Juneau Color: Émigré intent on walking again

Juneau jumps in to help injured snowboarder recover from broken spine

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2001

Pasha Chernyakov wiggles his legs as he talks, like an active child stuck too long in a chair.

Chernyakov has been stuck in his chair, and his bed, since his spine snapped in a snowboarding accident April 7. It's a hard place for an active 29-year-old to be, but Chernyakov's sure he'll stand up and walk again, which is why he fidgets.

"When I'm not sleeping, I exercise," Chernyakov said. "I try all possible ways to progress."

For now progress is measured in inches of movement. He can bring his right leg to his chest, a triumph after many weeks of work. His left leg is slower to recover, but Chernyakov pushes himself out of his chair on both arms and lets his legs sway back and forth beneath his suspended body.

"I can ski a little bit already," he said with a grin.

It's the grin that impresses most people.

"Myself, I think I'd have a real bad attitude about it and just be grumpy, but Pasha, he's got a real good attitude about it. He's always smiling and positive," said Nick Tyner, a 19-year-old who volunteered his summer to help Chernyakov recover. "That was one of the first things I noticed about him and that's what I tell everyone, is his attitude is so good I don't think he can fail."

Recovery from spinal injuries usually takes about two years. A recent Russian immigrant without insurance or money, Chernyakov doesn't have all the advantages other patients do, said Sharon Beazley, his volunteer care coordinator.

"What he's getting right now is minimal because he doesn't have the resources," Beazley said.

Beazley, who emigrated from South Africa 11 years ago, is concerned Chernyakov could be deported if the government decides he's a burden. She's been scrambling to get him the care he needs but can't afford.

"I don't know how we can hold our heads high saying somebody isn't worthwhile because he doesn't have money," Beazley said, her voice pitching with emotion. "Money, what's money worth? You can't buy caring or empathy or commitment."

Chernyakov has earned those. Amanda Corcoran, the woman he'd started dating a month before the accident, stuck by him. She went down to Seattle to be with him at the hospital and took him into her apartment when he returned, his 6-foot body folded into a wheelchair and shrunk to 140 pounds.

"I've waited entirely too long for someone like this to come along and I'm not letting him go that easy," Corcoran said. "He makes me laugh all the time. He's cultured. He's got different views on everything. He's extremely romantic."

Strangers have been generous too. Twice a week Chernyakov goes to physical therapist Dr. John Bursell, who has donated his services. Tyner stays to watch and learn so they can continue the exercise the rest of the week. The Juneau Racquet Club donated a membership so Chernyakov can work on his physical therapy there. He also has free passes to the city swimming pool.

Working with Chernyakov has made Tyner, a skydiver, more safety conscious and a more cautious driver, he said.

"It makes me think, because if he was never to walk again," Tyner said, trailing off momentarily. "You never think about losing your legs, but it's a big obstacle."

The hardest time for Chernyakov was in the hospital in Seattle. The pain was intense, but instead of complaining, he'd sing.

"You could always tell where he was in the hospital because he just sang 'Doo-dah, doo-dah,' and loudly," Corcoran said.

For the first week in the hospital the city noise and smog kept Chernyakov awake. He missed Juneau's quiet, the sounds of birds outside and the mountains. He kept the curtains in his hospital room shut.

"He didn't want to see the buildings and smog," Corcoran said.

Now that he's home Chernyakov leaves the windows in their Douglas apartment open. Even though he can't go into the mountains, he said he draws strength from looking at them across the channel.

"In any mountains around the world I feel myself at home," Chernyakov said. "When I was outside in the mountains it was the best time. Eaglecrest is really amazing ski area. I've seen a lot of mountains around the world and Eaglecrest is really special, natural."

Chernyakov grew up in Moscow, where he earned a psychology degree. His heart was always in the snowy mountains, not the ones near home, but the ones he'd heard of in Alaska. He traveled to 15 European countries as a student, and spent almost a year in California learning English. When he returned home he put his name in for a green card, and won one in a luck-of-the-draw lottery.

"From my childhood kind of I wanted to see this land. When I finally got green card, I was sure I'm going to Alaska," Chernyakov said.

He flew to Seattle and took the Alaska Marine Highway north, arriving in Juneau on Oct. 2.

Nothing fazed him. Chernyakov got a job at Eaglecrest Ski Area and waited for snow. When the snow was slow to fall and he couldn't make enough money working at the ski area, he got a job as a REACH caregiver. He learned sign language so he could work each afternoon with Paul Douglas' son, Jeff.

"Pasha is just kind of a natural. He just gets along with people, all kinds of people," Douglas said.

Chernyakov would go snowboarding early in the morning, then come down and take Jeff up to Eaglecrest in the afternoon.

"They were just like a couple of kids playing," Douglas said. "They did a lot of hiking. Pasha would haul him all the way up to Eaglecrest and they'd slosh around in the snow."

Caring for other people came easily to Chernyakov.

"I really liked my job there," Chernyakov said. "I like not-ordinary people."

Now Chernyakov finds himself on the opposite side, accepting Juneau's generosity. KTOO is holding a garage and bake sale on June 30 and also organizing several nine-course Chinese dinners to raise funds for Chernyakov. Beazley and Douglas are planning a fund-raising dance at the Alaskan. They also are gathering donations for a fund-raising auction and dance at the Hangar Ballroom. Other people have donated wheelchairs, meals, case management and labor to make the apartment more handicapped accessible.

"When I came to Juneau I felt it was amazing, but I didn't realize how amazing until the accident," Chernyakov said.

Corcoran keeps track of the medical bills that are piling up, wanting Chernyakov to concentrate on getting well rather than the mounting debt, $100,000 so far. Community groups are trying to raise money and donation cans collect change around town. Chernyakov and Corcoran are thankful for the help, but realistic.

"The bills are pretty much the least of our concerns," Corcoran said. "I know no matter how much we raise or people give us, we won't get them paid off in our lifetime."

Chernyakov's prepared to be paying off the debt the rest of his life. He didn't come to the United States expecting streets paved with gold. He came for what he's found. A caring community among beautiful mountains.

"I'm not looking forward to being rich," Chernyakov said. "I'm looking forward to being nice and happy."

He's also looking forward to walking and snowboarding again. If he makes it back onto the ski slopes, he promises to stick to easy routes and avoid jumps. Even before he walks, Chernyakov wants to return to work caring for others. His care coordinator, Beazley, hopes to arrange for him to work at the Wildflower Court nursing home with some of his former REACH clients.

"He, if anybody, can show people what endurance and courage and despair is," she said.

But if Chernyakov despairs, he doesn't show it.

"I feel myself lucky too," he said. "It could be way worse."

Kristan Hutchison can be reached at khutchison@juneauempire.com.

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