Chris's Story ...
Chris is 30 years old and from Epsom in Surrey. In 2018 he was playing for his local football team and suffered a spinal injury after dislocating his neck whilst heading the ball. “It was a very freak accident! I was playing football for AFC Ewell, who I had played for since I left university for about seven or eight years. I had not long come on as a sub and jumped up to flick on a header like I have a million times and the next thing I am on the deck and my whole body has gone into pins and needles and I can't feel my lower half.”
“Fortunately for me on the opposition team was a junior doctor who recognised the injury was serious and stopped other members of the team putting me in the recovery position and instead had asked the ref to apply pressure to my neck. In the moments after I don’t think I fully understood the severity of the injury. I did have pain in my left shoulder, so many people thought initially that I had dislocated this or my collar bone. I was in fairly good spirits really despite what had happened.”
Chris was taken to St Georges Hospital in London when the reality of the situation was made clear by the doctors as he and his family were told that Chris had dislocated his neck in three places at C6 and C7 level and that he wouldn’t walk again. The injury sustained by Chris was familiar to the surgeons as they had operated on many rugby players before, but this was the first time they had seen a footballer. During this time in intensive care the wider football community heard about Chris’s story and began sending him messages and good wishes.
“I received a video from Jose Mourinho and lots of nice messages from footballers like Eden Hazard and Michael Owen. I actually got the video on the day after I was told I wasn’t going to walk again when I was literally at rock bottom. The video really picked me up, and it was incredible for both myself and my family. Absolutely brilliant!”
Chris was later transferred to Redhill Hospital in Surrey where he continued his recovery whilst he waited on a place at the nearest spinal unit at Stanmore. It was however during this time that Chris had a day he would never forget. “I will never forget this one day at Redhill. My physio or dad propped up my leg and I was able to hold it steady. The physio said you shouldn’t be able to do that! So, over the next few months my dad encouraged me to hold it, move it to the left and right and it snowballed from there.”
Rehabilitation begins at Stanmore ...
The London Spinal Cord Injury Centre at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital is one of only 11 in the UK designated to receive and treat spinal cord injured patients and it was here that Chris arrived to continue his rehabilitation.
"After waiting for a bed it was great to finally get to Stanmore. The people I met there are truly truly amazing and when you get there it was a huge wait off your shoulders. You think ‘now I start getting my life back on track’ and you also get fitted for a manual wheelchair. I got to meet other people going through exactly what I was going through which was incredible and I made lifelong friends during this time who I’m still in contact with to this day.”
Initially, Chris was diagnosed in intensive care with a complete injury and he was told he’d never walk again but after the movements recognised at Redhill he was awaiting more test results from the specialists to confirm the original diagnosis or not. As Chris explains, “In my first week at Stanmore and after meeting all the physios, members of the healthcare team and having tests to see the severity of my injury the head physio said “if I can feel that” then you technically have an incomplete injury.”
During his time at Stanmore Chris met Mark O’Neil who is employed as Physical Activity Advisor by WheelPower to support newly injured patients during their rehabilitation. “Mark would take me to the gym and show me some adaptive exercises that I could do to help me with my transfers which I was really struggling with at that time. It was so useful that in my spare time I would go back and practice more to build up my strength and help regain more of my independence, which was so important to me.” Mark O'Neil from WheelPower continues, “Chris was a really nice and very popular person during his time at Stanmore. He was very tall so initially he struggled to find a wheelchair that was suitable for him but he always had a positive approach to his rehab.”
It was also during this 3 month period at Stanmore Spinal Unit that Chris was reintroduced to sport.“There was a great group of patients at this time and they were fun to have around, particularly when we were doing sport. There was always a good atmosphere whatever sport we were doing and they were often competitive with each other which only added to their enjoyment. Within the unit we did table tennis, basketball, archery, slalom, throwing, golf, tennis, Boccia and curling.” says Mark.
“The sport sessions took place every Wednesday and Friday. Sport was in your spreadsheet at 5pm both days and it was something I looked forward to. Mark would also push me on the hand bike to build up my stamina and one day even challenged us to a time trial wheelchair skills course which was brilliant for me as I was still figuring out how to wheel around safely. We also did a lot of table tennis which spurred me on to win gold at the ISUG. I owe it all to Mark!”
The Inter Spinal Unit Games ...
The Inter Spinal Unit Games took place in April 2019 and it was something Chris had been looking forward to since it first got mentioned. “When I got the call saying they wanted me to come I was buzzing. I couldn’t wait to go to Stoke Mandeville and it wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up. When you rock up and see the Paralympic badge and enter the Olympic lodge you get into the sportsman mindset immediately and go into competitive mode!”
The first day of the games provides an opportunity to try all the sports and then decisions are made amongst the team as to who will take part in which event. “I gave everything a go on the first day and it was fantastic to have so many sports to try. Golf, handcycling, rowing, table tennis, shooting which was wicked, weightlifting, wheelchair rugby, wheelchair basketball and fencing. It was great to try out everything that I didn’t even think was possible to do in a wheelchair, like wheelchair fencing which I didn’t knew existed! Discovering all these sports has been another door that’s opened to me through the disability that has happened.”
After the taster days Chris was chosen to take part in Table Tennis and at very late notice Archery. Chris excelled in both events and brought back two gold medals for his Stanmore team. “I had played a lot of table tennis before so I was feeling reasonably confident with that event but archery I maybe had tried it once and very briefly at the unit. When I started hitting bullseye after bullseye no one could believe it and when they called the gold medal it was incredible and I almost fell out of my chair!”
Reflecting on his experience at the Inter Spinal Unit Games Chris says, “It was great to be in an environment where people were in a very similar situation to me and had been under a year injured. The whole week was such fantastic experience and I couldn’t recommend the games highly enough to anyone. I would definitely encourage everyone to ‘100% come to try it out’ given the chance. If you ever need an advocate for the ISUG I’m you’re man. I think post injury it was the best thing I have done and it was genuinely life changing having met everyone there. I owe a huge debt to you guys.”
Upon leaving the unit Chris returned home to live with his fiancé and began working part time for Price Water House Coopers. “I had the accident two days before my new job and they have been fantastic. They were in contact with me when I was in intensive care and said whatever happens there’s a job waiting for me when I was ready. They also had their own internal doctors that gave me a look over and they’ve been absolutely fantastic too.”
Chris also continued to receive support from the football community. “When I got out of hospital I got a message from Chelsea football club inviting me to go and meet the players. I’ve been a huge fan all my life and they sent me three or four signed shirts when I was in hospital. It was absolutely amazing and I’d never met any of the players ever in my entire life before. On this day I got to meet all of my heroes and my all-time hero, Gianfronco Zola. My dad was with me as well and it was the perfect, perfect day.”
The support from the football community has helped Chris so much following his accident and the messages sent directly to him whilst he was in hospital gave him a real boost during the tough days. His club also got together to fundraise and have invited him back to games since. “My football team have been non-stop fundraising. They always get me down to the matches and they all still wind me up and stuff like that! I think I would have really struggled with it if I didn’t have that and I know I’m really fortunate to have had such support so I’m eternally grateful to the footballing community for coming together like they did.”
Exercise during the pandemic ...
Chris continues to have regular physio and now has his sights set on standing at the alter on his wedding day. Unfortunately the date has been pushed back 3 times due to Covid-19 but as Chris explains it has been a bit of a silver lining and has given him more time to improve his strength in readiness for the big day. “Over the past year I have been working on standing and walking using a frame. Although I have no core movement and my legs are really weak, if I can get myself up on a frame my legs will lock out and with the orthotics I can stand and balance. I can walk a tiny little bit but I’m struggling with a kicking out movement. At the moment I can’t plant my foot with confidence so it’s a slow grind to get that stronger. I do worry the knee won’t lock out and I will go flying, which I don’t want to happen in July.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has given Chris more time to exercise but with facilities being closed this has meant a change to his usual exercise routine. “Pre pandemic I would be going to my local gym regularly. They have wheelchair accessible equipment and have lots of adaptive equipment there too and I would spend a lot of time weight lifting to build up the strength in my arms.” But with the national lockdown and the gym closed Chris has continued to stay active with a home gym set up that includes various pieces of equipment that he needs. This includes walking bars and weights. “I do a lot of my own physio and I have some walking bars. A couple of times a week I will do some balancing and walking and try to progress on to the frame.”
“I also have my own weight rack and dumbbells and a barbell, as well as a wider bench where you don’t have to worry about your core balance. The amount of times I have fallen off a bench in the gym is embarrassing! I have also used resistance bands when I am walking to try and push down and for my shoulder exercises. My physios are constantly telling me that they are key to shoulder mobility/health. After spending all day at a laptop doing 5 minutes of exercises with a band is a lifesaver for many.”
The Wheelwrights fund ...
It was during this time at home that Chris heard about the Wheelwrights Fund and he began to consider what he really would benefit from during these unprecedented times. “During the lockdown I had been really struggling with shoulder mobility and general fitness, so I had some thoughts as to what I really wanted to do and I had a number of ideas in my mind.”
“When you are in a wheelchair there are two traditional ways to stay fit. One of which is wheeling if you can find somewhere that is flat. Unfortunately my local park its full of cracks and camber which is tough going. The alternative to that in the gym is the arm bike which I do not like in the slightest. But it only really works your arms and doesn’t give you that core workout that I needed.”
So after much deliberation Chris decided that he would like a Concept2 Ski-Erg. The equipment makes the sport of Nordic skiing available to everyone is recognised as delivering one of the toughest workouts around.
“I have used a Ski-Erg before and it gives you such a good core workout, through your back and your stomach. It’s so difficult to keep fit in a wheelchair and this has truly been a game changer. It is the best bit of kit and after waiting a little while for delivery I am now using it regularly to help my general stamina and lose some weight before I get married!”
“I will be using my Ski-Erg with every workout and they even send you a daily workout everyday by email (short, med, long) and tell you what buttons to press on the machine. It really does everything and If I can get fitter, I can stand for longer and push for longer when I’m out and about.”
As well as the Ski-Erg Chris is also looking to get back into sports and hopes to find local clubs to join when the lockdown has eased. “I’ve been looking to get into wheelchair rugby and I have also been talking to the ‘walking frame football association’. Despite my injury football is still my no.1 passion and if there was wheelchair football I would be living and breathing it, but it doesn’t exist unfortunately.”
Chris continues to strive to achieve and as well as having clear goals he continues to be inspired by others to keep pushing. “The people who inspire me are the people who have the really high-level injuries like Matt Hampson or Henry Fraser. In the media you always see the guys who make a fantastic recovery and it’s very rare to see people who have this level of injury. What they have achieved with injuries so serious is incredible. We have all faced adversity and some more than others, but these guys have achieved so much and it gives you no excuses to be your best self.”
Now Chris has the addition of a Ski-Erg to his home gym set up he is looking head positively to life beyond lockdown. The wedding still remains his main goal and with a new home to be enjoyed too Chris continues to strive for new goals to be achieved. “Having a clear defined goal keeps me motivated and constantly setting new ones and reiterating them is vital. After the wedding the next goal on the horizon might be to travel, or do a walking/climbing fundraiser. I would love to get others involved in this too and do it together. I have so much support around me and it would be great to do something together that we have all bought into.”
“My family and friends have stuck by me through thick and thin and with my goals I am doing it for us all. As harrowing the injury was for me I can’t imagine what it must be like to hear that your son won’t be able to walk again. They have gone through real heartache and pain and I want to do something positive to reach a goal and do everything I can to achieve it. What more inspiration do you need!”
Thank you to Chris for sharing your story with WheelPower and we wish you all the best for the future.
The Wheelwrights Fund is open to anyone who has acquired a spinal cord injury within the past five years. You are able to apply for any money for any equipment or activities to help you stay active, get active, or help you achieve your sporting potential. The funding has been made available through the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, in association with National Tyre Distributors Association. Find out more: The Wheelwrights Fund 2021
Listen to Chris on the 'This is Spinal Crap' Podcast -
Chris is a Trustee of SIA (Spinal Injuries Association) - “It’s an honour to be a Trustee of this amazing charity that does so much to support injured people like me. I look forward to using my commercial skills and experience to support our work and help many more people get the care and support they urgently need.”