Today is Stephane Okenge’s twentieth birthday and his mother says the boy and his family are refusing despair. Six weeks since a car accident in Nebraska left the college athlete quadriplegic quadriplegic, the family has bound together, seeking comfort in their community and actively pursuing gratitude, despite the horrific circumstances—every parent’s worst nightmare.
“If it had to happen to anyone, we’re a good family for it to happen to because we have great support mechanisms all around us; the running community, our international connections and all of Stephane’s trainers, managers, coaches and friends,” says Trisha Okenge, who recently moved back to Ottawa to look after her son after eleven years offering humanitarian aid in East Africa. “We’re feeling how important all of these connections are and have been deeply moved by our disparate networks coming together. It’s amazing and has really helped to boost our morale.”
Stephane was a passenger in a horrific car crash on October 23 and has since been moved from Nebraska to Ottawa Hospital, where his mother says the attention he’s received has been superb. Transferred from the Intensive Care Unit to the Acute Trauma Wing, Stephane has recently experienced slight mobility in his left arm, and his mother—who finds hope in small rays of light through persistent dark clouds—says the family is anxiously awaiting her boy to graduate into the Rehabilitation Unit.
“The hope is, in the Rehabilitation Unit, Stephane will see more of what’s possible in life and realize he can still end up happy—that he can have a business, relationship, family, and that all kinds of things are still possible,” says Trisha, adding that her boy’s athleticism has served him well in his recovery. Skills he’s learned from a lifetime of sports are serving him well in his struggles.
“He has an awful lot of fight in him and you can see it in the steeliness in his eyes. Even in something like his respiratory exercises, he’s pushing through for one set more than the respiratory therapists normally prescribe,” Trisha says. “I think athletic people tend to push themselves and see what’s possible and Stephane’s drive encourages all of us.”
He’s in touch with his friend, the driver, and the two teammates (and their mothers) are motivating one another not to lose hope. Encouraging the family alongside Stephane’s resiliency—which isn’t only physical but also emotional—is the generosity of strangers and friends.
The original GoFundMe raised $150,000US and saw more than 1,500 people contribute money to the family’s $750,000US American hospital bill. While insurance claims still need to be settled, Trisha says her tight knit family is also focussing on the fiscal realities of what is to come next: she left her job in Ethiopia and needs to renovate her small house to fit the adaptive devices her boy needs. There’s shock. There’s despair. And then there’s the hard work of survival.
“Today is certainly a different kind of birthday for Steph than he would’ve imagined and I’ll be honest, everything is shocking and hard, but we’re resilient and mixed in with grief and sorrow is hope and appreciation,” says Trisha. “Inspired by Stephane, we push forward doing everything we can to take ownership—we’re doing everything we can to direct how all our lives can be as positive and productive as possible as we face many new realities.”
Jeff Williams, Stephane’s uncle, recently set up a Canadian GoFundMe to help in the retrofitting of the family home in Ottawa and securing assistance devices for Steph. To make a donation, please click here.