The way the wheel turns

A devastating accident left Ronen Argalazi a quadriplegic, but did not stop his artistic ambitions.

ronen argalazi 88 298 (photo credit: Courtesy )
ronen argalazi 88 298
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Ronen Argalazi was born in 1967 in Tel Aviv, the second child of immigrant parents from Aleppo, Syria. He could hardly wait till his 16th birthday to buy a motorbike. For months the blue-eyed, soccer-playing teenager got all grimy working in a Tel Aviv garage after school to finance this ambition. Impressed by his tenacity, his parents overcame their misgivings and pitched in too. For an entire year Argalazi was on a high. He could whiz down to the beach, take exhilarating trips and show off his bike to the girls. When he turned 17, his next plan was to sell the bike and buy a car - but fate intervened. Just one moment of inattention caused the wheel of fortune to swerve sharply and cruelly in the wrong direction, and take him from the saddle of his motorbike to the seat of a wheelchair. On February 9, 1984, he was at the shore with friends after school. Feeling thirsty, he got on his motorbike to go buy a drink. Though he rode at only 10 kilometers per hour on the grassy area by the Dolphinarium, he failed to notice a small mound of sand ahead until the bike suddenly veered sideways, skidding and toppling him forcefully onto his neck. Argalazi felt no pain at first, but when his friends ran over, he groaned repeatedly that he could not move or get off the ground. Once they realized he was not joking, they called an ambulance. The medics immediately perceived that the situation was critical and headed for Ichilov Hospital. Argalazi came to in the hospital after two weeks of heavy sedation. Excruciating pain had set in and he suffered three episodes of cardiac arrest. In the next few weeks five operations were performed on his neck and spine. After his condition stabilized he was sent to Sheba Medical Center for 10 months of rehabilitation. As the haze around him cleared, he gradually became aware of the other disabled people and had to adjust to the harsh reality that he was one of them. He began spending more time each day in a wheelchair. After his discharge, his parents and four siblings moved to an elevator building to accommodate his special needs. As time passed, Argalazi had a compelling need for a space of his own. Despite a warm, supportive family, he was overwhelmed by the constant flow of people at home. He opted for independence by moving to his own apartment in Tel Aviv at the age of 19. Now 40 years old, he still lives there, assisted by a round-the-clock caregiver. When his friends all joined the Nahal brigade, Argalazi found himself at a loose end. Their youthful dream of founding a new settlement was no longer relevant for him. Needing meaningful activity and new goals, he turned to his social worker for guidance. At her suggestion, he enrolled in a computerized graphics course run by the National Insurance Institute in Ra'anana. Using a special mouse and other keyboard aids, he became a graphic artist 18 months later. He had begun to make a life for himself. One day, while visiting a friend Argalazi was so enthused by the sight of his oil and acrylic paintings that he decided then and there to take up painting. A frenetic shopping spree for bags of art supplies ensued. But once back at his apartment, they were at a loss how to proceed. His friend hung the canvas on the easel, and Argalazi instinctively grasped the paintbrush in his mouth to apply the color. His first efforts were clumsy and fumbling. It took eons of willpower and perseverance until he reached his present proficiency. He was never disheartened by the struggle because, "As soon as I saw the first blots of paint on the canvas, when I discovered the colors and shapes, I realized the tremendous power and energy involved in creating works of art. My imagination soared along with the strokes of the brush, and made me happy. Suddenly I had a purpose in life and felt vital as never before." To improve his artistic skills, Argalazi studied painting and drawing at Beit Berl College near Kfar Saba from 1996-98, and continued at the Ramat Hasharon Art Academy for two more years. He became a qualified art instructor, while continuing to develop his skills. He has held private exhibitions in community centers, public buildings and galleries all over Israel. The vibrant, exotic colors Argalazi favors in his paintings usually radiate optimism. His early works have a charming naïvete though they are highly textured, while the later ones are more emotional in expression. Joining the International Foot and Mouth Painters' Association was another milestone for him. This highly acclaimed organization operating out of Liechtenstein has 14 members in Israel and 500 worldwide. It funds painting materials for its member artists, gives them publicity and recognition, helps them participate in worldwide exhibitions and publishes a large variety of greeting cards and other artistic stationary that are mailed out to supporters. Though art is his main passion, Argalazi leads workshops with impressive skill. Most outstanding are his educational endeavors and readiness to share the story of his accident and rehabilitation with others. He regularly volunteers to speak to the upper grades of schools, where even the most unruly students are captivated by his calm, self-assured presence and steady gaze, and listen attentively. They hear, see and feel the important message Argalazi delivers - namely that loss of concentration for even a split second while driving can have a devastating and irreversible effect. They learn that a serious accident is as traumatic for their near and dear ones, and that they have a responsibility to others as well as to themselves. Argalazi's complex educational message includes an aspect of empathy. After his presentation, each student takes a pen or pencil in their mouth and tries to draw without the use of their hands - a most difficult feat! This humbling assignment allows them a brief glimpse into the life of a disabled person. They also see a striking example of rehabilitation. Argalazi also gives art workshops for school children of all ages, where the youngsters take turns explaining their drawings and sharing thoughts and feelings. "I feel that this particular interaction not only provides me with joy and satisfaction, but also exposes the kids to a new experience. Their reactions and participation give a new meaning to my life," he told Metro. Argalazi has a steady job lecturing two days a week at Jerusalem's Ein Kerem and Mount Scopus Hadassah hospitals, as part of an ongoing road-safety program to shock school-age youth into awareness. He also lectures to groups of nursing and social-work students, to help them develop sensitivity towards injured people. Increased mobility has entered his life in the shape of a gray van that he enters and drives by himself. He has been featured on television programs, which can be viewed at Argalazi's story is not only about his tragic accident and its aftermath, but about his subsequent accomplishments and full and interesting life today. His achievements can be attributed partly to his strong support network, but mainly to his optimistic nature and willpower, and are a true victory of the spirit.