“I can honestly say that my soul was saved by these little big things during those dark times,” says Henry Fraser. “It was undoubtedly the drive to repay this kindness that propelled me to the beginnings of recovery.”
Fraser, 25, is speaking of the multitude of thoughtful acts – from cards with rallying messages to cooked meals left on his exhausted parents’ doorstep – that followed his catastrophic accident in the summer of 2009.
At around the time Ian McGeechan’s Lions were pushing the Springboks to the wire, Fraser was enjoying a holiday in Portugal with schoolmates. A flanker-cum-centre for Dulwich College 1sts and part of Saracens’ academy, the then 17-year-old was five days into the trip when tragedy struck.
Going for a swim, he waded into the sea up to waist height and dived below the water – only to strike a hidden ridge of sand. The impact severed his spinal cord and, face down and helpless, he was pulled out by friends and airlifted to a hospital in Lisbon.
Fraser almost died in the water and in hospital his heart stopped on several occasions as he suffered panic attacks, MRSA, pneumonia, septicaemia and hours of painstaking surgery to realign his neck.
His surgeon said he operated on at least 12 people a year who were injured by diving into the sea along that coastline. The resort Henry stayed in was Praia da Luz, where Madeleine McCann had disappeared two years previously.
When Fraser’s parents, Andrew and Francesca, were told he would be a tetraplegic for the rest of his life, him mum screamed and his dad was speechless with shock. “Mrs Fraser, your son needs you more than ever,” the surgeon said. “You have to be strong for him from this moment on.”
And so family Fraser kicked in, his parents and three brothers – Will, Tom and Dom – at the forefront of a tidal wave of love and care that helped Henry summon the heart to overcome his crushing disability.
At first, when in order to communicate Henry was reduced to grunting at letters of the alphabet, he was consumed by fear and darkness.
But by degrees, back at Stoke Mandeville, his condition improved. Learning to breathe unaided was a joyous landmark, so too eating real food, even if he found pureed salmon disgusting.
The watershed came when, now in a wheelchair, he spotted his reflection and saw a razor-thin weakling, with a tube down his throat and straps round his middle. It was the moment when he knew his paralysis was real and, utterly devastated, he sobbed uncontrollably into his mum’s shoulder.
That was rock bottom. From there Henry could have metaphorically slumped to the canvas or started swinging punches and, as you will already know, he chose the latter course.
Able at last to accept his misfortune, he set about tackling every obstacle with a conviction and relish that has earned widespread admiration. One of his friends, JK Rowling, who shares the same agent, provides a suitably laudatory foreword.
Warned that he would be in hospital for 18 months, Fraser was out in six. Told he would be in a head-controlled wheelchair with armrests for the rest of his life, through force of will he found a way to push himself through his shoulders.
“I’d come to see that it is the act of striving that gives life meaning,” Fraser says, “and that the greater the challenge ahead of me, the more alive I felt.”
At the time of his accident, Henry was known to some as “Will Fraser’s brother”, Will having forged a successful professional career with Saracens that took him close to England honours.
Today, many other things spring to mind first. He is a renowned mouth artist who has been commissioned by the likes of The Times and Sainsbury’s, and has put on exhibitions at which his prints sell by the dozen. Click here to see his artwork.
He speaks regularly at sports clubs, charity events and schools, and is involved with the UK Stem Cell Foundation – hopeful that the medical advances that saw the disabled Darek Fidyka walking again could one day reverse spinal cord paralysis.
Hopeful, but not desperate. Henry Fraser has learned to embrace his life in a wheelchair and rediscover simple pleasures, starting with the air we breathe and the light that streams through his bedroom window. Every day can be a good day, says the strapline of his book The Little Big Things – what a marvellous philosophy to have.
This terrific book is recommended to all and is published by Seven Dials, RRP £12.99 for the hardback or £6.99 for the ebook. Click here to buy it.
The publishers have kindly provided us with six copies to give away in a competition. For a chance to win one, look at the photo below and answer the question beneath it, filling in your details. The competition closes on Tuesday 28 November.
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