Wolfgang can't cough – and that nearly killed him!

Did you know that many paralyzed people can't cough?

Wings for Life project manager Wolfgang Illek knows firsthand how tough it can be to live with spinal cord injury. Since a bicycle accident turned his life upside down 11 years ago, the outgoing 34-year-old has dealt with many problems that not only affect the quality of his life, but could actually threaten it – like the inability to cough!

“Coughing is a hugely important protective reflex; coughing removes anything that blocks the human airway,” Wolfgang explains. But he cannot cough because the muscles between his ribs are paralyzed. The potential consequences are terrifying, as Wolfgang learned when his immune system shut down after his accident, leading to severe pneumonia.

“I tried so hard to cough up the mucus, but I did not succeed. I found that I could not produce more than a rattling breath,” he recalls. “I panicked and thought I was about to suffocate. In the end, the mucus had to be suctioned, which is painful.”

Wolfgang’s doctors give him immunizations and vitamins, and he has developed his own technique of using a rapid forward movement of the upper body to try to cough and squeeze out air faster; but he must live with the knowledge that simply catching a cold could put him in the hospital. The situation definitely limits his opportunities to enjoy winter fun with family and friends at home in Austria. 

“For sure I avoid staying out in frigid weather, and I always wear really warm clothes. Since my accident, especially in winter I prefer to stay in front of my tiled stove and drink a good tea mixed with honey and orange juice,” he shares. “For most people, a common cold is an annoyance, but for those like me, it’s something quite different. I’m always very concerned that a cold could escalate quickly into pneumonia, because a lung infection could suddenly endanger my life.”

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