After a Life-Altering Accident, a Founder Finds Strength in Numbers

Doctors told Daniel Gabbay that he was lucky to be alive. Biking home one morning, the WeWork Soho member was hit by a garbage truck and dragged for 20 feet, causing such extensive injuries that he almost died.

Gabbay was determined to live his life as normally as possible, which included moving into WeLive. He says he was inspired by the people around him, and he hopes that he does the same.

“I am thankful that I’m alive, but none of this is worth it if it’s just for my internal struggle,” he says. “It has to somehow help somebody else. I think—and hope—that I can somehow figure out how to make that happen.”

Gabbay—who’s heading a startup called Early Bird—talked with Creator about his long journey to recover from his injuries and rediscover himself.

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So tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.

I recently co-founded Early Bird, a food tech startup where we are reinventing the weekday breakfast experience with delicious, healthy, gourmet breakfasts delivered to your desk on demand. Aside from the quality of our breakfasts, what sets us apart is the hassle-free nature of ordering and receiving your meal. With just a few taps in our app, we’re on our way to your desk. All for just $6.95: tax, delivery, and tip included.

Food has been a large part of my life since I was very young. I started cooking when I was 7 years old, and since then I have always used it to keep myself grounded. While I was in the first couple months of recovery here at We Live, cooking was the only passion in my life that I could still physically do. This is why I forced myself to prepare pretty much every meal I had for those few months.

I never planned to work in food or any food-related business, although many friends urged me to consider it. I always thought it would be smarter or safer to stay away from a career in that field, even though I got so much pleasure from it. When my co-founder originally approached me and said “breakfast is broken,” I became inspired to work on the concept of fixing it. A couple intense meetings later we became completely invested in this idea, and have worked each day to improve every aspect of it, including delivery logistics, ingredients, preparation methods, packaging, plating, and, most of all, taste to enhance the experience of our customers. After months of late nights in the kitchen developing recipes and waking up around 6 AM to do taste tests most of the week, I have never been more sleep deprived or excited with my work.

I started my first business at the very end of 2013. After a year, I knew I was going to get my own office. I looked at a few places, including the Soho WeWork. I saw a little office that would have worked perfectly for me, and I decided to pull the trigger later that day. I loved it so much because all the trivial decisions I had to make on a daily or weekly basis didn’t exist anymore. So everything really came together for me.

You recently underwent a life-altering accident that you’ve spent months recovering from. What did you take away from the experience?

Before the accident, I was already really thankful for my life. Extremely thankful. At least once every month or two, I would cry from happiness about how lucky I was for what I had, the opportunities I had. Even though I didn’t have a super-easy life, I really feel like I got to do a lot of the things I didn’t think I’d be able to pull off. I’ve known for a long time that I am an extremely lucky person.

When the accident happened, it was actually really difficult to figure things out. Because it’s like, I’m already so thankful for life. I almost died here. The lesson isn’t being thankful for what you have. The real lesson was: life is like a gift, and it could easily disappear. So you have to take advantage of all your time, doing things you care about, spending time with people you care about, really going after the things you enjoy or want to experience, and even taking time for yourself.

The accident made me look at things even more closely. I realized that I wasted so much time that I could have used so much better. I could have used that time to learn more, do more, even though I’m thankful that I did a lot.

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There were different moments in my life where I was really happy with the things I was involved in. Last year, my major focus was on work, although I was lucky enough to travel around Southeast Asia towards the beginning of the year. Still, I don’t feel completely fulfilled unless I am able to do all the things I care about throughout the year.

So when I started college, I came across an organization that set up visitation for Holocaust survivors. When I was young, I wanted to fill every hour of free time I had with something, so I jumped at the opportunity. The woman I met was 83, and I was 19. She was blunt, intelligent, strong, and 100 percent there mentally. Soon after we met, it wasn’t volunteering anymore because we had become close friends and continued to hang out just about every weekend for a decade. She became a strong fixture in my life and gave me unbelievably good advice. She passed away in 2014, and after that, I was pretty lost, because there was never a time in my adult life that I was doing the things I did without her around.

So that was 2014, and in 2015, I knew I wasn’t going to do the same type of thing because I imagined it would just feel wrong. Although I volunteered at a soup kitchen once and enjoyed it, I knew I could find something where I could be more useful. I had a few ideas, but I still spent the majority of the year focusing on work until the accident happened.

How has being a part of WeWork and WeLive helped inspire you?

I’ll start with WeWork: Being in a WeWork simplified my work life and let me focus on the things that are important, as opposed to other trivial things—like what days I would have to take out the garbage or the recyclables. I didn’t have to do those things or waste time making decisions that weren’t important. I liked how in one building, you could have so many people who do so many different things. It adds to your creativity because even if somebody is in a field completely different from yours, you can still learn something from them.

By the end, I was definitely in the office later than anybody, but sometimes I would pass by someone and see how focused they looked, as if nothing could ruin their concentration, and I would be inspired by that. It would make me want to work harder. I’d love to attempt to add some of the good characteristics that people around me had in their work life to my own work life.

Before the accident, I got accepted to WeLive as part of the first beta group of approximately 80 people—about 50 were employees and about 30 were members. Then the accident happened on November 8, 2015, and when I was supposed to move in, which was January 9, I was still in rehab. So I paid for my month as planned, and I moved in the moment I got out of rehab on February 6.

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I was too stubborn to go to Long Island to live with my family because I knew it would get me too used to having someone take care of me, and I wouldn’t be back at work soon enough. I was very lucky because even though I got accepted before the accident, I was moving into a building that was completely wheelchair accessible, with people around if I really needed something. I’m usually extremely social, but after the accident happened, the main things I identified with in my life were no longer there or at least temporarily gone.

The first four days were especially difficult because I was in excruciating pain. The pharmacy didn’t have my pain medication in stock, and the walker I ordered hadn’t arrived yet. Standing after being in a bed for three months, I felt as if I’d never walked in my life. When I got here, I had to come to terms with a lot of difficult things I didn’t have to face in rehab or in the hospital, like the real damages to my body, the difficulties of my everyday life without any assistance, and how there was a possibility that I would never get to do or be the things I was earlier in my life.

My second day in WeLive a nurse came to examine me. I was showing the nurse how I walked with crutches, and when I pivoted to the side to show her the bathroom, I fell and partially broke the fall with my arm. She said she had to call an ambulance, and I told her that I didn’t have time for that! I told her: “Do whatever you want, but don’t call the ambulance. I’m fine. I wouldn’t be able to move my legs like this if I had just broken my pelvis again, would I?” She said, “No, you wouldn’t. You would be screaming in pain.”

So after that, I only used a wheelchair until my walker came in the mail. Being in a wheelchair all the time taught me how hard it really is for someone. It took all my confidence away and made me feel like I wasn’t a person. It made me sad, but not for myself. I knew at some point I was going to walk again, but I felt terrible to know how hard it would be for someone else who isn’t fortunate enough to be able to have that in their future.

When you are in a wheelchair, people don’t look at you the same. They pity you. You feel as if all your good or even bad qualities are overlooked or canceled out because you have to use an assistive device. I don’t enjoy getting preferential treatment in any way for being in a bad accident, especially because it was nobody’s fault except for the intoxicated person that hit me.

I remember in the first few weeks, I tried to force myself to go to the office a few times each week. My office is the furthest from the elevator in the Soho WeWork, and it would take like half my energy to get there using the walker. People who knew me would say, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t be at work right now!” But I knew it was what I needed to help me get back to myself mentally. It wasn’t because I needed to work or thought it was even a good idea. It was because I knew I needed to push myself as hard as I could physically and mentally, so I could get where I needed to be in both respects.

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For the 40 or 50 days out of rehab living here, my pain level reached its highest point ever, and I had already suffered for three months in a hospital bed before that. So for the first time in my life ever, I honestly thought dying didn’t seem like the worst option. One of my legs was a donor leg for the skin graft for the other leg, so whenever I would try to stand, I would have ripping pain in one leg and then weight-bearing pain in the other.

These days, I spend the whole morning and most of the afternoon every day lifting weights and doing leg exercises here at WeLive. Being in this environment is very important to me because I’m lucky enough to be surrounded with a lot of good people. You wouldn’t believe how many people reached out to me and offered some kind of help while I was here. Throughout my life, I always tried to be independent. So even though initially I wasn’t trying to be social here, it was very easy to make friends as I felt more and more like myself. It feels great that the support is there.

We all share so many things now. I can’t use my jump rope yet, so I gave it to another WeLive member to borrow. Different people who live here are starting to teach classes of pilates, yoga, and ballroom dancing in the flex studio. It’s hilarious and random that another WeLive neighbor is also well-versed in the world of ballroom dancing, and both of them are friends now. So you have people with similar interests and different skills all over the place. It’s almost better for people who don’t know about similar subjects or have similar skills because they get exposed to all these different things while living here.

What are your favorite workout tracks?

I wouldn’t say there’s specific music from a certain artist that really speaks to me. In order to pump me up, I always look for any type of emotion in music that I can feed off of. I didn’t learn until last year how to take negative things or emotions and turn them around to create motivation. So now anything emotional I can hook into gives me energy.

For me, I don’t think anybody puts more emotion in their music than Nina Simone. I use a handful of her songs to pump me up.  Almost every morning, I listen to “Do What You Gotta Do.” I also listen to “I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes).” It’s a sad song, but it still keeps me focused. Major Lazer always gets me going. You can’t go wrong there!

The timing here is interesting because for about two years of my life, I only listened to Prince. His music really spoke to me a lot, entertained me, and I loved pretty much everything he did. His music was pretty much the soundtrack for the early part of my twenties. So after that couple years of really heavy Prince listening, when I wasn’t single anymore, I knew I had take a little break from his music because it was time for the soundtrack to change. I have to admit: there’s no artist who’s passed away in my lifetime that’s made me more upset than that.

The day it happened, I found out in the kitchen at WeLive. I refused to believe it so I exhibited no emotion. Then the next day, I watched a tribute video, and at the end of the video, they played the intro of “Let’s Go Crazy,” and I started hysterically crying. It made me think of all the awesome moments of my life when that music was there and all the pleasure I got from it. So I know everybody had different favorites that they lost—Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston. But for me there was nobody like Prince.

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Is there anything else we should know about you?

The whole thing with this accident—when a lot of people hear the story, they say it is inspiring. I don’t find just surviving inspiring because it’s just surviving.

I am finally strong enough to stand and cook for a couple hours now if I want! It’s pretty fantastic. I don’t think any goals of any kind are achieved without some type of suffering. I’ve prepared myself for that, so I can’t be upset about it.

I went to a bris a couple weeks ago and threw my crutches in the corner of the room, then started walking around. A friend there who is a doctor at Bellevue, and would visit me regularly while I was at the hospital, saw me. He was there right after the accident and saw how bad it was. When he saw me walking around without crutches, he almost started crying in disbelief. There have been a few instances like that during my recovery where I see someone who visited me while I was still in a hospital bed. I realize they are overwhelmed with emotion because of my progress, and I really appreciate that. But I won’t celebrate until the day I can run again.

So I’m keeping everything inside until I reach my goals.

People say, “I can’t believe you can walk.” And I say, “Thank you, but I know I still have a long way to go.” So there’s no celebration for me now, but I know I’m getting there, and I just need to keep pushing.

Photos: Katelyn Perry

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