A mir­a­cle come­back

For­mer Hamil­ton Ju­nior Red Wings player Ri­ley Dunda suf­fered a de­bil­i­tat­ing stroke. De­fy­ing odds, just three years later, he’s back on the ice

The Hamilton Spectator - - FRONT PAGE - SCOTT RADLEY

AT ONE POINT dur­ing the first cou­ple days, doc­tors told his dev­as­tated fam­ily there was an 80 per cent chance things wouldn’t get much bet­ter. The stroke had sim­ply been mas­sive and de­bil­i­tat­ing. As a re­sult, the young man lying in the med­i­cally in­duced coma that spring morn­ing in 2014 would al­most cer­tainly be fac­ing mon­u­men­tal phys­i­cal chal­lenges for the rest of his life.

Any hope that this was an overly pes­simistic di­ag­no­sis and ev­ery­thing would some­how snap back to nor­mal once he woke up and his brain fired up again was quickly crushed. He couldn’t move his right arm. When he tried to speak, his words came out slurred and man­gled. And his right leg was use­less.

“IT WAS SHOT,” Ri­ley Dunda says. “It was done.”

The whole thing was stun­ning. This was an in­cred­i­bly fit hockey player with the Hamil­ton Red Wings. In­ex­pli­ca­bly — and un­known to him — he’d some­how suf­fered a tear in his carotid artery, which freed a blood clot that worked its way into his brain. It hap­pened on that May morn­ing. He stood up to go get some ce­real at his Grimsby home and sim­ply col­lapsed.

The truly shock­ing part of all this? He was just 18. Hon­estly, who has a stroke at 18? The an­swer is, more peo­ple than you think. But that’s an­other story for an­other day.

After an ex­per­i­men­tal surgery saved his life, Dunda set about re­hab­bing him­self. Every day he’d grind away at the gym in hopes of see­ing small, in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments. It was never fun — truth is, it was of­ten aw­ful — but he kept at it. His hand started to work again. His speech re­turned. Soon he was walk­ing. With help at first, then with­out.

Call it a mir­a­cle, call it force of will or maybe call it a bit of both, but within a year you wouldn’t have in­stantly known what he’d been through if you saw him walk­ing to­ward you.

There were hints of a limp, but that’s it.

In the process, he be­came some­thing of a spokesper­son for stroke re­cov­ery, lead­ing fundrais­ing walks, spend­ing time with other young peo­ple who’d gone through a sim­i­lar thing, and ap­pear­ing as the poster child for what’s pos­si­ble. With #fight­ri­ley­fight all over so­cial me­dia, his come­back was fol­lowed and cheered on by peo­ple ev­ery­where. Espe­cially in the tight-knit hockey com­mu­nity. All of this, how­ever, was just the ap­pe­tizer.

THE OTHER DAY, a buddy at Ni­a­gara Col­lege, where he’s study­ing broad­cast­ing, asked if he wanted to join the in­tra­mu­ral hockey team. Dunda’s not sure if the guy knew his back­ground and he didn’t raise it.

“I just said OK and showed up,” he says. He’d been on the ice a few times since as an as­sis­tant coach with the Glan­brook Rangers and a cou­ple times to join NHLer Brian McGrat­tan for a care­ful skate, but he hadn’t pulled the equip­ment on for a game since the stroke. Ty­ing his skates was tough since his hand is still not 100 per cent. He got it done, though.

As he put on the rest of his stuff he was freak­ing out. He’s played hun­dreds of games in his life and dressed for hun­dreds more prac­tices. For this one, though, his nerves were crazy. Back when things were re­ally bleak, he’d in­sisted he’d re­turn to hockey some­day. He says he truly be­lieved it even if few oth­ers held the same level of op­ti­mism. Yet here he was. When he stepped onto the ice, his amazed dad hit record on his phone cam­era. Then started cry­ing.

“Yeah, I did,” Richard says. “He didn’t see me.”

Al­most im­me­di­ately, it all started com­ing back to the now-21-year-old. His stick­han­dling was OK. His shoot­ing wasn’t bad, thanks mostly to the fact that he has been shoot­ing at a net in his base­ment twice a week for a while now.

If any­thing, skat­ing was the chal­lenge. Dunda still doesn’t have full strength in his right side, so push­ing off was a chal­lenge. One side was full power and the other was about 60 per cent. That equa­tion doesn’t lead to a straight line or good turns. Yet within a cou­ple shifts he’d made some ad­just­ments to deal with it.

“I fell twice the en­tire game,” he says. “I was pretty im­pressed by that.”

Be­fore long he was caught up in the game, not think­ing about any­thing but the flow of the ac­tion. He’s been back sev­eral times since. To­day it’s just hockey. Not as com­pet­i­tive as what he was used to in his old life, but hockey.

He says his mom had been a lit­tle con­cerned about him play­ing again un­til she was told it was a no-body­check­ing league. Then she was OK.

He, on the other hand, was a lit­tle dis­ap­pointed.

“I wanted to play hit­ting,” he says. “Who doesn’t?”

“I just said OK and showed up.” RI­LEY DUNDA ON HOW TO MAKE A COME­BACK

Ri­ley Dunda in hospi­tal in early May 2014 after his stroke.

Ri­ley Dunda, right, is mak­ing his come­back on the ice with a Ni­a­gara Col­lege in­tra­mu­ral hockey team. Ri­ley is in the me­dia pro­gram at the col­lege study­ing broad­cast­ing.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.