Told he would never walk again after a catastrophic accident, former Premiership forward Ed Jackson is now climbing mountains for charity. RW reviews his new book
Ed Jackson’s incredible journey
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old but on building the new,” wrote Socrates. If you’re in need of inspiration, require a steadying hand during a time of trauma or upheaval in your life, Ed Jackson’s Lucky could be just the book for you.
Jackson was a professional rugby player with the Dragons when on 8 April 2017, the first scorching day of that year, he dived into a swimming pool at the house of family friends and struck his head on tiles at the bottom.
With little air in his lungs, the instant paralysis that befell him under the water might easily have ended his life at the age of 28. Instead, his father, a retired GP, pulled him to safety.
And that is reason No 1 behind Jackson’s book title. He was lucky to be saved from drowning. Lucky that his dad knew the importance of keeping his son’s spine straight. Lucky he was only ten miles from a top neurological centre. Lucky he was operated on within seven hours.
As it was, he had dislocated his C6 and C7 neck vertebrae, the disc between them exploding. The shards of bone severed two-thirds of the width of his spinal cord – he had just 4mm left.
What should have been a short drive to Bath’s Royal United Hospital took two-and-a-half hours as he was resuscitated three times after his breathing stopped. From there he was moved to Bristol’s Southmead Hospital for emergency surgery.
At which point his life became pretty grim because staring at a white ceiling all day and being checked for bed sores every two hours is no one’s idea of fun. And he was rarely able to sleep for more than a few minutes at a time because a machine would beep when his heart rate dropped below 40bpm – which his did after all his years of intensive cardio.
If he coughed he risked choking on his phlegm and as for dignity… well, let’s just say it’s in short supply when you depend on others for bowel care and bed baths. Jackson would try to ‘leave’ his body for a bit and he lists his top five songs to have your bowels evacuated to!
Humour was vital. Seeing the fixed smiles on the faces of friends turn to shock as they took in all the tubes and wires attached to Jackson was wearing. His rugby mates knew how to lighten the mood. One former team-mate chucked three juggling balls at him that bounced off his chest and said, “You may as well learn a new skill.”
Critically, Jackson never lost hope, never accepted the ‘best-case scenario’ from the consultant that he would never walk again but might get some arm movement back. He researched fellow victims of catastrophic injuries – Matt Hampson, Henry Fraser, Christopher Reeve et al – and he believed in the powers of recovery.
He spent every moment firing signals to try to move fingers or toes – he wanted to strive for independence so he wouldn’t be a burden to others.
And he drew strength from the knowledge that he had withstood a terrible blow before: one of his best mates, Tom Maynard, had died at the age of 23 and the book is dedicated to him.
After five days in intensive care, the only positive for Jackson was slight movement in his right arm. On the seventh day he moved two fingers on his right hand and the tears rolled down his cheeks. On the 12th day, he managed to move his toe.
He cajoled and pushed for as much physio as he could, working initially with the highly rated Pete Bishop. After three weeks on his back, he was sitting up at 45 degrees. He typed blogs with one finger and grew a large Instagram following. Then came the first flicker of life in his left hand. His weight plummeted but he could bench-press a broom handle 30cm.
When he felt something fire up in his left quad, he knew there was a real chance he might walk again. The nervous system is more active when the body is upright and within a few days he was standing, with the help of a kind of zimmer frame.
When he was moved to Salisbury, he met a new physiotherapist, Kim, who was also full of positivity. Bit by bit, he wrestled back his independence. He relished setting lap times round the garden in his NHS wheelchair – the Matt Hampson Foundation later bought him one of his own – and he began going on outside visits. On one of these he fell out of his chair at a pub and was embarrassed by all the fuss and attention from all the drinkers.
Through this all he was indebted to the support of his girlfriend Lois, who he met at a fancy-dress party in 2010 and married in Tuscany eight years later.
The average hospitalisation period for a person with a catastrophic injury is four to six months – Jackson was discharged in 80 days. Less than four months after the accident, he went to New York to watch a Fleetwood Mac concert. Their album Rumours was a saviour to Jackson in hospital.
Restart, the official charity of the Rugby Players’ Association, paid for his physio and Jackson vowed to repay every penny. He chose Blorenge peak in Wales for his first hill climb, walking poles in hand and FES machine (to lift his foot) on show.
Less than a year after his accident and the fateful prognosis, Jackson climbed Snowdon. Then he climbed Mont Buet, in the French Alps. “I burn more calories than most people because I walk a bit like Quasimodo,” he says.
When Neverest Orthopaedics, a charity raising money for a new spinal unit in Nepal, invited him to the country, he accepted gladly. A common source of spinal injuries in Nepal is children falling from fruit trees. He later became the first quadriplegic to summit the Mera Peak in Nepal, an arduous and exhausting climb in temperatures of up to minus 20 degrees.
Along with Olly Barkley, he and Lois set up Millimetres 2 Mountains (M2M), a charity designed to “get people up mountains so they too could understand the transformative effects these experiences have”. Channel 4 viewers will be familiar with his work as a presenter and interviewer.
Ed Jackson used to wake up from his dreams and be reminded of his predicament. Today he still dreams regularly of dropping his poles and starting to run, and yes, there is disappointment there when he wakes and realises his reality.
But when he thinks back to the moment that changed his life, the decision to dive into a pool that he thought was deep but was actually shallow, he says this: “I wouldn’t change any of it. Without that ten-second incident, my life would not be as it is now.
“Through my accident I found purpose and that is what everyone needs to lead a fulfilled life; not riches, power, an able body or an exceptional mind.
“The perspective I had gained from nearly losing everything, and the satisfaction I got from helping others, led me to accept and even embrace my injuries and their outcome. I hope others will take courage from my story and apply it to their own lives.”
How can you not be inspired by that?
Lucky by Ed Jackson is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins, RRP £20.