Noam Gershony flew all kinds of dangerous missions when he was an Apache helicopter pilot in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF).
Today, however, going up a flight of stairs is a challenge for him. His legs can no longer bear weight and he is forced to use his upper body and crutches to move short distances. “I feel pain with every step,” he said.
Gershony, 35, carried out his final mission for the IDF in July 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. He was severely wounded following a mid-air collision with another helicopter.
“I woke up a week later with no memory of the accident. I was in pain. I couldn’t speak. My jaw was wired shut … I could not move my legs and arms,” he told a group of 100 people gathered in Toronto on Feb. 1 for a fundraiser for the Kids of Courage Program run by Beit Halochem Canada, Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel.
Six years after breaking his legs, arms, jaw, pelvis, multiple vertebrae and losing the use of his legs, Gershony won the gold medal in wheel chair tennis at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London.
There may not have been a dry eye in the room when he played video footage of his historic win. At the victory ceremony, he cried as the Israeli flag was hoisted and Hatikvah (the Israeli national anthem) filled the Olympic stadium.
“The greatest honour you can achieve as an athlete is representing your country,” Gershony said. He attributes his Olympic success to the support he received from Beit Halochem.
After his six-month hospital stay, he went to the Beit Halochem centre in Tel Aviv every day for a year. “At Beit Halochem, everything is accessible. They can adapt to any disability,” said Gershony.
He said he was always athletic and was drawn to wheel chair tennis. “Whatever I achieved (in tennis), I owe to Beit Halochem. They believed in me before I was anything in tennis.”
Beit Halochem sent him to competitions all over the world, so he could qualify for the Paralympics, he said, noting that a highlight for him was participating in the U.S. Open, where he got to meet his hero, Roger Federer.
Although Gershony peppered his presentation with humour, he spoke frankly about the emotional impact of his injuries. “I was in hospital a long time. There were more than a few hard moments” and “long sleepless nights,” he said.
He had to confront some “dangerous questions,” such as: “Why did it happen to me? What did I do to deserve this suffering?”
No one survives a 6,000-foot crash.
– Noam Gershony
Gershony said he beat the odds, as “no one survives a 6,000-foot crash.”
His copilot, Ran Kochba, was killed instantly and days later, another of his good friends, Tom Farkash, a former Torontonian, also died in a chopper crash.
Gershony eventually stopped focusing on his losses and “made a decision to enjoy my life and appreciate what I have.”
While he said he does not allow himself to get depressed, he’s also a realist. “Things may never be the same. You leave (as) a different person. Rehabilitation is not necessarily about getting back to your old self,” he said.
“You have to compensate for the things that you have lost … and take the next step.… My glass is not half full anymore.”
Gershony said that he has mused about the direction his life might have gone had he not become a pilot. He said that only 50 out of every 10,000 recruits are selected for pilot training and they must to do a minimum of nine years of military service.
He said he does not have regrets about any of the decisions he has made.
“I was injured during my military service protecting Israel,” said Gershony. “We have to pay a price for living in Israel. I paid that price.… I consider myself a lucky guy.”