Before Michael Stewart had two rods surgically placed in his back extending from his L3 vertebrae to his T11, he asked his doctor if he would ever be able to play golf again.
His doctor told him that he would be lucky to ever walk again.
That was in 2012.
Now, only three years later, Stewart is one of the Country Club’s newest members. Limping between shots, limited by drop foot, and constantly suffering through indescribable pain, the 42-year old former physical education teacher has probably played more golf this summer than you have.
His ordeal began just after midnight on March 14, 2012.
Stewart was at home playing video games when he heard the sound of eggs being hurled at his house. Like anyone would in that situation, Stewart grabbed a baseball bat and went outside to investigate. He saw a gold minivan quickly driving away a few houses up the road. Moments later, the van made a U-turn and charged at a defenseless Stewart, striking him and sending him sprawling over the car’s hood.
The driver(s) fled and were never caught, but the catastrophic damage was done. Stewart was left paralyzed from the waist down.
“After the diagnosis, the first thing I did was apologize to my wife, Trina” Stewart said. “She didn’t sign up for this.”
Stewart underwent major surgery at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto where he spent the next month and half. He was then discharged to Lyndhurst Rehabilitation Institute next door.
Although confined to a wheelchair, Stewart was resolute to defy his medical prognosis and get back on his feet once again. He began by setting short-term goals for himself.
“I wanted to walk first and foremost,” he said. “But more than that, I wanted to golf and eventually teach again. I missed the kids so much and I wanted to get back to them.”
In order to achieve the impossible and get back on the links, Stewart geared his physiotherapy towards the swinging motion. He believed that if could stand and walk, he would also be able to play golf again.
One cannot help but be awed by Stewart’s dogged determination and sheer hard work. He spent three and a half months in agony, trying to build up the strength to not only walk, but to also swing a golf club. By mid-July, Stewart was finally walking again with the assistance of ski poles and was released to Trina’s care in Etobicoke.
Over the next few months, Stewart continued to work on increasing his strength and to attempt to putt in his basement. At first, he wobbled and fell every time he stood over the ball. However, after a little while, Stewart’s strength increased to the point where he could stay balanced through the putt.
News of Stewart’s inspiring story and subsequent road to recovery started to make the rounds on social media and various news outlets. Before long, Mike Holmes, host of the popular renovation series “Holmes Makes it Right”, approached Stewart and Trina to film an episode at the couple’s home.
Holmes was so inspired by Stewart’s experience that he offered to renovate their home. He adapted the front and back yards as well as the home’s interior to make them more accessible for Stewart and to maximize his recovery. Holmes even built a shoe room for the former gym teacher, who, to this day, is an avid collector of sneakers. Perhaps you saw the episode? (If you did not, here is a link:
Stewart’s rehab went exceedingly well and by 2014, he was back out on the golf course! Although he was overjoyed to be playing his favourite game, the pain that he experienced in those first rounds back, and still continues to experience, was immense.
“You have to understand that walking isn’t walking for me anymore,” he said. “Anytime I don’t have my anti-gravity muscles (calves, quads, etc …) going, I get extremely fatigued and the pain sets in. It’s overwhelming.”
When he first started playing, after only a few holes each round, Stewart’s body would tighten up and the pain would become so unbearable, that he was forced to stop for the day. This was obviously frustrating and expensive for Stewart, who would have to pay full green fees even if he didn’t complete the 18 holes at these public courses.
It wasn’t until later that year, when he coincidentally reunited with former student Patrick Homer at their high school alumni golf tournament, that Stewart discovered ClubLink and his rehab found a higher gear.
Homer, an assistant professional at Station Creek Golf Course, invited his former gym teacher out to Gormley for a round and the two began talking about how a ClubLink membership would allow Stewart to pay up front for the season and then play as much, or as little, golf as he wanted.
Stewart selected the Country Club as his home course and played his first round as a member this past spring.
“It was the most beautiful course I have ever seen,” he said. “And the staff and members are so nice. They make everything so easy for me.”
Bianca Chiarenza, an assistant professional at the Country Club, says that Stewart has already become a very well liked member at the course.
“We all know him by now,” said Chiarenza. “If we see that he is on the tee sheet, we will get his cart prepped with the blue flag.
“He told me his story and I couldn’t believe it. It was like it was out of a movie. He’s is always so positive, despite what happened to him, always smiling and ready to play golf.”
Just a few weeks after joining, Stewart met Piero Poletto, the teaching pro at Country Club, on the driving range. Since then, the duo has been working together to find Stewart’s game and his power.
“Knowing his limitations is key,” said Poletto. “The biggest factor for distance is in the hands and Michael has a great pair of those.
“He puts the effort into getting better and he does the right things to achieve it.”
More determined than ever, and now playing to an 18-handicap, Stewart is playing five times each week and using golf as his physiotherapy. He has played 45 times this season and has no intention of slowing down.
Stewart joined up with my friend, Sean Meyer, and me while we were playing the other day at Station Creek (North Course). Stewart shot a 39 on the front nine and made a spectacular birdie on 12.
Meyer, a scratch golfer and assistant professional at Lambton Golf Club, suggested that we play a three-way match for the final five holes. While we both watched as Stewart struck one well-hit shot after another, we began to wonder if we were being hustled.
Regardless of whether Stewart plays well, severe discomfort and pain are always present during and following the rounds.
To counteract it, he is forced to ingest the narcotic painkiller hydromorphone twice each round in order to complete 18 holes. Additionally, after playing, Stewart needs to soak in a hot tub for at least one hour to reduce his pain.
Stewart admits that the discomfort can make him cranky around the house and that Trina has been a saint during the entire recovery process.
“She is always there for me and sometimes has to deal with me when I am at my worst,” said Stewart. “She has been my rock.”
Also, when Stewart plays alone, he is constantly at risk of falling and injuring himself, as he did two weeks ago at Station Creek.
“I was on the ground for a while in pain,” he said. “But it’s worth the risk to me. Playing these rounds in the cart has allowed me to extend the amount of time that I can stay on my feet. When I go grocery shopping with my wife, I can only stand on my own for a little bit and then my legs get tired and the pain comes on. I am able to stay on my feet the longest when I am playing golf and switching it up between the cart and standing.”
Life has certainly changed for the Stewarts since the incident and it is going to change again for the couple very soon.
They are expecting their first child in February.
If the child turns out to have half the determination of his father, he/she will be a force to reckon with on the golf course.