CORNWALL, Ontario – Your troubles are nothing compared to those Dean Laponsee is facing right now in a hospital bed in Ottawa.
Bank account to low? Dean has you beat.
Trouble with the boss? Nothing for Dean.
Kids crying all day? Music to the ears of ol’ Dean.
The former Cornwall man who now makes his home in the Crysler area literally woke up to a nightmare this summer when doctors were forced to tell him that both of his legs had to be amputated below the knee, he had lost all the fingers, including the thumb, on his left hand and he had been blinded in one eye.
At the time he was coming out of a coma that had lasted more than a month – all thanks to a case of double-pneumonia that began to ravage his body while on a fishing trip in the wilds of Quebec.
“The doctors told me I could have died…should have died,” he said in a telephone interview. “The doctors told my mother I was going to die on the operating table before they took me in.”
But in spite of a condition that has shaken his life to its core something as simple as a smile never escapes Dean’s face.
In fact, doctors and nurses in the rehabilitation department at the Ottawa General Hospital are marveling at his progress. He’s already being sought after as a mentor of sorts to other patients grappling with serious medical conditions – like a heavy duty mechanic who lost an arm.
Dean is already counseling “the young lad” as he calls him, trying to buck up his spirits.
A tall order for a guy who just four months ago was the picture of health and looking forward to a fishing trip with friends at the Gouin Reservoir in Quebec, about seven hours north of Ottawa.
“We had a bunch of guys from work who were going up to our fishing camp,” he said of a place that can only be accessed by boat and is about as far removed from society as you will find. “If you get in trouble out there, you’re done. No one is coming to get you.”
Turns out he was more right than he would ever know.
Just a couple of days into the trip, Dean began to feel ill, with flu-like symptoms and some chest pain.
Before long he was getting so sick to his stomach that he began to heave up blood – and in the process tore his esophagus.
He quickly became septic, as infection spread throughout his body.
It took the quick thinking of a friend, Chester Grubb, who along with friends at the fishing camp packed Dean’s belonging into a boat and began the long trek back to civilization. When they finally reached their vehicles, Grubb drove Dean all the way home.
“He drove for seven hours back to Winchester with me moaning and groaning beside him,” said Dean.
When Dean hauled himself into the emergency room at the Winchester and District Memorial Hospital it was all he could do to walk through the doors.
“I made it to the front desk and collapsed,” he said. “That’s all I remember.”
The next time Dean was conscious it was nearly six weeks later. In the interim he had been rushed to the Ottawa General Hospital, undergone surgery to correct the esophageal tear, but his body had already been ravaged by infection.
His mother Lyn, on the third anniversary of her husband John’s death, had to sign the paperwork that would allow doctors to remove Dean’s legs.
“I heard from my uncle that she was worried I would hate her for doing that,” said Dean. “It’s quite different. How can you hate somebody for saving your life? I would have died if I had kept my legs.”
The list of lifesavers that Dean is indebted to is long and distinguished. He lists his friends, family, doctors and nurses – to name just a few – as key players in his recovery.
But don’t forget to include his spirit on that list.
Dean, who spent years in the military as a member of a communications unit before enjoying a career in the private sector as a fibre-optic lineman, has been able to find the positives despite his condition.
“I’m good with it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I guess that’s one thing the military taught me.”
His sister Kelly Vanderish said Dean was fitted just days ago for his prosthetic legs. On the first day a patient is expected to learn some balance before trekking out on their own.
Dean was walking in no time.
“He was hanging on the side of my car, looking at the engine for me,” she said.
Dean has yet to be given a timetable for his release from the hospital. He still has to undergo daily dressing changes for his wounds and there is an entire regimen of activities waiting for him as recovery efforts continue.
He’s even had regular visits from his children Sarah (12) and William (nine). A Cub Scout poster, with autographs from the children in his son’s unit (which Dean helps lead) hangs above his bed and acts as an inspiration.
His family is planning a fundraiser for Nov. 23 at the RCAFA Wing 424 in Cornwall at 4 p.m. The cost is $10 per person and will include a spaghetti dinner and karaoke, as well as “fun casino.”
The Facebook group for the event can be found here.