Kyle Morgan Shares the Bellyak: Kayaking for Quadriplegics
Editor’s Note: Kyle Morgan, a C5-6 quadriplegic, lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and loves the outdoors. Today we’re sharing one of his favorite pasttimes – kayaking.
Prior to my accident, I enjoyed kayaking. I loved the water, and I loved everything about the outdoors. But when I was injured, I thought I had lost it all. Then I discovered the Bellyak, a kayak for quads and others, and I regained my love of the water and my ability to go kayaking.
I was 16 years old the first time I picked up a dirt bike. Instantly, I had a connection to it. I loved the power and the speed of the bike and the ability to go almost anywhere I wanted to go off-road. I loved the feeling I got when my dirt bike went over a jump, and I was flying through the air. I had a feeling of freedom that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I also loved to fish and hunt. I was always investing my spare time in some form of outdoor activity. I learned patience from fishing, and I enjoyed being alone with my thoughts. I liked the excitement of hooking a fish and fighting it to the bank. Fishing allowed me to relax and gave me the opposite benefit of what I received from riding a dirt bike.
When I graduated high school, I really didn’t have any goals or ambitions. I took do-nothing jobs without futures. My life wasn’t going anywhere.
I realized I needed a purpose for my life and to make some decisions about my future.
I always had admired the men in my family who had been in the military. I decided I’d pursue a career in the military.
I joined the National Guard of the United States and participated in their monthly drills from October, 2009, until March, 2010, as a participating recruit, waiting to go to basic training. I loved everything about being in the National Guard. Then I had a noble purpose for my life – serving my country. My career path was to be a transportation specialist and learn to drive a truck.
Wrong Decisions That Changed My Life Forever
On March 6, 2010, a friend I had grown up with was coming to town. When he called, I was at the gym getting in shape to go to basic training in April. My buddy said, “Let’s go out to a bar, and have some drinks.” We agreed to meet at a local hangout. After I hung up, a voice inside of me said, “Don’t drink and drive. You have a great future ahead, if you don’t risk it all by drinking and driving.”
I listened to that voice. I got a friend to take me to the bar. Then I wouldn’t have a reason to drive home after I’d been drinking. Since I knew I wouldn’t be drinking and driving, I drank more than I should have. From the bar, we went to a house party. After awhile, I told my friend who had taken me to the bar and house party, “I’m ready to go home.” He told me, “I’ve had too much to drink. I can’t drive.” The person who was having the house party said, “Take my car. The keys are in it.” Without even thinking, I got in the car, turned it on and started driving toward my house.
I woke up 5 days later after being put in a medically induced coma.
When I left the house party, everything else became a blur. Later, I learned that a sheriff’s deputy had clocked me driving 70 mph in a 55 mph speed zone. I must have panicked and tried to flee. I approached a turn in the road going way too fast, and the car started to roll. I was thrown through the driver’s side window over 100 feet out of the car, because I wasn’t wearing my seat belt. The officer said the vehicle rolled over four times before it hit a tree. I was 22 years old.
When I came out of the coma, I saw a nurse and asked her, “Did I kill anybody?” I knew whatever I’d done was really bad. But if I hadn’t killed anybody, I realized I could live with myself, and that whatever life had to offer me would be okay – if I was the only person who had gotten injured. The next people I saw were my girlfriend, Naomi, who is my wife now, and my sister, Lindsey, and they were both crying. But they were happy, because I was alive and gave me big hugs.
I wanted to sit up. I looked at Naomi and asked, “Can you untie me? I want to sit up.” At that point Naomi started crying, and I couldn’t understand what she said. Later, I learned she had told me, “I can’t untie you. You’re paralyzed.”
I thought I was tied down because I couldn’t move. I didn’t realize I was paralyzed.
At that time, the only thing I could do was twitch my right shoulder. When Naomi said I was paralyzed was the first time that I understood how badly I’d messed myself up. Not only was my accident emotionally hard for me, it was also tough for Naomi, her family, my family, my friends and everyone who knew me.
While I was in the hospital, I really didn’t take my injury very seriously, because when I rode my dirt bike, I was always crashing, breaking bones and having to be stitched up. After all those crashes and hospital visits, I thought I’d heal and be able to do the same things I’d done in the past. I told myself, “Okay, I broke my neck. I’ll put a neck brace on and wear it for 6 months. I’ll be fine.”
I didn’t really understand that this type paralysis could last forever. I didn’t realize how severe this accident was until I started physical therapy. I was paralyzed from the shoulders down. However, today although I have no finger function, I do have biceps and triceps function.
I was transferred from the hospital to CarePartners, a private, nonprofit healthcare organization serving Asheville, North Carolina, and the surrounding region. The first thing I was taught in physical therapy was how to operate a power wheelchair. I didn’t know anything about a wheelchair, didn’t want to learn anything about a wheelchair and certainly didn’t want to be in a wheelchair.
When I asked, “What’s the extent of my injuries?” all the therapists would tell me was, “It’s bad.” I actually could feel someone touch one of my toes and knew which toe they’d touched. I assumed I’d eventually get better and be able to walk.
My injury was worse mentally and emotionally that it was physically. I was always in the outdoors; I was always working out in the gym; and I was always running. Going from being physically active to not being able to sit up by myself, I began to question, “Do I really want to live?” I dealt with that question for about a year after my accident.
I didn’t want to see anybody, and I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I just wanted to be alone.
When I got home from rehab, the first thing I did was reach out to the sheriff on Facebook. I told him how really sorry I was for what I had done. I told him, “I’m sorry that I endangered other motorists, and I’m sorry for endangering the lives of your deputies.” I apologized, and I meant every word of it.
The sheriff knew me before my injury. He knew I had trained in mixed martial arts, and he knew I liked to fight. He could tell by my apology that I had changed. I told the sheriff that I’d also like to speak to the young people in Macon County and tell them what I had done, and why they shouldn’t drink and drive. I wanted to use my injury to help other people not make the same mistakes I had made.
The sheriff wrote me back and told me how much he appreciated my apology, and that he definitely would consider me for a program to help young people understand the dangers of doing drugs and/or alcohol and driving too fast.
One good result of my accident is that since then I’ve been speaking at schools, churches and youth groups and to anyone who will listen. I explain that when you drink and drive, and you’re involved in an accident, the results of that accident not only impact you but also everyone you know.
Life a Year after My Accident
A year after my accident, Naomi and I were at my sister’s house doing bowel care, and I looked at her and said, “You’ve got to get out of here. This is no life for a 22-year old girl. You have your whole life ahead of you.” I started crying. I wanted her to leave. I wasn’t getting any better, and I still couldn’t even feed myself. I had to be 100 percent reliant on everyone around me. I knew exactly how stressful my condition was for Naomi.
When I told her again, “You have to leave,” Naomi asked me, “Is that really what you want?” I told her, “Yes, this isn’t the life I want you to have.” Then, Naomi said the words that went straight to my heart. “How can I leave you? I love you.” In that moment, I decided after all she had been through, if she still loved me this much, I had to turn my life around. I had to do or become something.
In October, 2010, there was another automobile accident in our hometown, and one of the young men in the car died. I knew the guys who were in the accident. Within one year, the lives of two guys in my hometown dramatically were altered due to drinking and driving. The older brother of the young man whose life was lost in the accident and I got together with the sheriff’s department in our county. We started sharing our stories with high school students all over western North Carolina.
I realized that telling my story was actually touching young people and had the power and ability to change their lives for the better. I spoke to more than 700 law enforcement officers on the anniversary of North Carolina’s “Booze It & Lose It” program too.
Kyle Discovers the Bellyak
Before my accident, I had a sit on top kayak, but the backrest of the seat was so low that I knew that I never would be able to use it again. After my accident, I had given up on the idea of being able to go out on the water like I did before my accident.
Then in 2014, a friend of mine, who is an avid kayaker, texted me Bellyak’s Facebook page with a note that said, “Check this out.” As soon as I saw the Bellyak, I knew I could paddle it. Once Naomi told me that she couldn’t give up on me, I started working out every day, getting stronger and using a manual chair. Because I was so much stronger then – than I was right after my accident – I knew I could paddle the Bellyak.
The Bellyak was such a simple boat for a quadriplegic to use that I knew I could do it.
In traditional kayaks, you sit upright and use a paddle to power the kayak. But with the Bellyak, you lay down in it and paddle it with your arms. So, it’s much like swimming, except you’re on top of the water in this modified kayak.
When I talked to Adam Masters, the CEO and the inventor of the Bellyak, he suggested that I become a Bellyak ambassador and show people how to use the boat. I was the first quadriplegic to reach out to Adam and tell him what a great kayak the Bellyak was for a quadriplegic. The Bellyak wasn’t created as a boat for people with disabilities. It was developed to give people a different experience on the water, but I found it to be just the vehicle for me and possibly other people with spinal cord injuries to be able to exercise and be part of a water sport.
One of the first questions I’m asked is, “What happens if you fall off the Bellyak?” Since you’re not attached to the boat, you wear a life jacket, and I recommend wearing a helmet. Then you’ll just float straight up. The Bellyak model I use is called the Frequency.
Adaptive sports for quadriplegics are pretty much limited to hand cycling and quad rugby. So, the Bellyak offers a new fun water sport in which quadriplegics can participate.
The first time I got on a Bellyak, I paddled around in a local swimming pool. I felt like I’d just climbed to the top of the highest mountain after having left the lowest desert. I liked to feel the water on my arms, and I was able to paddle around like other people who were on inner tubes, rafts and other water flotation equipment. I felt like I had no limitations on the water. I paddled around for about 30 minutes.
When I got out of the water, I didn’t realize what a tremendous workout my body had gotten. I was really tired, but it was a good kind of tired. The Bellyak was a great new piece of workout equipment, besides being a water recreation device that people like me could use. The Bellyak allowed me to work a set of muscles I hadn’t used since my accident. My back, my shoulders and my arms were fatigued. So, I knew these muscles were becoming strengthened because of the Bellyak.
One of the best places I’ve found to use the Bellyak is in a lake near my home that has a no-wake area.
I can paddle around in there, and I don’t have to deal with any waves. I think there are plenty of opportunities for people with disabilities all over the nation to use the Bellyak. The Bellyak has provided a type of freedom for me on the water that I thought I never would have again. If you try it, I think you’ll be as excited about it as I am. To learn more about the Bellyak or talk with me about my experiences, contact me at 828-421-8857 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kylem2007.
2020 Hindsight Kyle
2020 Hindsight Naomi
Person Of The Week
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.