Part 1 in a series.
When 22-year-old Suheil Aghabi awoke to find himself lying in the middle of an intersection in West Hempstead, NY, he knew immediately that he was paralyzed.
Aghabi – who also goes by Gabriel Cordell – had just left his Long Island home on Oct. 17, 1992 and was on his way to his first professional commercial audition in New York City when a female driver ran a red light near the railroad crossing and slammed into his Jeep.
“I clenched as hard as I could to my steering wheel, because I knew I was going to get hit,” recalls Aghabi, now 42. The vehicle hit his Jeep on the rear driver’s side, forcing it to flip. “That’s the last thing I remember,” he says. “I woke up on the street with my steering wheel in my hand.”
Aghabi had grasped the wheel so hard that he ripped it out of the column as he was ejected from his vehicle through the soft top roof that was now wrapped around his body.
“Obviously, I wasn't wearing a seat belt,” says Aghabi, who was later told by his doctor that the lack of a restraint most likely saved his life, because his neck could have snapped if he remained inside the car when it flipped. Instead, Aghabi was thrown from the car, his body hit a nearby pole with extreme force, and his spinal chord was crushed.
“It was like someone swinging a baseball bat as hard as they could at my back,” he says.
Struggling to breath and with his entire body tingling, the 1988 West Hempstead High School graduate was rushed to Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre, where his family soon learned he was paralyzed and he lay in bed for two days, waiting for the swelling in his body to go down before he could undergo any operation.
He was transferred to the Hospital for Joint Disease in Manhattan, where he underwent a six-hour spinal fusion surgery and remained hospitalized for nearly a month.
During the three months Aghabi spent at New York University’s Rusk Institute learning to become independent again he reached a low-point followed by a turning point. As anger began to take hold of him, Aghabi demanded to be transferred to a new room, away from patients who were terminal, but the only other room available was in the pediatric unit. It was here, surrounded by children with physical disabilities, that Aghabi quickly stopped feeling sorry for himself.
“I had 22 years of wonderful health,” he says. “These children had a strike against them from the day they were born. Right then and there, I knew how fortunate I was … You don’t need your legs to live.”
This realization spurred Aghabi to chase after his dreams even though he would not be pursuing them in a wheelchair. By that April, he was back in NYC, going on auditions and quickly became one of the busiest actors and the top commercial model on the East Coast among those in wheelchairs.
Then, exactly five years from the date of his accident, he followed through with his plans to move to the West Coast. He loaded up his car and left for California, where he’s been ever since.
But Aghabi would come to learn that overcoming his paralysis was easy compared to a more crippling disease he would face. Over the span of three and half years, what started out as an occasional drug use problem escalated into a full-blown cocaine addiction by the time Aghabi was in his late 30s.
“It was a conscious choice to check out of reality, because I was just tired, I felt beat up and did not want to try anymore,” he says. “I was pathetic, useless to society. I had nothing good to offer.”
It’s a daily struggle, but since April 2012, Aghabi has been clean, sober, and completely honest. “I no longer lie, fib or exaggerate,” he says. “I am transparent as Wonder Woman's airplane.”
This spring, he’s also hoping to inspire others struggling with disabilities and addictions by setting out on a 3,300 mile cross-country trip from Burbank, to his hometown West Hempstead, in his wheelchair.
Sunday: Learn more about Aghabi’s cross-country challenge and how you can help him roll across America in Part 2 of this series: Rolling Across America in Wheelchair.