Norm Gagatek is an inspiration to everyone in town who knows him. He is a great example of someone who has overcome the challenges of a life-altering event and always sees each day through with a smile on his face.
Norm has lived in Invermere his whole life. He was born here and attended David Thompson Secondary School as a teenager. As an adult, he went on to become an electrician, and also a firefighter. Life was going very smoothly for Norm, until the one day that changed his life and his family’s life forever.
Four years ago, Norm suffered from a brain stem stroke. When his family saw what was happening, they quickly rushed him to Calgary Foothills where he was taken to the Intensive Care Unit. There, he went into septic shock twice, and wasn’t expected to live, and if he did live, he wasn’t expected to have the same quality of life he once had.
Lying in his hospital bed, with family around him, he listened to the nurses and doctors telling his wife Kim to put him in a home because all Norm was going to be able to do was lie in a hospital bed for the rest of his days. Kim didn’t listen to the negative doctors, though. She told her family, “No, don’t give up. The doctors don’t know Norm. Norm is a strong man. If anyone can get through this, he can.”
“He was a relatively healthy man in his thirties, and he was completely independent. Because of the stroke, he has had to learn everything all over again, walking, talking, everything,” Kim said. “Now he is dependent on people to help him with simple tasks.” The Gagatek family house had to be completely redone to accommodate Norm’s needs. It was a big change for the children, especially the oldest one, Braeden, who is nine years old. He still remembers the “old daddy” that used to be able to play Lego with him. They still work on Lego building today, but it’s more difficult.
Other challenges Norm and his family have are social in nature. They find that when people are introduced to Norm, they are kind of scared or they assume things. People assume that Norm is fragile and has something wrong with his brain because he can’t talk. Norm’s stroke didn’t affect his brain; it affected his brain stem, the connection between his brain and his body. All his knowledge and education is still in his brain. He’ll recognize people on the street who he’s known his whole life, but they assume he doesn’t. They also assume he can’t do the things he actually can.
“I say to them, ‘He can do them, he just does them differently’,” said Kim.
Norm has come a long way since he first had his stroke. When asked how far he feels he has come, with the help of Kim as a translator, Norm said, “I didn’t think I would make it this far, but with the great support of my family, I have done real well.”
Norm has a strong will. Most of the time he is determined to do anything and when he isn’t, he’ll say something like, “I’m disabled” or “I have a brain injury.”
Kim then reminds him that is no excuse.
“You have to try, and if it doesn’t work the first time, think about it, rework it, and try again,” she said. “That is how our family works.”
Norm is doing everything he can to be as independent as possible. He is starting to walk more; he moves around his house, holding a hand.
“I only need a little bit of help,” he said.
Norm has inspired his family in many ways. His infectious smile always makes them look at life more positively.
“He is always saying I love you,” said Kim. “When he was in the hospital, he would always say, I’m gonna come home soon.”
Norm’s strength has inspired Kim to continue to fight for Brain Injury Rehabilitation in British Columbia.
“I think it’s part of our family’s makeup to make sure that we are still helping others,” she said. “We want to give others the strength they need to fight their own fight.”
That being said, the entire community was encouraged to attend Braeden’s birthday party at the Invermere Community Hall on Saturday (November 10) which raised money for the Brain Injury Society and celebrated the miracle family that lives on 6th Street.
Kate Gibbs is a DTSS student writing a series of stories about local residents with diversabilities for The Valley Echo.