Dustin Boydell played a round of golf on Monday (June 21), and it was a really big deal.
When Dustin teed off at the Chilliwack Golf Club, it was his first round of golf in nearly four long years. In his darker moments, he feared he’d never be able to do it again, winding his way through 18 holes, feeling the impact of club on ball and hearing that wonderful sound as it drops into the cup.
People told him he was destined to spend his life in a wheelchair. He might not walk again. If he did, it would only be short distances with crutches or canes.
If he’d listened to those people, this moment would have been forever out of reach, and he couldn’t imagine a life like that.
So, he didn’t listen, and he proved everyone wrong.
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Dustin, who was born and raised in Hope and now lives in Chilliwack, was 31 years old when things went south.
He was married with two kids, holding down a full time job with Finning Canada. Life was going great until he started feeling back pain. Just a little at first, the type you’d write off as a pulled muscle. But it quickly morphed into something far more severe, sending him to the emergency room in excruciating pain.
Initially sent home with pain killers, Dustin started to notice numbness that got progressively worse. Doctors came to believe a bulging disc was the culprit, but CT and MRI scans at Surrey Memorial Hospital showed otherwise. What he had was an abscess in his vertebrae that was compressing his spinal cord.
The next morning, Dustin found himself paralyzed from the waist down, and he was hurried into an operating room for emergency surgery.
“And the surgery was a success,” he recalled. “But because the paralysis had already set in, I was told for the first time that I might never walk again.
“That’s not what you want to hear when you wake up from surgery.”
After eight days laid up in hospital, Dustin was dispatched to GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver, and that is where the gravity of everything really set in.
He spent 11 weeks in that facility, being ‘trained’ for a new life he didn’t want.
“It was going to be lived out with a wheelchair, with maybe some small bursts of walking using arm crutches and ankle braces. Maybe a walker, if I was lucky.”
Dustin’s first day there, he felt alone and scared. He ended up sitting in his wheelchair in a room he had to share with a stranger, and he cried.
“When it first happens, it’s a shock. You think your life is over,” he said. “You’re just starting to map out your future and all of a sudden you’re thinking, ‘Who’s going to teach my son how to run and play catch? My wife, we’ve only been married a year, so is she going to be okay with this life or is she going to want to leave?’
“There are so many things that rush into your mind and you completely shut down.”
3 years ago I was told I may never walk again. Today I was practicing full golf swings at physio. Never let anyone tell you that something is impossible. If @PhilMickelson can win at 50 a 34yr old paraplegic can try! #golf #para #SpinalCordInjury #DreamBig #mindovermatter pic.twitter.com/fODW26GP0h— Dustin-n-Bustin🧑🏻🦽🏌️♂️🎮 (@Dustin_n_Bustin) June 2, 2021
But Dustin’s wife, Brittany, wasn’t leaving, and he had four-year-old son Oliver and 14-year-old daughter Brook to fight for. If not for himself, he was going to do it for them.
So he laid in bed one day and he was able to rotate his right leg just five little degrees to the right. When the nurse told him with excited eyes that such a tiny movement was “incredible,” the battle was fully joined.
What brought him down before was now going to lift him up.
“At GF Strong, I could see people who were worse off than me, which is horrible to say, but it started to give me hope,” he said. “And I saw people who were more successful than me, and it gave me something to strive for.”
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A sports-loving guy, Dustin spent hours of his rehab time online, investigating what recreational opportunities there were for people in wheelchairs.
Outside of Vancouver/Surrey, there weren’t many.
In particular, Dustin wanted to return to the sport he loved the most.
About a year into his recovery, he tried swinging a golf club.
With one arm holding a crutch and two ankle braces on, he almost fell on his face. It was a sad moment, but it was also a ‘you can do this’ moment.
“I was already upright,” he said. “From there I was able to push myself further and further and further.”
Weeks later, after hours and hours of hard work in physiotherapy, Dustin tried a couple swings in his backyard and felt surprisingly safe and stable. He did it again at the gym a few days later and someone videotaped it.
When he looked at it he thought, ‘That looks like an actual golf swing!’
Dustin took that video and posted it online, not expecting anything to come of it. It was late May, right after Phil Mickelson (51) became the oldest player to ever win a major on the PGA Tour. As a lark, Dustin tagged Mickelson in a tweet that included the video, saying “If @PhilMickelson can win at 50 a 34yr old paraplegic can try!”
All he was really hoping for was a thumbs up from an idol, but a couple hours later his phone started buzzing a lot. Phil liked the Tweet and a few minutes later he replied saying, “You have my support.”
“Then it really exploded,” Dustin laughed. “It was like after like and view after view.”
The PGA Tour took his video and Phil’s comment and created their own social media posts and it blew up even more, catching the attention of ParaGolf Canada.
Dustin wanted to become an advocate for people with disabilities, and this brand new organization shared that dream of drawing attention to adaptive and/or disabled golf.
“There are so many people that have disabilities that don’t feel like they’re welcome on the golf course,” he said. “That’s not right. It should be changed and that’s their message, that golf should be for everybody.”
From that moment of first connection with ParaGolf Canada, Dustin has embraced a new goal. To be the best para golfer in the country and use that forum to spread a message of inclusion.
“And be an inspiration to someone who may be going through some of the same things I did,” he said.
With just one round of golf in the books, he’s still a long way from that goal. But he did shoot an 86 on a par 72 course, so it’s a very good start. Dustin has created a GoFundMe to help with costs like equipment, and membership to the Chilliwack Golf Club.
The goal is $10,000 and he’s at $500 so far.
“It’s difficult to explain how incredible my journey is, and how extremely rare it is for someone who has been paralyzed from the waist down to not only walk again, but play golf at a level where they can almost compete with able-bodied people,” he explained. “I’m trying to get that message out and break down some barriers, but it’s difficult when you’re just a nobody that no one knows.
“That’s my next step.”