Glad to be alive

It’s Friday afternoon, and Eric Lazar needs to go shopping.

No big deal.

The Koloa man heads for a Lihue store, blocks away. He doesn’t get behind the wheel of a car to get there. He doesn’t hop on a bike. He doesn’t start walking. He powers his way there with his arms.

Lazar, sitting in a wheelchair, rolls along the sidewalk that runs parallel to the traffic on Kuhio Highway. It’s a hot, sunny, humid day. Too hot, really, to be out here on a relatively narrow path with small bumps and dips and stops along the way.

It helps that he’s wearing shorts and a tank top. It helps he has arms as round as trees and a broad, powerful shoulders. But there is something else that helps even more: Attitude.

“It’s a great day. It’s great to be here,” he said.

The 43-year-old is darn happy just to be alive. He doesn’t care if it’s too hot, too cold, too sunny or too cloudy. Doesn’t matter if he’s got miles to get to the store. No difference if his wallet is flush with cash (though it’s nice), or it’s empty.

You see, Eric Lazar nearly died 10 years ago.

It was April 18, 2003, Good Friday, when it happened in Southern California, where he was born and raised.

“Great Friday to me because I was still alive. I thought I’d died in the mountain,” he said.

Lazar, a lover of all things sports from the time he escaped his crib, was with friends riding motorcycles when he hit a rock while zipping along about 60 mph.

“Before I could let go, my feet came over the top of my back,” he said.

When the wrecked bike and 33-year-old Lazar screeched to a stop, he thought he had suffered a broken pelvis. He credits a paramedic, who happened to be in the area with quickly stabilizing him and calling in a helicopter, with saving his life. He figured he would be back in action soon.

“But it was worse than that,” he said.

Lazar suffered a traumatic spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down.

At the hospital, he said there were numerous quadriplegics who need full time care, so as soon as Lazar could transfer himself out of bed and into a wheelchair, he was discharged.

“It was pretty much, ‘Have a nice life, we need your bed,’” he said, laughing as he recalled the conversation.

Lazar’s life, indeed, changed forever.

Before the injury, he drove a truck and worked in the movie industry, was a Teamster, earned a six figure salary, enjoyed competing in motocross races and had aspirations of being a pro surfer. Those comforts, those dreams, were gone in that moment the tires of his motorcycle struck that rock and sent him flying. Walking, running, surfing, no more.

Instead of giving up, instead of despair, he battled back.

“I thought I died up there in that crash. I was given a second chance, not for me, for other people,” Lazar said.

He counts himself fortunate to be where is he at today.

“Thank God I’ve got my arms,” he said. “I’m able to be independent, take care of myself. I’m blessed.”

He went on to race go-carts, claiming a championship in California in 2007, and started a nonprofit to raise money to help others get involved in the sport.

He had visited other Hawaiian islands, starting at age 15, to catch waves. He was good, too, taking 17th in one pro-am tournament.

“I wanted to be a professional surfer. I thought that would be the greatest job ever,” he said.

Lazar, who survives on Social Security, visited Kauai for the first time last October.

He stayed.

“I guess they saved the best for last. Kauai is by far the best,” he said. “Kauai is special. There’s something about this place.”

“I came from a two-week vacation and missed my flight — on purpose,” he said, laughing.

He stayed with friends until finding his own place in Koloa. He cooks his own meals, does his own shopping, pushes himself and his wheelchair or gets a ride from friends to the beach a mile a mile away, and sometimes stops at Brennecke’s for eats and drinks.

“So that’s my exercise,” he says.

He maintains a strong faith, an enduring belief that life is beautiful, that he has done much and has much more to do.

“There are no coincidences in life. Everybody has greatness in them. It’s about doing the right thing,” he said.

Key, he said, is to stay positive. That’s easy, he adds, when you’re glad to be breathing in and out everyday, when you’re glad to see the sun rise and set on the same day.

“Like I said, I thought I was dead. You get saved from being dead, you’re here for a reason,” he said.

He talks about the good life before the wheelchair. The traveling, the money, the surfing.

“Now, I’m not so much making money, but I think there’s more to life than money, he said.

He cites happiness, love, forgiveness as his driving forces today. He points to friends on Kauai who have accepted him, made him part of their family, who provide priceless gifts.

“I can’t believe the love and support I get from strangers,” he said.

He has always loved a challenge, and still does.

It’s how he ended up at the starting line of the Kauai half marathon on Sept. 1.

“Someone said, ‘I couldn’t do it, so I wanted to prove them wrong.’”

He did.

He completed the hilly, 13.1-mile course in 3 hours, 10 minutes. When he crossed the finish, it was “amazing.”

“I was overwhelmed I did it,” he said.

“I thought I was going to be sore afterwards. I guess I was so conditioned in my training, I was fine,” Lazar said.

So what’s next for Eric Lazar?

He smiles.

Work hard, he said, to make himself a stronger person, a better person. Not necessarily physically. But spiritually. Mentally. Emotionally.

It’s about believing in yourself, casting aside doubts, having confidence in choices.

“Everybody has greatness in them. It’s whether or not they chose to let it shine. Everybody is special. Not just me,” he says.

Doesn’t matter if you’ve suffered a brain injury, a stroke or a crippling accident. Doesn’t matter if you’re an amputee or blind. No matter if you can’t walk or run.

Eric Lazar knows this about you:

“You’re still a great person. Everybody is great,” he said. “Positive thinking, doing the right thing, unconditional love, forgiveness. All that can help you better yourself.”


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