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A Life Well Played: Michael Stewart

02 MAY 2016

By Adam Stanley

It was March Break, 2012. Michael Stewart, a popular high school teacher at Sir John A. MacDonald Collegiate Institute in Toronto was up late when he heard a noise outside his west-end home.

He called out to his wife and went to see what was happening. A minivan drove off, the faint laughter of innocent troublemakers holding its sound in the late-night air.

It was not the last time Stewart would see that van.

Moments later, the driver swung back around and hit the then 39-year-old so hard there were paint chips from the van left on his clothes.

According to a story in The Toronto Star a few weeks after the incident, the driver could be charged with crimes from aggravated assault up to attempted murder. Yet, nearly four years to the day, the driver has not been caught; Michael Stewart’s life has never been the same.

“I’m constantly in pain,” he says. “When you break your leg, nurses will ask you how your pain is on a scale of zero to 10. I haven’t experienced a moment of ‘0’ since the second before the accident. I live with around a four or five every single day.”

Post accident x-ray

Stewart was “one of the most-loved teachers by the students,” Stewart’s colleague Laura Proctor, told the Star. He was the school’s baseball coach, a physical education teacher, and one of the leaders of the student council.

The moment he was hit took all that away; he’s not sure if he can ever return.

“I wish I could,” he explains. “I live and work every day to get back to teaching. In my heart of hearts I don’t think I will, but if I embrace that fact, I’ve already lost the battle, so I keep my head down and keep working hard.”

These days, Stewart finds peace mostly on the golf course.

Patrick Homer, an assistant professional at Station Creek Golf Club—and one of Stewart’s former students—introduced him to ClubLink not long after he was undergoing physiotherapy.

Stewart was playing on public courses, but would usually pay a full green fee, despite only playing two or three or seven holes at the most before the pain became too much.

As a first-year member at The Country Club in 2015, he teed it up 123 times. On occasion, he played 18-hole rounds, but mostly he just enjoyed being outside, despite a few moments that remind him of tough times.

“It’s a nice break from my physiotherapy, but it’s also part of my physiotherapy,” he explains. “The worst part is walking off a green with some dew, and looking back at my footsteps. I don’t see the proper stride of someone who is my age. It’s a nice escape, but you look back and see your footprints and you just say ‘wow.’ You feel good about yourself, but you realize you have a long way to go as well.”

Stewart’s swing is a modified one. It’s flat-footed, with minimal turn. He works with Piero Poletto, one of the professionals at The Country Club, on getting more of his wrists into his swing, and rotating his upper body. For someone who has been playing the game since he was 10-years-old, it wasn’t something he was going to give up on, even if anyone thought about giving up on him.

“One of the first questions I asked my surgeon after the accident, but before my first surgery, was if I would be able to play golf again,” Stewart says. “He said, ‘let’s see if we can get you walking first.’ Golf has been one of the motivational factors for me.”

When the teacher explains the pain he experiences in his lower body, it sounds more like a torture scene written into an action movie. Even Hollywood couldn’t write a script that captures the pain he goes through every day.

“I’ve got rods in my back, and underneath and above the rods take a lot of abuse because I take all this pounding from walking,” Stewart says. “It’s like jumping off a six-foot fence, in bare feet, onto concrete. That’s the impact I feel every time I take a step.”

He also has extreme pain in his nervous system, below his waist, from his left and right glute muscles to his feet. “It feels like someone cut two inches into my skin and it’s just raw all the time,” he explains, his voice straining slightly, evidence of a long-fought battle.

Stewart happily contrasts these daily battles with the moments of solace he finds on the golf course.

“The beautiful thing about golf is that the grass is so soft that it affords me a little longer for walking,” he comments. “Say 10 steps is my usual maximum, on the golf course I can do 20. Golf increases the amount I can walk.”

As of February 3, Stewart had another reason to walk more. That was the day his daughter, Mary, was born. It was both scary and exciting. “In a year she’s going to be walking quicker than me,” he says. That said, being a father has also given him a renewed perspective on his life.

“We were trying for two years after the accident,” Stewart recalls. “I can’t feel anything from my hips down, so if you (apply that to) trying to make a baby, it was difficult, but we were very fortunate.”

Stewart’s life changed four years ago. The still uncaught driver took away a lot of things—like a pain-free life and the ability to do the job he loves. What that driver didn’t take away was his positive attitude. With a growing family, he’s more determined than ever to live a life well played filled with things he enjoys, including golf.

“I’m constantly in pain, but I try not to let that dictate my life,” he explains.

With a newborn, he has become numb to some of it. His voice goes up an excited octave as he segues from golf to his daughter. “I’ve never been this happy,” Stewart concludes. “That’s for sure.”