An extra serving of pasta could have been Sebastien Bellin's last meal. Instead, it may have saved his life.
A former college basketball player at Marist and Oakland and a 15-year pro overseas, Bellin was at the Brussels airport the morning of March 22, when a pair of suicide bombers killed more than a dozen innocent bystanders. A third explosion at a Belgium metro station brought the death toll up to 32, with the injured -- a group that includes Bellin -- totaling more than 300.
A gruesome photo of a bloodied Bellin lying prone on the floor of the airport circulated widely around the Internet in the hours and days after the bombing, broadcasting his most private, vulnerable moment to the public.
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Bellin has undergone six surgeries since to repair extensive damage to his legs and hips, and to this day he's unable to walk. He also required three transfusions, a result of losing nearly half his blood while he waited for medical attention. But had the 38-year-old Bellin not treated himself to a hearty meal at Palo Alto, a Brussels Italian restaurant, the night before, he says he may not have survived.
"The night before I had gone out to eat with some friends ... and I had indulged myself in a few plates of pasta from that place," Bellin told FOX Sports in a recent phone interview from his hospital room in Belgium. "I love good food, and it's one of my favorite little restaurants in Brussels, so I had three servings of pasta, and my glycemic index was very high that next morning, which ultimately is one of the factors that saved my life, that I had a lot of carbs and sugar in me."
The first thing you notice when you talk to Bellin is that he doesn't sound like someone who just survived a terrorist attack.
That's because, rather than resign himself to depression, Bellin remains positive, if not downright chipper in the face of one of the most harrowing experiences imaginable. And whereas many might hold deep-seated feelings of rage, Bellin seems happy -- not that any of this happened, of course, but simply that he lived to tell his story.
"I look back on it with so much gratefulness, so much positivity, because I was able to get through a situation and come out of it with a completely new perspective that, during the actual attacks, I never thought would have been possible," Bellin said. "When the explosion first took place, and I was on the ground, you see dead people, you see body parts, you see a war zone around you. So the mental strength it takes to say, 'OK that's not going to be me,' is the most important element in escaping that kind of situation.
"So now that I'm out of it," he continued, "I get to keep my two legs, I get to walk again, there's no, let's say, long-term scars, big scars. There's nothing but gratefulness and gratitude toward the whole event."
At the time of the attacks, Bellin was heading home after a two-week work trip to Europe. Bellin, who retired from professional basketball in January 2015, is one of the founders of an automated sports production company called Keemotion, which has offices in New York and Belgium. On March 7, he left the United States to help finish up a recent deal in France.
Originally, Bellin planned on leaving Brussels on Wednesday the 23rd, but he had business to attend to in New York before he could return home to his family in Michigan, so he opted to fly back Tuesday instead. The sooner he could wrap things up in New York, he figured, the sooner he could get back to his wife, Sara, and his daughters, 7-year-old Cecilia and 4-year-old Vanessa.
For someone who spends as much as two weeks of each month traveling abroad, every day counts, after all. Two months later, however, Bellin still hasn't returned home. Rather than dwell on time lost, he's choosing to focus on the experience gained and the long, uncertain road ahead.
"There's always a worst-case scenario involved in everything," Bellin said. "I could have been traveling with my two girls. I could have been traveling with my wife. I could have been traveling with loved ones. If a blast like that would have hit and I'd been with my girls, it's not the same thing. I know it, because I know how hard that blast was. I know how much damage it did to me. My girls wouldn't have been able to cope with that.
"After that first explosion I had about five to six seconds to run from the second explosion, so if I had my girls with me, would I have been able to run as fast away from the second explosion? These are all things that you look back on," he continued. "And, I mean, I get to be a father. I get to continue with my life, and it's going to be exponentially better because I got through this. So why wouldn't I focus on the positive? Why wouldn't I be grateful for coming out of there with more than I would have ever imagined?"
On a normal travel day -- to say nothing of the schedule change that had him in the airport to begin with -- Bellin wouldn't have been anywhere near the blasts, which occurred near the check-in counter at the front of the airport in Zaventem. Bellin said he makes it a point to arrive earlier than necessary when he flies internationally so that he has plenty of time to get through security, giving himself time to relax in the lounge and get his work in order before he boards his flight.
That morning, however, Bellin was running late. He had just received his boarding pass from a ticketing agent and was rounding the check-in counter, headed toward security when the first bomb detonated down the hall.
"My first, immediate thought was to run to safety," Bellin said. "I didn't know where the next explosion was going to be, but (to me) safety meant the security gate. Because once you pass through security into the airport, there's all police and everything there, so there's no way that people can get past that security corridor. So I started running toward there, and I got about five, six seconds away from the main entrance -- the check-in counter for American Airlines was right in front of the main entrance -- and the second blast just took me out."
That moment, Bellin said, was the only part of the ordeal he still can't remember.
"The actual impact and the explosion -- your life stops," Bellin said. "The only two or three seconds I can't recall is from the explosion. I heard the explosion, but it's like two seconds of your life are unexplainable."
What he does recall is not being in pain, despite obvious indications that he'd been seriously hurt by the shrapnel from the bomb.
"Your body goes from complete physical normality to complete shock, from one extreme to another, and so I remember kind of coming to after the daze hits, and immediately I notice is my hip was sticking out, so I had a lot of flesh and tissue just sticking out of my hip," Bellin said. "That's the first thing I noticed, and then you try to move your legs and nothing works. So you're kind of like swimming through rubble trying to get away from that spot. But the pain is secondary because you're in survival mode."
Bellin did feel numbness spreading as he continued to lose blood. The more numb Bellin felt, he said, the closer he knew he was to death. He also knew he wouldn't be able to get far without the use of his shattered legs and exposed hips, so he pulled himself up onto a baggage cart left behind by an airport porter -- an effort, he said, to make himself as mobile as possible.
"You're just trying to implement your game plan," Bellin said. "There was military personnel that helped me put a tourniquet on one leg, and then I found a scarf and put a tourniquet on the other leg. Then I wanted my feet to be elevated, so I asked a passenger to bring over a suitcase that was just lying around, and I elevated my feet to slow the blood flow.
"And then you're thinking about your girls," he continued. "You're thinking about your two daughters and how I don't want them growing up without a dad. You kind of motivate yourself -- 'You've got this, you're going to get through this' -- and you find the most important things in your life to get you out of that mess. So it's your wife, your daughters, your family; those are all stimuluses that urge you to keep going and not pay attention to your environment."
It was another 60 to 90 minutes, Bellin estimates, before he finally received medical treatment.
"They were pushing all the dead and all the injured to the back of the airport because there were two explosions and they thought there was going to be a third," Bellin said. "And at one point they wanted to secure the airport before all the help could come in, but I knew I wasn't going to have a lot of time.
"So they pushed me on the cart to the back of the airport, where all the security personnel were making a kind of barrier around the dead and the wounded, but I said, 'Look, if I stay here, I'm going to die,' " he recalled. "And they said, 'No, no, you can't move, you have to stay here,' but finally I told somebody, 'Just push me to the front of the airport and leave me there. I don't have time.'
"They pushed me to the front of the airport, and the person who left me there ran back to the security barrier," Bellin said, then recalling of the next step of his rescue. "A few seconds later, like six firemen came around the corner and saw me, lifted up the cart and moved me outside, then pushed me to the triage center where they were deciding who went to what hospital.
"The first time I was in the ambulance was when I really started realizing that I was going to make it," Bellin added. "I was hooked up to an IV, I had paramedics around me, and so you feel good. You feel like you've got a chance."
Amazingly, Bellin never lost consciousness during the ordeal -- thanks in large part to that pasta the night before. Yet as Bellin was being transported to the hospital, his wife remained unaware of the situation playing out some 4,000 miles away.
The attacks took place just before 8 a.m. local time -- 2 a.m. back home in Battle Creek. It was nearly four hours later before Sara woke up to get the children ready for school and learned of her husband's situation. Shortly before he went in for surgery, Bellin had the presence of mind to give the hospital his in-laws' number, and they were the ones to break the news to Bellin's family back home.
There was some comfort, at least, in knowing that Bellin was alive and in good hands, but it didn't make it any easier for Sara to explain what had happened to his kids.
"Unfortunately, because of the media, my older daughter, who's 7, saw the picture," Bellin said of the graphic image of himself after the explosion. "So you can't hide everything. She knew the injuries, she saw the blood. And so you take it step by step.
"The first step is, one, 'Daddy got really hurt, but he's OK,' and then after a while, you tell them, 'Look, there's some bad people that tried to hurt Daddy, but he's in good hands,'" Bellin continued. "And then it's a process."
Daily contact with his family has made it easier for both Bellin and his kids to process what's happening.
"They came over here for a week, they saw the cast, we've been FaceTiming every day," Bellin said. "So they see that your body gets better and better every day, that you go from this apparatus attached to your body to now just a cast, to now just bandages. They see a progression, and most of all they see that you're happy, that you're smiling, that you're staying strong.
"It's actually a lesson for them that life throws at you some very difficult things, but if you react to it in a positive way, you know, there's a good chance that you can make it," he added. "So we've turned it into a lesson for them, to say, 'There's a lot of people out there in the world that get tough things thrown at them, but how are you going to react to it? Are you going to react in a way that diminishes the potential outcome or enhances the potential outcome?'"
The first of Bellin's half-dozen procedures involved the placement of an external fixator, an apparatus that stabilized his left leg, which suffered a multi-fragmented break. After a month and a week, doctors removed the external fixator and put the leg in a cast, which he wore for two more weeks. He also had skin graft surgery on both legs in order to decrease the risk of infection.
In Bellin's most recent surgery, doctors put a nail in his left tibia to further stabilize the leg. The hope is that Bellin will be able to put weight on his right hip and right leg within two weeks, which would allow him to walk on crutches. Thus far, he's been confined to a wheelchair to get around. Once he can move on his own, he'll be able to return to the U.S. to complete his rehab closer to home.
"The road to recovery is still very long," Bellin said. "I'm going to have some long months of rehab in the States. But the light at the end of the tunnel is there. That's really what makes it special, that I can rehab with my family, with my girls around me. And that, in itself, will give me a lot of energy going forward."
The rehab program is expected to take several months, and it's not known what a full recovery will ultimately mean. It's expected that Bellin, who has been working out at the hospital gym, will be able to walk, but there's no way to guess how fluidly he'll eventually be able to move. He could also be impacted by lingering pain, arthritis and other symptoms for the rest of his life.
One might imagine that uncertainty would be torture for a 6-foot-9, 250-pound professional athlete who is as in tune with his own body as anyone, but Bellin said he believes his past is what helped him survive in the first place.
"It gave me a lot of advantages," Bellin said. "One was staying calm under pressure. I was able to create a game plan. You know, all the game plans that (Oakland coach Greg) Kampe threw at me or that I've seen over 15 years (playing) professionally -- it's almost like second nature. 'OK, we've got a game to win. How are we going to win it?' So I had a game to play, and I had to figure out how I was going to win it. It turned out to be the biggest game of my life, but I won.
"Also, in recovery, as a pro athlete who has been in tune with his body, I listen to my body," he continued. "I know when I can push a little bit in rehab or when I need to slow down. Or I know what nutrition or what supplements I can take to really enhance the recovery or the bone growth. Those are all things that I'm very passionate about, which will definitely aid (me). So where some see limitations, I actually see opportunities in being able to confront the task at hand -- whether it's to confront that terrorist attack, or to come out of this recovery stage even better than I was before, which is a challenge I've given myself."
In the meantime, Bellin has had plenty of time -- too much time, even -- to relive the events of March 22. But he says he tries his best not to play the "what if" game as he looks back on that morning.
"As a victim of these things you think back to, 'What could I have done different?' and my gut feeling did tell me things," Bellin said. "You do see little signs that just kind of are out of the ordinary and that raise your awareness. But on the other hand, you don't want to start playing down that road because if you start tweaking part of the equation, what guarantees you that that part will not give you a lesser outcome? You don't know for sure."
One of the questions he still can't help but ask himself is whether he might have avoided injury had he reacted differently to the initial blast.
"I try to learn from every experience, and I'm very happy with the outcome, because I didn't die, I get to walk, I get to see my kids again," Bellin said. "But in hindsight, when there's an explosion like that happening -- this is my opinion, and maybe security experts will tell you differently -- you don't try to run anywhere because you don't know where the second one will come from. You don't know where they're at. What you should do is try to find cover in the most secure place. That means behind the most solid wall, and take cover.
"That's what I would do now in hindsight," he continued. "Or go down the baggage slide at the check-in counters. I don't know, do something. That's what I would have gone for. But that's in hindsight, and I don't want to start going down that road of changing the equation because, again, I'm one of the lucky ones that got out of there alive."
He's also found that surviving changed his perspective on terrorism as a whole. And perhaps most shockingly, Bellin said he doesn't harbor any resentment toward the people who carried out the attack that nearly killed him.
"I have never felt any anger toward them," Bellin said. "One hundred percent, that's the God's honest truth. And the reason I say that is because I think that we, as a society -- and it's going to anger a lot of people when I say this -- we're responsible as well. Because we've pushed our society to the point where we have people that are willing to blow themselves up. I mean, how desperate, how sick, how disturbed do you have to be to do that? But our society has created that. We've allowed that to take place."
Bellin realizes this is a controversial opinion from a survivor of an act of terror, but he contends that there are larger societal problems that play a role in inspiring this and other incidents around the world.
"Look, am I happy this happened to me? No," Bellin said. "And it could have been much worse. I'm definitely not condoning terrorism -- far from that -- and I'm not condoning (taking) the lives of innocent people. But what I'm saying is, what's the solution? Is it to blame people? Is it to point the finger saying, 'You guys are bastards'? No, that doesn't reach any solution. We see that with all the things that have happened in this world.
"I don't want to get into the political arena, but we see that action-reaction, and if it's not scaled correctly with compassion, it leads to only more problems," Bellin continued. "So I choose to say, 'Look, I'm one of the lucky ones, and I'm going to live my life in a way where I'm going to try to limit the negativity around me.' I'm going to try to help people. I can't do it by myself, and I'm not a disillusioned person to think that my impact will be huge, but I think that I can certainly help in making this world a better place.
"And I can certainly help by making sure that the people I'm directly in contact with don't have those kinds of thoughts or those kind of desperate attitudes that eventually can lead -- I'm not saying will lead -- up to something inhuman and unfathomable," Bellin added. "I think I can play a part in that."
That sentiment is crafted, in part, by the outpouring of support that Bellin and his family have received.
"In an instant like this there are more positive stories that come out of it than negative," Bellin said. "In fact, it's only positive. From Coach Kampe being so visibly marked by what I experienced -- this is a coach that I see maybe once or twice a year, that I've a great relationship with, but still, I'm not part of his day to day. Yet you reconnect with people. It's unbelievable what positivity can come out of there, and that's the lesson that I've learned.
"If you keep focusing on the positives, if you keep searching for positives even in the most terrible circumstances, you'll find it," he continued. "And once you do, that positive experience or approach will lead to the next one. And it becomes this kind of snowball effect that exponentially grows and eventually gives you 10 times more than you would have ever imagined.
"Because fundamentally, people are good," Bellin said. "There's more good people in this world than bad people. You've just got to find that good, and in this case, man, I've found more than I ever imagined."
He also vowed that the attacks won't change his stance on travel going forward.
"It's not going to be a walk in the park like it was before, but look, you can die getting hit by a car crossing the road," Bellin said. "So I don't foresee (myself changing). I think traveling and seeing the world is something that I've loved doing, and I don't foresee being fearful to the extent that that will be taken away from me.
"So it's always going to be part of me," he added. "I just need to be more efficient. I won't travel as much -- not because I'm scared but because I want to spend more time with my family. I want to do more things that really speak to me in terms of quality of life."
It's so common to hear people, in the wake of an attack, express an opinion that being afraid and changing because of it means the terrorists are winning, and in Bellin's case, that belief is spot on.
"Personally, I think terrorism is a bigger societal problem," Bellin said. "Of course it scares people because it can hit anywhere, and any unknown is not easy to handle. If there's war in Iraq, then you know that war is happening in Iraq. It's a known fact, OK? But terrorism can hit, and the unknown, for many, is very scary. But that's focusing on the negative.
"Terrorism, in the reality of things, is actually one small problem, so to speak," he continued. "There's a lot more positive in the world than negative. A lot more positive. So if you focus your attention on that one small, negative thing, then yeah, it's going to eat you up. But if you focus on all the beautiful, positive stories and things that exist in the world, well, then most likely it won't consume you, and I'm almost positive you won't truly be affected by it.
"There's a lot of bad things going on in this world, and terrorism is one of them," Bellin added. "But it's very small compared to the big picture, which is hugely made up of positive experiences and people."
The most positive experience is still to come, however. That'll be the moment Bellin finally returns home on his own two feet and starts living life on his own terms, with his family finally by his side for good.
"How many people go through life not appreciating the positive that exists in their life?" Bellin said. "Every time I talk to my kids, it's nothing but pure happiness because I almost wasn't able to do that anymore, for good. How many people, when the alarm goes off, they're up, they're grumpy, and they just walk out of bed and walk to the bathroom? Well, every time the alarm goes off or every time I wake up in the morning, I'm thankful for waking up.
"I'm thankful I'm going to be able to walk again," he continued. "I'm thankful to talk to my kids. I'm thankful to talk about life with my wife. These are all things that people take for granted. I will never have that again. I never have that. And what a luxury, what a blessing that is to wake up every day and be like, '[Expletive], I'm lucky,' and be so grateful to all the support around you."
Call it crazy, but Bellin, in many ways, is living the dream. It just took surviving a nightmare to get there.
"I don't see a day where I'm not going to appreciate even the crappy things, because at least I can experience them because I'm alive," Bellin said. "It's a unique perspective that you can't fake, and it takes going through something drastic like this to be able to reach that perspective.
"Would I rather not have something like this happen and not have 32 people die? Of course," he continued. "But when I'm talking about myself, I'm grateful that I was the one in that position because somebody else in that same position might have died because they couldn't sustain the injuries.
"I don't know," Bellin added, taking a long pause to contemplate his situation. "I'm just thankful it was me. I had one bad day. I haven't had many bad days in my life, but I can definitely almost guarantee you that I'm never going to have one again. And I'll gladly trade two months of my life for not having any bad days."
You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.