René Hübner in his wheelchair at work


A man with an iron will

After suffering an accident, René Hübner had to start using a wheelchair, but he adapted to his new situation and now works as a forklift operator for Migros.

Michael West
What we do

Everything is in motion in this huge warehouse, where trucks can constantly be seen stopping at ten different ramps. The trucks are bringing used packaging material from Migros supermarkets across Eastern Switzerland – massive stacks of cut-up cardboard boxes and countless empty PET bottles that customers ­have returned to recycling stations.

Men on forklifts pick up the material and move it to the powerful presses that compress it into enormous bundles weighing several tonnes. The cardboard and PET are then transported to recycling plants by train.

The dire consequences of a good deed

We are at the Migros Eastern Switzerland operations centre in Gossau, St. Gallen, where René Hübner has been part of the waste disposal team for three years. Not long after he was hired, the athletic 48-year-old was already able to skilfully guide his forklift through the hustle and bustle of the warehouse. You would never know that he's paraplegic – the result of an accident some 20 years ago.

The trained butcher and forest warden travelled to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands to enjoy a few days of relaxation. He was relaxing by the hotel swimming pool when he suddenly saw a boy go under the water and not come back up. Hübner ran over to help immediately. But he slipped and fell head-first into a shallow pool, hitting his head hard ­on the bottom.

The boy was okay, other people came to his aid in time. But Hübner broke his seventh cervical vertebra in the accident, leaving him paralysed and unable move his legs. He underwent his first operation on the neighbouring island of La Palma, followed by 50 more procedures in Switzerland.

A lot of people might despair after experiencing suffering like this as a result of a good deed, but Hübner never lost heart. He dedicated himself to his training with the physiotherapists. "I'm a fighter," he says. "Giving up is not an option for me."

A familiar feeling

Then, six years ago, something wonderful happened – the feeling in his legs returned. Hübner could stand up using crutches and was even able to walk short distances over time. Professionally, he wasn't as lucky. Hübner did find work from time to time, operating packaging machines or working as a warehouse clerk, but there were always periods of unemployment. "During one of these periods, I sent out about a hundred applications," he recalls. "But I was never even invited for an ­interview. Everyone was put off by my disability."

Migros Eastern Switzerland finally gave him a chance. "I applied to Röbi Zwingli, the former head of the waste disposal centre, as a forklift operator," says Hübner. "On the phone, I told him that I was both willing and able to do this work. He listened to me, welcomed me, and after a few trial days, I had the job."

Last October, Hübner suffered a serious setback. He tripped over his wheelchair in his apartment, broke a lumbar vertebra and ended up on the operating table once again. At the moment, he's on sick leave, but he has a clear goal. "I want to work at the waste disposal centre again. I need the stability that this job gives me." He sounds determined. And it's clear that he will succeed.