Coping with Paralysis: 'If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame'

Samuel Koch became paralyzed on live television. Philippe Pozzo di Borgo's story was the basis for the hit film "The Intouchables." They spoke with SPIEGEL about solitude, how friendliness can be a powerful tool and how jokes about the disabled can still be funny.

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It's the first time the two have met: Samuel Koch and Philippe Pozzo di Borgo are having dinner together in a Munich hotel while Germany plays Italy in the European Football Championship. They talk and laugh a lot, and despite their 37-year age difference and vastly different backgrounds, they have a lot to say to each other. Koch and Pozzo di Borgo are two men who have suffered the same bitter fate.

Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, 61, whose autobiography served as the basis for the hit film "The Intouchables," comes from an old, aristocratic French family and was, as he says, "born with a silver spoon" in his mouth. As the offspring of the counts of Pozzo di Borgo and the Marquis de Vogüé, he grew up in castles and manors. He attended the best schools in France and worked as a manager at Moët & Chandon before eventually becoming the director of the equally famous brand Pommery. It was a champagne life.

In 1993, at the age of 42, he broke his spine in a paragliding accident. He wasn't paying enough attention on that day, he later said when explaining what caused the accident. He had been forced to close a subsidiary in Switzerland and dismiss many workers, and he wasn't in very good spirits. Three years later, his wife Béatrice died after a long battle with cancer. Pozzo di Borgo sank into a depression from which his caregiver, whose story was highlighted in the film, helped him emerge. Today Pozzo di Borgo lives in Morocco, where the climate is beneficial to his health, with his second wife Khadija.

Pozzo di Borgo had a hobby that he believed he had mastered and used to smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and listen to loud music on his Walkman while hovering in the air with his paraglider.

Koch, for his part, was a daredevil from an early age. Now 24, he started gymnastics at six, and later on there was hardly a sport or outdoor activity he hadn't tried, including bungee jumping. Koch achieved fame in Germany for all the wrong reasons on Dec. 4, 2010. During an appearance on the hit German game show called "Wetten, dass…?", in which contestents perform various outrageous stunts, Koch had planned to jump over five cars driving towards him using Poweriser jumping stilts. On live television, he failed, smashing into the roof of one of the cars, which was being driven by his father, and landing awkwardly. He has been paralyzed from the neck down since then.

Hard Time Saying No

The accident came just as Koch had figured out what he wanted to do with his life. He had been accepted by the prestigious University of Music, Drama and Media in the northern German city of Hanover. The bet that he had been negotiating with the ZDF television network for months suddenly became less important to him, Koch writes in his book "Zwei Leben" (Two Lives). Nevertheless, he says, he didn't want to withdraw from the show at the last minute. He doesn't like conflict, he adds, and has a hard time saying no.

Both men are so-called tetraplegics, which means that their arms and legs are paralyzed. They can only move their heads, and even that range of motion is limited. Koch also retains some control over his right hand. It's one of the most severe forms of paralysis.

When the two men, in their wheelchairs, are returning to their hotel rooms after dinner, they engage in a duel of politeness in front of the elevator. There is only room for one wheelchair in the elevator, and each of them insists that other one go first. Finally, Koch puts an end to the standoff by driving his electric wheelchair toward Pozzo di Borgo's wheelchair and giving it a small nudge.

"We're tired," Pozzo di Borgo says the next morning, as he is being pushed into the room where the interview is taking place. Koch also complains of tiredness. As is so often the case, both men spent a painful night and had difficulty sleeping. "Let's start quickly and take advantage of the time," says Pozzo di Borgo. The wheelchairs are positioned so that they can both look at each other comfortably without having to turn their heads too much to the side. A French interpreter is sitting next to them. "You never know how long our bodies will play along," says Pozzo di Borgo. "In that respect, we tetraplegics are unpredictable," he adds with a smile.


SPIEGEL: Mr. Koch, did you like the film "The Intouchables?"

Koch: Yes, of course. But that could also be because I can relate to the subject matter, at least indirectly.

SPIEGEL: Does the film paint a realistic picture of life as a tetraplegic?

Koch: I recognized a lot of things. But in some places, where everyday life becomes critical, complicated and not very pretty, the film was skillfully edited. In one scene, for example, the protagonist Philippe is standing in front of the aircraft and then, suddenly, the camera cuts to him strapped into the plane. It's the same with clothing, when the camera suddenly cuts to him wearing a different outfit. I wish things went that quickly in real life. In my experience, it can sometimes take half an hour.

SPIEGEL: Which scene did you particularly like?

Koch: "No arms, no chocolate." Philippe's caregiver says that to him while holding some chocolate in front of his face. I thought that was really amusing, especially since close friends and family members say similar things to me.

SPIEGEL: Isn't that cruel and mean?

Koch: Yes, perhaps both. But I think it's funny. "No arms, no chocolate" -- that's just the way it is. Why should we whitewash things?

SPIEGEL: What other scenes did you identify with?

Koch: I was especially moved by the scene in which Philippe is in so much pain at night that he's practically jumping out of his skin. It shows him cramping up and literally tossing and turning inside, because he can't actually toss and turn, until his caregiver takes him on a walk around the city to distract him. I also often experience such nights filled with pain. Luckily, I've also had friends and caregivers who, like in the film, weren't above carrying me out to the beach at 3 a.m.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Pozzo di Borgo, how did you find out about what happened to Samuel Koch?

Pozzo di Borgo: A German TV crew visited me in Morocco, where I live. They told me about Samuel and asked me to say a few words of comfort to him on camera.

SPIEGEL: Then you felt the need to get in touch with Samuel directly, and you talked on the phone a few times. What do you discuss with each other?

Pozzo di Borgo: We talk about new things, tricks of the trade, things to help us in our jobs in the paralysis industry. You know, we have a challenging job that requires very special training. It's helpful to share tricks with one another.

Koch: When I met Philippe last night for the first time, it was very pleasant. He knows exactly what it means to lie awake for nights at a time, tormented by phantom pain. He knows what it means to be unable to breathe on your own, and how it feels to be suctioned and to be unable to speak. He's already been through all the things I've experienced or will experience. Somehow that created a certain sense of familiarity right away. Other people can't really relate to that so well.

SPIEGEL: What can you learn from Philippe?

Koch: When I was in the rehab clinic, they constantly told me: Samuel, you can't always be so polite and friendly. Go ahead and push people around. After all, it's about your life. But that goes against my nature. When I saw Philippe for the first time yesterday evening, I immediately noticed how affectionate he is with the people around him. And how, in his apparent helplessness, he's still helpful. I asked him if he had ever been unfriendly. No, he said, not once in his 19 years in a wheelchair. His reasons were pragmatic. We need the people around us, we depend on them, he said. That's why it's smarter to be nice to them. For me, it was a very important validation, an excellent example and proof that it is actually possible to be friendly, and that it even helps you.

SPIEGEL: What else can you convey to Samuel, given your almost 20 years of experience as a paralytic?

Pozzo di Borgo: Oh, I don't think there's a whole lot I can convey to Samuel. I'd much rather convey something to you, you and all other non-disabled people.

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1. Not to blame?
kewlo 08/05/2012
Wer gelobt wird, weil er so "gut" sei (wenn alles gut geht), sollte ebenfalls kritisiert werden, wenn er (denn schließlich bestimmt er das Geschehen in der Welt, jedenfalls nach manchen Leuten) böses tut. Gelobt werden für das, was gut ist, aber vor Kritik verschont werden, wenn etwas böses passiert, ist kaum objektiv und nur durch Dummheit oder blindes Glauben zu entschuldigen.
2. "If There Is a God, He Is Certainly Not to Blame"
kewlo 08/05/2012
In that case, he should also not be praised for the good things that happen in this world. Either there's responsibility for good AND bad, or for neither.
3.
Mimi 08/07/2012
Excellent interview Markus. These two gentlemen are inspiring, their courage undaunting, their grace and acceptance of life's unexpected turns is something I shall always remember. Disability is not an identity nor should it diminish a person. Everyone deserves respect and love to some degree.
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