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Wednesday, May 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
After losing both legs, he's not looking back
By Lynn Thompson
WOODWAY The last thing Andre Kajlich remembers is running down a street in Prague during the first real snowfall of the season.
The 24-year-old, easygoing and athletic, with an intelligence that was still seeking its true subject, at last seemed to be finding himself.
He was studying biochemistry at one of Eastern Europe's oldest universities, immersing himself in student life, the excitement of the Czech capital and the camaraderie of students from around the world.
Dinners in Europe start late and go long into the night. Kajlich (pronounced Ky-lick) had cooked tacos and burritos for 10 friends. The gathering broke up after midnight, and the students headed across the city to meet up with other friends.
Kajlich recalled December's snow and the young men running along the cobblestone street, scooping up snow and hurling it at each other.
He has pieced together the accident from friends, one of whom had breakfasted with him before they parted on the morning of the accident, and from the police and the driver of the subway train that struck him.
The train severed one leg at the torso and the other at midthigh. Six ribs and an arm were broken. Kajlich's lungs were collapsed, and his back was badly cut. The driver told him that the subway cars had to be separated to lift him out.
How Kajlich, from Woodway, fell onto the tracks is unknown. Police were unable to locate witnesses from that Sunday morning.
Kajlich is still adjusting to his radically changed life. To get to his second-floor bedroom, he sits on his bottom and lifts himself up backward, step by step, with his arms.
To leave the house, he forgoes a low wheelchair ramp and glides right off the front steps, like a teenager on a skateboard. But he has also flipped out of the wheelchair several times. A custom-fit chair is tied up in paperwork.
Kajlich is realistic about the life ahead of him and that a wheelchair is something he'll always need.
"I can't just hop in a car and go camping. That sucks," Kajlich said.
But then he joked that there are positives to help offset the losses.
"Handicapped parking for life," he said, flashing a smile.
A family trait of not dwelling on what can't be changed, of looking forward, not back, emerged when he said of the accident's details, "It's not something my family cares to know at this point because it makes no difference."
For Kajlich, who spent three weeks in a drug-induced coma, the loss of his legs was something he only gradually understood. He recalled having intense dreams of a great struggle in which he had to "kill or be killed." In another, he staggered behind a big, laboring machine and had the impression that his feet were badly mangled.
When Kajlich was brought out of the coma and a tracheotomy tube was removed, he thought his toenails had grown very long and told his mother, who had flown to Prague along with his father and two sisters, that he needed to clip them.
He said his mother told him, "You don't have toes."
As he talked about discovering the extent of his injuries, another family trait emerged, perhaps honed by having a father who is a doctor and a mother who is a nurse. Kajlich assessed the situation and started to deal with it.
"I was pretty quick to accept that I was in the hospital and that's the way it was," he said.
His family arranged for him to be flown back to Seattle. Kajlich spent a week and a half at Harborview Medical Center getting his leg wounds closed. He was transferred then to University of Washington Medical Center, still unable to sit up.
Within a few days, though, his strength began to return. He spent three weeks in physical therapy before returning to the family's home in Woodway.
Kajlich's father, Aurel Jan, a retired anesthesiologist known as "Relo" to friends, and his mother, Patti, who teaches nursing at Shoreline Community College, sat in their sunny kitchen with dangling pots and a stainless-steel cooking island, alternately telling stories from their three-week vigil at the hospital in Prague and wondering what the future would hold.
Relo, who had left communist Czechoslovakia as a young physician, could both speak the language and assess the quality of the medical care.
But the reality of his handsome, 6-foot-tall son, who had played baseball, football and golf with ease, suddenly being a double amputee is not something that you "put your arms around all at once," he said. "You deal with it in bits and pieces."
Despite their one-day-at-a-time outlook, both parents said they have aged in the past six months, worn from dealing with medical and government bureaucracies in two countries, the uncertainty of the future and the awkwardness of having a grown son suddenly dependent on them.
"There's a constant assessing of our behavior, our energy," Patti Kajlich said.
As parents, they want to do all they can for their son but understand that Andre must find his own way.
Friends said the Kajlichs have always shared their warmth and good humor with everyone they have met.
"They're a family whose door is always open to everybody. They'd give you the shirts off their backs," Betsy Stoulil said.
Stoulil and other family friends have organized a fund-raising auction to benefit Andre Kajlich. The cost to fly the young man home, accompanied by two nurses, was $35,000. His prosthetic legs will cost $65,000 each and last about five years. Insurance will cover one set.
Another friend, Kassie Radwick, was afraid that the price of the auction dinner tickets $75 each would preclude Andre's younger friends from attending. So she organized a benefit Sunday at Rory's of Edmonds and invited friends from his years at Holy Rosary School in Edmonds and Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle.
In the past months, Kajlich has met several times with his doctor and members of his rehabilitation team. He said they tried not to limit his outlook, but at the same time they didn't want to give him false hope.
Nothing remains of his left leg, and even with an artificial one, they told him, he may never be able to do more than drag it along. How much time he may be able to spend upright on it and the other prosthetic leg, and how mobile he'll be, they don't know.
Kajlich isn't limiting his potential.
"I'm energetic. I'll work hard," he said.
When his doctors asked him about his goals for rehabilitation, he told them that he'd like to travel again and perhaps go to school abroad.
Radwick said she has little doubt that Kajlich will accomplish whatever he sets out to do.
"I don't know his plans for the future, but I don't think it will alter much because of the accident," she said. "I think he'll want to do everything."
Two or three times a week, Kajlich swims laps at the Harbor Square Athletic Club pool in Edmonds. Balancing himself in his wheelchair, about 3 feet from the edge of the pool, he pulls off a sweat shirt and swiftly lowers himself to the concrete deck. With one forward swing, he plunges in.
Even the first time, Kajlich said, coming to the pool after he was released from the hospital, he wasn't scared. His family had come with him in case he needed help. But he's a strong swimmer. He knew the water would lift him up.
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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