When he was 19, Gary Dawson, from Manchester, was an electrician’s apprentice and enjoyed clubbing, riding sports bikes and all the usual things a regular 19-year-old likes to do. But his life changed in the blink of an eye, when he came off his Suzuki 650s as he was slowing down approaching traffic lights. The bike fell, following Gary along the road before crushing him against a car.
The A&E team at Trafford General Hospital stabilised Gary, before transferring him to the Spinal Ward at Salford Royal Hospital where he was seen by a consultant. Later, he was moved to a private hospital for a fixation operation on his spine, which had been crushed at T6. Unfortunately, the medics were inexperienced in dealing with spinal injuries, and after just 24 hours there Gary couldn’t stop vomiting and his skin had turned yellow. When Gary’s test results were seen by his consultant, Mr Mohammed, at Salford Royal, he said ‘these results are incompatible with life.’
In agony, Gary was rushed back to the Salford Royal, where his heart stopped on arrival. Over the next few hours his heart stopped many times, and each time he was resuscitated by the cardio and A&E teams. A large blood clot was discovered near his heart, and so the hospital’s entire stock of a new blood-thinning drug was pumped into Gary, while the consultant told his mum that he might die in 15 minutes’ time. He then had complete organ failure and fell into a coma. After more than ten hours of resuscitation, the team managed to save his life.
Ten days later, Gary came out of the coma. He was paralysed from the chest down, and unable to speak because he’d been given a tracheostomy to enable him to breathe. Gary says:
‘All I could do was scream at people with my eyes. I was saying “Kill me. Kill me, I can’t do this. I didn’t know anyone who was disabled. And though I’d been in a coma for ten days, I just couldn’t sleep. My mind was racing, thinking my life is totally over. I was listing all the things I’d never do again, and the list was endless.’
Gary recalls Mr Mohammed explaining that he’d never walk again, but he was the luckiest person ever still to be alive. He says:
‘In one second, I felt it was amazing to be alive, but in the next second I was so miserable because I didn’t want to be disabled. My emotions fluctuated like a heart monitor.’
Recovery and Rehabilitation
Being there with my peers was phenomenal for the first time I could see a life of some kind. It gave my mental health a big boost
The long process of recovery and rehabilitation began with Gary moving into the Spinal Unit at Southport Hospital.
‘I felt like I’d won the lottery. Being there with my peers was phenomenal. For the first time I could see a life of some kind. It gave my mental health a big boost.
I saw people were going to the gym, going to the pub and even shops. I met three other lads there, and we just talked through the nights. Just chatting to people who knew how I felt was brilliant. And I took to wheelchair use very easily, and all of the staff were fantastic. I really enjoyed my time in rehab. I was there seven weeks in all, and they teach you to be independent within the spinal unit. So, I thought, this is brilliant, I’m independent, I’m going home.
‘But at the same time, I was beating myself up. My mind was telling me I was useless, and I was weak. I was still focusing on everything I couldn’t do. I felt so vulnerable and terrified. And yet, when my family and friends visited it was a welcome distraction from those dark thoughts, so I was all smiles. One of my coping mechanisms was smoking cannabis each evening.
I told the spinal unit’s psychologist, that I was so ready to move on. I told him I was happy and very confident – and I appeared that way. But in the back of my mind, there were still so many negative thoughts. I just hid them well.’
I was back in the real world – and I was absolutely terrified
Gary went to live back at his mum’s house, where he found that the safety net of the NHS and 24/7 care were suddenly gone.
‘I was back in the real world – and I was absolutely terrified. The inaccessibility of mum’s house was a challenge, I now had to use a commode, and I had to go to my gran’s house to take a bath. But more than that, my friends had all moved away to university and my parents were back at work. Their lives had moved on but mine hadn’t. I really struggled with this.’
Eventually Gary moved to an independent living facility, a purpose-built bungalow in a cul-de-sac, where other people with disabilities were his neighbours. And although he was relieved to move out of his mum’s, Gary felt utterly isolated and incredibly vulnerable.
‘I felt too scared to leave the house. What if I fell out of the wheelchair? What if people laughed at me? So, I did what I always did – I hid behind my big smile. Which didn’t work, because my coping mechanism became alcohol and drugs. I’d wake up and drink Jack Daniels for breakfast and smoke weed all day. I didn’t bother eating. Then I started self-harming. I was so frustrated and angry I’d punch my paralysed legs. One day I ruptured the veins in my leg, so the blood ran into my muscle. I was rushed to hospital with suspected deep vein thrombosis. No one questioned me.
I was so jealous of able-bodied people. And nobody understood what I was going through, nobody
After six months in his own home, Gary’s weight had dropped to just six stone. ‘All I can remember is just drinking JD, smoking weed and not eating a thing. I had pernicious anaemia. My family thought I was losing muscle mass because I wasn’t moving. And when my friends visited, they’d buy me booze. On my 20th birthday everybody bought me bottles of Jack Daniels – I had around 15!
I kept a notebook, and I’d write whatever was in my head. It says ‘I want to tell someone. I want to die.’ I was so jealous of able-bodied people. And nobody understood what I was going through, nobody. More than once, I’d swallow a handful of pills and drink a bottle of Jack. But then I’d make myself throw up. I’d wake up covered in vomit. It was my internal voice that was beating me up. I told myself I was weak, not a real man.
Back on track
I could now visit my local disability sports club, the Bury Blue Devils… Everyone in the room had an understanding of disability. Suddenly being able to speak to people about how they were living their lives was amazing
Thankfully, a routine visit to his GP put Gary back on the road to recovery.
‘My GP was amazing. She prescribed me anti-depressants, which really helped with my insomnia. Once I could sleep better, I could focus much more. I gave up the weed, I drank less, and I started eating again. One thing that made a huge difference was getting my driver’s licence. I took control of my life again. And when I was awake at 3am feeling stressed or angry, I could drive to my 24-hour Tesco and chat with the staff – it was a lovely distraction. But the most amazing thing was, I could now visit my local disability sports club, the Bury Blue Devils. And from that first day my life instantly turned right around. I was back among my peers. Everyone in the room had an understanding of disability. Suddenly being able to speak to people about how they were living their lives was amazing.
I joined the local basketball team and I LOVED it! I then became part of the TeamGB programme, and I got to go to sports camps where I met loads of great people. I didn’t return to work, so I started training 50 hours per week instead. I was eating properly, and gradually I gained weight and my muscles returned. Through sport, I was able to overcome my depression. I got past the abyss and I began to see a future. The basketball gave me something to aim for.
And everything that had scared me before suddenly seemed less frightening.
I came so close to not being here at all, because I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I masked everything behind my smile. But you must talk to someone
Gary now plays basketball with his team, The Owls, and has competed all over Europe. He has a new relationship, and he’s lucky enough to have travelled around the world – backpacking across Australia and Costa Rica most recently.
Gary started volunteering with SIA when he was in rehabilitation, and for a few years he chatted with in-patients at Southport’s Spinal Unit. A chance meeting with an SIA support worker in Manchester led to Gary applying for the role of community peer support officer; he’s worked at SIA ever since then.
‘I’ve actually had the most amazing life. I’ve travelled around the world and I’ve hand-cycled all over Europe for the SIA. I’m in a great relationship now. I still have mental health issues, they didn’t go away 100%, but by no means am I depressed. I’m still scared that someone is going to judge me, and some days strangers ask me the most personal questions, which I don’t appreciate. And when I have to go somewhere new in my wheelchair I still feel insecure. I have issues with body dysmorphia, it’s always at the back of my mind. I would hate for anyone to suffer the way I suffered. I came so close to not being here at all, because I didn’t tell anyone how I was feeling. I masked everything behind my smile. But you must talk to someone. You really must.’