Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop – A Sammarelli Story

The end of the year always forces me to do a little family introspection no matter how many miles away I am from home. As the eldest of 3 boys, there were always high expectations of my own accountability, leadership and path.

Lifetime projections that eventually swayed me into traveling the world.

Despite the distance and years, looking back on how much my brothers and I have grown truly speaks volumes about our character which was built by the love and integrity of two immigrant parents.

But if you ask my brothers what it was that kept us all so close, they’d probably say it was the backyard wrestling or the constant need to one up the each other when it came to sports, mischief or the common denominator of “gallivanting” (a term my mother used to describe when her boys were out late.)

None of us will never forget the day my brother, Leo, was shot on March 13th, 2017 in front of our family home.

I was in Asia and had been able to eventually convince my mum and Luigi to join me on a trip to the Philippines since my mum hadn’t been back in over 25 years.

As usual, Leo had prior arrangements but volunteered to drop them off at the airport the day of their flight.

Back in the Philippines, I was looking forward to at least seeing most of my family after spending months abroad.

On the morning of their arrival, I checked my phone to confirm their flight details, but saw it had blown up with messages from friends, family and old neighbours.

The dozens of messages ranged from Something has happened! u need to call me on Skype to CALL ME CELL ASAP LEO GOT SHOT, AMBULANCE IS TAKING HIM AWAY.

In a daze, I remember thinking I hope someone stopped mum from boarding the plane. I couldn’t imagine breaking the worst possible news to a mother after a long flight, let alone my own mother.

With some quick-thinking, coordination and luck my mum and Luigi never boarded the plane that day.

Twelve hours later, I found myself in a Canadian hospital room staring at my little brother hooked up to life sustaining machines. The fresh cuts, dried blood and bruising were hardly noticeable when you looked at the plastic tubes plunging into his nostrils above his cracked lips.

Those weeks will be forever etched in my memory and to try to describe them requires something beyond the scope of this writing. The only fitting word is:

Brutal.

With some digging, ugly truths were uncovered. More questions than answers started materializing. And I found myself lying to my mum to save her sanity.

I went through the entire spectrum of human emotion during those early days. Fits of anger, despair, joy: these are just a few words about how I felt towards Leo.

Eventually my brother woke up from his medical coma, but our relationship would never be the same again.

I felt I had aged 100 years since Leo was shot, but new creases on his once younger face showed that ten-fold after he awoke.

Multiple bullet wounds, punctured organs, spinal damage, ongoing intestinal complications and potentially more surgeries down the road. The medical conclusion was surreal:

PARAPLEGIA.

Despite being the most soft-spoken of the brothers, Leo was a professional athlete before the shooting.

A national boxing champion and an up and coming Olympian, he had come a long way from backyard sparring and after school wrestling. An early obsession with sports on top an unquenchable thirst for improvement was probably what saved his life at the end.

At the time however, there was no end in sight to the chaos.

My family was in shambles. And questions were still unanswered about the motive and a shooter still walking the streets.

The quiet neighbourhood where I held the fondest memories of growing up was now front page news for a targeted shooting in one of the safest areas in city.

I remember double checking my rearview mirror for anyone tailing me home, jolting awake each time our flood lights were triggered only to find Luigi pacing at 3 a.m., or my mum upright and wide-eyed in the living room.

To add to it all, the stress of a pending RCMP investigation, media attention, Leo’s daily neurological pain, countless therapy sessions, PTSD and seeking alternative income sources were just a few other byproducts that affected and stressed my family during the aftermath.

Our world was all the more surreal when hospital visits were strictly kept under aliases and visitors were kept on a short list for my brother’s safety.

I recall one afternoon at the rehabilitation clinic where an older gentleman provided spinal cord patients with canine-focused therapy using two small Pomeranians. One of his tricks had the two small animals on their hind legs in front of the patients. The gentleman mimed a gun with his hand followed by a loud “Bang! Bang!” resulting in the Pomeranians collapsing and playing dead in front of us.

At those bang bangs, I flinched. Leo went white but to his credit, still forced a smile.

I’m not going to lie, watching Leo go from half-cheery at the sight of us to flinching at random is something I’ll never get used to. But I guess it’s what you get when you still have bullet shards lodged in your spine.

In athletics, goal setting is the backbone of success and achievement. Pushing yourself through the pain and suffering of training was a well-worn road to Leo’s boxing career which he managed to maintain during treatment.

Specialists prescribed Leo some of the country’s hardest medications in order to combat the random shocks of pain in his nervous system and make his life a little more comfortable, albeit the eventual lifetime-reliance on these drugs was one of the tradeoffs.

I should have known my brother would refuse to be dependent on pills for the rest of his life.

He pushed hard during rehab and took notice of when his pain peaked. In addition to positive self-medication, he set goals for himself to create new habits that centred around healing his shattered body.

Within just 6 weeks of the shooting, Leo had already done much of what doctors claimed impossible.

However, while Leo was focusing on recovery and my family was trying to get back to normality, I was tugging my hair at the costs of Leo’s rehab. Leo got little in terms of financial support and we both learned early on that nothing comes free for new paraplegics.

With little to lose, I put together a crowd funding page in hopes that we could pull together a few donations towards furthering Leo’s progress. Today I am still deeply moved by the response we got from distant friends, old training partners, neighbours, strangers and even professional athletes.

Invigorated by the support, we got in touch with spinal facilities over the border that were interested in Leo’s case. But more so his drive and boxing background. Without funding for these institutes, Leo would be in a very different place.

But our fight was just beginning.

I watched my brother try and pick up the pieces of his old life, only to find the entire picture just didn’t fit right anymore.

Old friends who hadn’t seen Leo in months were awkward around him and often traded glances between him and the chair. Training partners and coaches were also hard for him to see as it was a haunting reminder of everything he had lost. The lifelong readjustment included much more than his friends and learning how to cope with life on a chair, though.

Catheters, colostomy bags, diets, sleeping patterns, transportation, medical examinations, scheduling, medication, sleeping positions, finances and accommodation barely scratched the surface of what Leo had to get used to.

Spending dinner with the family meant walking through the front yard where Leo was shot. Climbing up staircases and squeezing through thin halls to unequipped bathrooms were tasks that sometimes needed all 3 brothers to pull off.

It wasn’t easy.

As the moments turned to hours, then to days and weeks, to eventually months, I witnessed the fruits of hard work, determination and grit begin to bloom in just 2 years.

I watched as Leo went on road trips to attend weddings, fly overseas to help paraplegics in South East Asia, push himself through exoskeleton programs, attend public speaking events and to eventually winning para-nordic medals.

The will to strive for something better than his initial diagnosis was the source of his creative workouts, diet and ongoing personal healing. He found what worked for him and used it to overcome obstacles during the toughest fight of his life.

The once shy and soft-spoken kid who had everything taken from him slowly became a motivational speaker, counsellor, public figure and adaptive athlete.

2019 marked a huge milestone as Leo crossed the finish line of a gruelling 122 KM hand-cycle ride from Vancouver to Whistler lasting over 8 hours in the seat. His growing outreach and media attention since the shooting is marked by his ongoing mantra:

“Can’t stop… Won’t Stop”

Things have slowly gotten back to normal at home, too.

Luigi just wrapped up the most turbulent high school years you could imagine and my mum is finally looking forward to a well-deserved retirement, while I find myself with itchy feet once again.

Through all the misery, pain and feelings of drowning one thing is clear:

My brother is Unsinkable.

Recently named the Director of Diversity of the British Columbia Boxing Association, Leo is paving the way for future dreamers. He is one of the head figures leading the way in adaptive boxing throughout Canada.

We all grew up a little faster than we wanted during those days. At times it was rough, painful and even hopeless. I watched a boy lose his dreams in an instant, only to discover new ones as a man that would reach the lives of thousands.

I guess there is some truth in the saying, “The things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end.”