, but it’s tough. Nobody is giving us any good [news]. They’re just telling us to plan for the worst and the long road ahead of us. We’re not giving up. We have high hopes. Ky’s a fighter and he never gives up.”
Evan said he found it difficult to find reasons to live in the first few years that followed his paralysis.
"It feels like your life is over, really," he told KTW in 2017. "I feel like a burden to some people. It just pisses you off and makes you feel like you can't do anything."
A shift in mindset occurred in 2016 when he moved into a ground-floor apartment on the North Shore.
He also got a handle on technology that allows him to surf the internet from his bed, skills that enabled him to move back into football in coaching and scouting roles for the Broncos.
“I think we would have lost him if he hadn’t been doing that,” Nancy said, recalling how amazing it was to see her son in his chair on the sidelines at Hillside Stadium.
Make no mistake — there are still harrowing days for Evan and his family.
“Good days and bad days, but I think I’ve figured out how to handle this a little bit better,” Evan said.
Nancy noticed a major uptick in Evan’s outlook in 2020, in large part because he began marshalling his own staff, controlling the hiring, firing and training of caregivers.
“He’s taken everything over,” Nancy said. “Peter [Evan’s father] and I are only there now as relief caregivers. That’s massive. For quite some time, he didn’t want to have anything to do with any of it. It’s completely empowered him.”
This past year has also seen inspirational physical improvements. Evan was able to lift his entire hand up at the wrist and bend one of his legs.
“For the most part, I’ve just been able to wiggle a couple of fingers and toes,” Evan said. “It’s pretty weird to see my limbs moving. That’s pretty big. It’s still a long way to go, but it’s a significant personal improvement.”
Nancy has learned to temper expectations for Evan’s future as it relates to physicality, but her prognosis for her son’s career has never been more positive.
“I would be overwhelmed if he could have a toggle switch or use his hands on the keyboard,” Nancy said. “That would be incredible to me. But the world is his oyster. I still believe he could have a pick of anything he wanted because of everything being online and he has astonishing access with all his equipment, with the way he is set up with his sip-and-puff equipment.”
Evan offered advice to friends and loved ones who may be struggling to approach Kyrell, whether in person or through phone calls, emails or texts.
Again, he acknowledged everyone is different, but his theory is simple.
“Take the kiddy gloves off,” said Evan, who has gained strength in recent years and sounds like he has mastered speaking through his ventilator. “I’m sure he’s got the same sense of humour. Things are different, but he’s still the same guy. I’ve ran into it before. People don’t know how to interact with me because they don’t think I’m the same person or they don’t want to hurt my feelings or say the wrong thing, but he’s still there.”
Nancy said it was Evan who broke the ice with some of his friends.
“The look of sadness and sorrow on those poor boys’ faces, dragging their butts and keeping their heads down,” Nancy said. “They all stood back about four feet from his bed.
“Evan said, ‘You know, Dave, what the [heck] did you do to your hair? The other one, ‘Colin, geez, you’ve got fat,’ and, oh my, the howling. The room just burst into laughter and immediately it was broken.”
The Mutries follow technological advances in areas such as surgical implants, stem cells and gene editing, but Evan acknowledges imminent help for his particular condition does not appear to be forthcoming.
“It sounds kind of crappy to say that you lower your expectations and you focus on what abilities you do have, but that’s probably the key because there are a lot of things you can’t control,” said Evan, noting he would love to chat with Kyrell.
“I think my timeline has lengthened. Maybe with another five, 10 years, hopefully, within 20 years, technology will catch up to me."
Nancy was not interested in offering instructions to the Sopotyks, only support and encouragement in their quest to navigate the long road ahead.
‘I don’t believe you ever can give up hope,” Nancy said. “You see those Humboldt boys and some of those terrible injuries that occurred. Some of them have recovered to a certain extent and some have done very well. There will be certain things he will achieve and then they will settle in. But the timeline will be unknown on that. There is no right or wrong to this, but they will have to, unfortunately, plow through as best you can.”
HELP THE SOPOTYKS
A GoFundMe page has been created for the Sopotyks.
The fund is nearing $200,000. Donate here.
A GoFundMe account for Evan was established in 2014. More than $30,000 has been raised.