A DAY IN THE LIFE EXPLAINS HIS AWARD

Next time you think you’re having a bad day, consider this story.

Mo Gerhardt is in a wheelchair. He considers himself lucky. Lucky, because with his particular lot in life – Duchenne’s disease, a form of muscular dystrophy – doctors predicted he wouldn’t live beyond his teens.

Mo is 28. He lives every moment. He is upbeat and funny and a fighter. He insists on his own job and apartment and driving a specially equipped van. He is a sports nut. When he could walk, he played baseball like a demon. Later he took up hockey – wheelchair hockey.

He got pretty good. So good that he made some all-star teams. And last month, one of those teams, the Michigan Mustangs, flew to Calgary, Alberta, to play in an international championship. A bunch of men, in their wheelchairs, traveling 2,000 miles to compete. Pretty inspiring stuff, right?

Just wait.

A travel nightmare

First the team had to drive to London, Ontario, to fly budget airline WestJet. Upon arrival in Calgary, the guys made their way – with all their equipment – to the bus area.

“The first bus that came to pick us up,” Gerhardt says, “the wheelchair lift malfunctioned. So they sent for another one. An hour later we got a phone call saying the second bus had gotten a flat and couldn’t make it.”

Four hours after landing, Gerhardt says, they finally boarded a specially equipped school bus. Gerhardt sat near the front. He and his teammates put on seat belts but noticed there weren’t any shoulder straps. “We asked and they said they’re not required in Canada.”

At one point during the ride, Gerhardt says, he thought the driver took her eye off the wheel, searching for something. “I looked up to see a car a few feet in front of us. I remember looking for something to grab onto . . . “

The bus smashed into the car. Gerhardt, with no shoulder strap, was heaved forward. “I heard two pops. It sounded like my back. I thought, ‘Oh, crap, I’ve just been paralyzed.’ “

The car was totaled. The team was screaming, “Is everyone all right?” Gerhardt, bent in half, tried to wiggle his toes. Then he moved and felt a shooting pain in his hips.

“I’m not all right,” he said.

Both of his hips were fractured. He found that out later. At the emergency room in the Calgary hospital, the doctors, Gerhardt says, told him only one hip was cracked and that it would “heal on its own.” He was discharged.

Meanwhile, the rest of the wheelchair athletes -thankfully, unhurt – had to play their first game less than 24 hours after the accident. They performed badly. Their minds weren’t right. They finished sixth in the tournament. “We were toast,” Gerhardt says. And all he could do was watch.

For five days, the pain was so bad Gerhardt couldn’t be lifted, so he had to sleep in his wheelchair. He was sponge-bathed. The doctors wanted him flown home in a specially equipped air ambulance, but, he says, “the bus company’s insurance company denied everything and wouldn’t pay for it.” So they flew commercial. His father had to lift him at the plane door and carry him in a bear hug – all 170 pounds – to put him in a seat. The pain, Gerhardt says, was excruciating.

The best news of all

Once home in Michigan, the double fracture was diagnosed, and Gerhardt was operated on. Two titanium rods were put in his legs, along with screws and plates. He’s on constant pain medication. Yet when we spoke last week, he was at his job, at Michigan State, where he trains tutors to help students in need.

Tonight, the annual Jerry Lewis telethon will begin. And at some point, the Muscular Dystrophy Association will announce the winner of its National Personal Achievement Award. One winner from the whole country. Guess who it is?

A guy who won’t let anything – not even two cracked hips in a bus crash en route to a hockey tournament – get him down.

They told him once he’d be dead by now. “But I plan on being around a lot longer,” Mo Gerhardt says.

So. How’s your day looking?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Order tickets for the charity book launch of “For One More Day” with Tony Bennett and Hank Azaria at 248-433-1515 or ticketmaster.com.

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