By Salvatore Cernuzio & Felipe Herrera-Espaliat
Michael Haddad has been paralyzed from the waist down since he was six-years-old, after a jet ski accident that caused a spinal cord injury. Yet, he hasn’t let that tragic event affect his drive to live life to the fullest.
Born in Lebanon’s Mount Lebanon area, Michael became a professional athlete and, since 2016, a Regional Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action of the UN’s Development Programme.
On Wednesday, he met briefly with Pope Francis at the end of the weekly General Audience.
"Disability is just a state of mind."
Speaking to Vatican News after that encounter, Michael described how he picked himself up after his accident at the age of six and began a new life.
The work was very hard, the fatigue immense, and the challenges manifold, he said. At first his only possibility of movement was a wheelchair, then crutches, and finally some first uncertain steps.
Michael, however, has overcome them all. Thanks to medical advances and scientific research, he is now able to ski and free-climb mountains, and he holds three world records. Thanks to his faith, he is propelled by a flame which helps him not only to be at peace ("Let Your Disability Be Your Strength", is his motto), but also a motivational speaker and an example for many people who face similar difficulties.
"Nothing is impossible," Michael told Vatican News. "As a person for whom it is impossible to walk or even stand unassisted, or even sit down unassisted, I decided to explore my potential. And I discovered that nothing is impossible. It needs two things: Faith and determination. So, faith is belief in ourselves, belief in a Creator and the belief that inside us there is unlimited power to go beyond. And determination is that nothing comes easy. We have to make this choice, be determined and move forward."
Walking, thanks to an exoskeleton
Michael is able to move and walk with the help of an exoskeleton—specially developed by a team of engineers, doctors and researchers—which provides stability for his torso, shoulders, and arms. Thus, he is able to propel his body forward and walk one step at a time. Getting up from the wheelchair, especially after long periods of sitting, is extremely taxing, but Michael does not give up.
Rather than sitting, he insisted on being interviewed while standing in St. Peter's Square.
"I'm strong," he reassures. He stretches first his right leg, then his left, and finally stands up and adjusts his tie. Never once during this effort does he grimace in pain. A smile constantly spreads across his face, which—at the age of 40—still retains some childlike features.
"Smiling, that's also a mission. It is an expression of the happiness I carry inside. One of the purposes in life is to be happy; Jesus told us to turn fear into joy."
Assisted by faith
Michael is a believer: "I’m Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ," he said, affirming that faith has helped him in every battle. His faith has also assisted him in his daily battle—one he calls his “great mission": to draw the world's attention to environmental issues.
"I decided to walk," he explained, "because earth is sitting in a wheelchair. We have to unite to save ourselves, to save our planet and I am doing it under one banner. The United Nations we stand united together all over the world to make this change. And we have to do it now."
Climbing, skiing, marathons, and now: The North Pole
Michael has climbed mountains and crossed deserts. He has also participated in two marathons: one in Cairo, the other in Beirut—in his native Lebanon—to raise funds for the reconstruction of a hospital devastated by the explosion at the port in August 2020.
Now he has another mission: to walk 100 kilometers at the North Pole. It was an adventure he was supposed to undertake in 2020, but which was postponed due to the pandemic. The mission is now scheduled for February or March 2022.
"Certainly, it's a challenge," Haddad says. "To travel 100 kilometers to the North Pole is not only a message, but a contribution to science. I work with a great science team and have been considered one of the few people in the world who can do something like this in my condition. So, everything we are planning before, during and after this walk will contribute to scientific research to help other people walk again through new technology."
The Pope to Michael: "Pray for me at the North Pole"
As he sat in the front row at the General Audience in the Vatican’s San Damaso Courtyard on Wednesday, accompanied by Theresa Panuccio, official representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Michael told the Pope about his goal, and asked him for a blessing for his mission in the Arctic.
"When I told the Holy Father my story, he rested his hand on my head. I told him that we try to bring a message of humanity, in favor of the earth and the environment. He blessed me, and I said, 'Father, please pray for me.’ He replied, 'You pray for me at the North Pole.’ I can't get that phrase out of my head. It gives me strength and so much food for thought. I feel more committed, and I will confront this challenge together with the Pope rather than alone."
Two gifts: a symbol of Lebanon
Michael even brought two gifts for Pope Francis.
The first was the branch of a cedar tree, a symbol of his homeland, Lebanon, a country which Pope St. John Paul II called "a message."
"The Lebanese cedar tree is an everlasting tree. It is mentioned several times in the Bible, and it is called the cedar of God," explained Michael.
He also gave the Pope a photo of a church nestled in one of the oldest cedar forests in the world.
"The cedarwood connected the Earth 10,000 years ago. With its wood, ships were made and the connections went all over the world. Without a healthy planet there is no healthy human."
"Thank you," the Pope repeated several times. And Michael asked the Holy Father to take a selfie with him. Now he can proudly display that photo on the screen of his smartphone.