A childhood fight left me disabled – lockdown helped me re-learn what my body can do


Twenty-six years have now passed since a petty squabble with my younger brother concluded with me nearly losing my life (Picture: Graeme Macpherson)

The car stopped at the traffic lights and the girl in the passenger seat looked over.

I caught her glance as I pushed my bike with its broken chain slowly up the steep hill in the pouring rain towards the train station, dressed only in shorts and a T-shirt, soaked to the skin. And rather than feel embarrassed, I looked back at her and laughed. Partly to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation but also because I was happy.

Not with my chain snapping halfway through a Sunday morning cycle with my friend, of course – but just a general buzz of contentment that I was finally able to do this kind of thing at all. 

Twenty-six years have now passed since a petty squabble with my younger brother concluded with me nearly losing my life. 

It was a ridiculously daft argument – I asked him to get me a packet of crisps and he threw them at my chest. So we squared up and as he reached over my shoulder to open the glass door to get away, it instead knocked me off my feet and I crashed backwards, landed on a 10-inch shard and nearly bled to death on my parents’ porch.

That was a fraught night.

They nearly lost me a few times in A&E as the blood poured back out the wound quicker than they could get the transfusion in. 

Luckily, they were eventually able to stop the blood flow to save my life but, in slicing my sciatic nerve in two right across my bum, that piece of glass had left me with no sensation or movement in my right foot. 

A number of operations brought minor improvements and stability but, at just 18 years of age, I was facing up to the harsh reality of life with a permanent disability.

I had always been a sports-mad kid. Never good enough to make it at a serious level, but still out there several times a week on the football field, cricket pitch or golf course. In an instant, that was all gone.

The first time I was allowed out of hospital I went to watch my friends play 5-a-sides but it was too painful not being able to join in. I never went back. 

For the next quarter of a century, sport didn’t really feature in my life. I would make myself go swimming once or twice a week to try to stay fit but not being able to run effectively removed all other opportunities. 

My calf muscles had shrunk through lack of use and my right leg had become so weak that I couldn’t balance on it for more than a few seconds at a time. My foot had next to no sensation and I couldn’t move my ankle at all.

Without wearing a brace, I would keep tripping as I couldn’t lift my toes. I was resigned to this being the state of play for the rest of my life. 

Lockdown, however, allowed me to re-open doors that I thought had been closed forever. More family time brought more opportunities. 

So when my kids started to do the Joe Wicks exercise classes at home, I thought I would give it a go. I had always been too afraid to go to gyms – the awkwardness of my weakened leg and visions of me falling over trying to exercise was enough to put me off. 

From the comfort of my front room, I began to realise my body was capable of doing more than I had previously thought. And when the children got bored with the morning exercise routine, I stuck at it, becoming gradually more empowered and healthier in a way I had never thought possible.

This led me to take on another fitness activity from my past – cycling.

From deep in the recesses of the cellar under his house, my dad unearthed this ramshackle contraption that used to belong to my brother. It must have been at least 20 years old. 

But the rest of the family were using their one permitted exercise slot a day to get out on their bikes and I didn’t want to miss out. Tentatively, I got back on a bike for the first time in 25 years.

Fears that my leg wouldn’t be strong enough to push down on the pedal soon dissipated. I was a bit wobbly but I was managing it.

I was riding a bike again. 

When lockdown eased, my son and I still made it our thing to go out for a ride around the park and local streets every night.

After 10 miles, I thought to myself ‘I should probably turn back’ – but the further I went, the more I enjoyed it, and I realised that I was going to make it and that physically, I felt great

And then came the real challenge, my first major adventure on my own; a 20-mile, two-hour round trip along busy roads and the cycle path to a neighbouring village and back. 

I decided to embark on this journey because I wanted to see if I could do it and I did. Mind you, the weather was terrible and I was really anxious cycling on busy roads alongside trucks and cars.

And while I felt good on the cycle path, enjoying the fresh air and the scenery, I was also worried that at some point my legs would seize up as I had no idea what they were capable of. 

After 10 miles, I thought to myself ‘I should probably turn back’ – but the further I went, the more I enjoyed it, and I realised that I was going to make it and that physically, I felt great.

I stopped in at my parents’ house for coffee on my way home, the place where I had nearly lost my life all those years ago. I was exhausted but utterly exhilarated.

It had been a long road to get there but I had rediscovered my sporting mojo. 

Cycling has become a cathartic experience – a real sense of release, both physically and mentally. It helps clear my head and I feel healthier too.

Before I was restricted to going for walks, but now the options are endless.

We are all capable of doing much more than we often imagine in our minds.

Sometimes we only have to try.

Do you have a story that you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

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