Man Left Quadriplegic From Swimming Accident Defied Medics To Climb Mountains
Up until 2017, Ed Jackson worked as a professional rugby player, regularly pushing himself to what he believed were his mental and physical limits.
On April 8 that year, while taking a weekend off rugby to recover from a shoulder operation, Ed dove into a swimming pool that turned out to be much shallower than he anticipated.
He hit his head on the floor so hard that he dislocated his neck and the disc between two vertebrae exploded, cutting his spinal cord in half. After being rescued from the pool and resuscitated three times on his way to hospital, he underwent a seven-hour operation to re-align his neck and remove the pieces of shattered disc from his spinal cord.
The next day, Ed woke up in intensive care completely paralysed. Six days passed, and with no returning movement and sensation, Ed was not surprised when he was diagnosed with quadriplegia.
Recalling the moment he learned of his paralysis, the 32-year-old told UNILAD: ‘It’s difficult to describe a moment like that, it sort of doesn’t feel real, as if there’s no way this could actually be happening but then you get hit with the reality of it every time you wake up or try and move.’
The former rugby player was told he would never walk again, and it was only then, when his independence was ‘on the line’, that he realised he had ‘never come close’ to his physical and mental limits while playing rugby.
Ed was determined to regain his movement, though at first all he could do was stare at his toes, ‘willing them to move, imagining the feeling and trying over and over again’ until he passed out from exhaustion. He was close to losing hope after a few days when he suddenly managed a ‘flicker’ in his toes, a ‘sign that all was not lost’.
Over the following year Ed underwent extensive surgeries and rehabilitation, and with ‘amazing support from medical professionals, friends and family’, his body started ‘coming back’. He left hospital in a wheelchair four months after his accident with a goal of ‘one day walking again’, but with no idea that he would go on to run a charity and plan a trip to climb Mont Blanc.
Throughout his recovery, Ed told UNILAD there were times he went to ‘very dark places’ in his mind. Though he described himself as a ‘generally positive person’, he explained that most of his mental health struggles ‘stemmed from the uncertainty of what my life now meant, concerned I’d be a burden on people for the rest of my life and if I could ever find purpose again’.
Over time, walking, getting outdoors and taking on challenges helped Ed ‘test and stress [his] neurology into continuing improvement’, as well as putting him in a ‘better headspace’. He decided to set himself a big challenge – climbing Mount Snowdon – and achieved his goal just one year after being told he would never walk again, and only three months after getting out of his wheelchair.
The 32-year-old explained: ‘As I was out in nature and by achieving things through the challenges that were previously not thought possible, I felt like I had the ability to write my own future.’
Along with his wife Lois Jackson and former England Rugby international player Olly Barkley, Ed set up Millimetres 2 Mountains, an organisation that helps individuals redefine what they believe to be their limits in order to strive for a brighter future.
Four years on from his accident, Ed is classified as an ”incomplete quadriplegic’ with brown squared syndrome’. He has poor motor function and normal sensation on his left side, and good function but poor sensation on his right, as well as numerous other underlying health implications of a spinal cord injury.
Though he struggles with many day-to-day issues, the 32-year-old knows he is ‘very fortunate’ to have come as far as he has, and since founding Millimetres 2 Mountains Ed has gone on to climb and run trips in the Alps, Nepal and the UK, benefitting more than 150 participants and beneficiaries.
Discussing the organisation and its goals, Ed said:
The challenges that I have faced in the mountains have had a profound impact on my recovery both physically and mentally. However, I have also witnessed the effect that these trips have had on others.
People arrive tentative, often not knowing each other or what to expect, they then leave only a matter of days later rejuvenated and inspired…
[The aim is] to create a positive change for those that are struggling to rebuild their lives after facing adversity. We take them on an adventure which acts as the catalyst and then enter them into our development programme where we fund things such as life coaching, re-training and therapy to help secure that change.
As well as setting up the inspiring organisation, the former rugby player has detailed his accident and recovery in a book titled Lucky; a project he took on after people pointed out how ‘helpful [his] recovery could be to others’.
Ed noted that he didn’t want Lucky to be a self-help book because he ‘didn’t want it to come across preachy’, so instead he tells the ‘human story’ behind his realisations in the wake of the accident, with the hope that readers will enjoy some ‘funny moments’ as well as ‘tangible, practical takeaways’.
Despite having already defied medical opinion by walking again and achieving so much in the last four years, Ed is still striving to reach new heights. Through Millimetres 2 Mountains, he is hoping to continue to grow the number of beneficiaries the organisation helps and the depth of care it offers, fund projects such as a spinal unit in Kathmandu, and continue to promote the mental health benefits of the outdoors.
On top of all that, Ed is also planning his next big mission in the form of a trip to Mont Blanc – a mountain he’d previously been told he’d never be able to climb as a recovering quadriplegic. He is taking on the venture with support from Berghaus, Britain’s biggest outdoor brand, and fellow climber Leo Houlding.
Climbing Mont Blanc is a massive thing for me. I’ve been going to the Alps to climb different mountains over the past few years, and Mont Blanc has always been there looking at me.
I never considered I might be in a position to actually climb it! And I still don’t know if I am. But I do know that no quadriplegic has done it before, and I know that if I put my mind to something, I’ll try my darned hardest to achieve it.
Having said that, with this sort of challenge, my physical limitations make it incredibly difficult, but Leo very kindly put his hand up and said, ‘I’ll get you up there’.
Ed will be assisted in his climb with specialised equipment made by Berghaus, including a jacket with a multitude of waterproof ventilation zips to help him regulate his temperature, as well as trousers with easy access zips to make it easier for him to use the bathroom, and a hook around the knee he can use to help manoeuvre his left leg while climbing.
Taking into account his ‘assiduous’ training, specialised equipment, his partnership with Leo and guidance from Adrian Nelhams, one of the best mountain guides, Ed believes he is as ready as he can be to take on Mont Blanc, saying: ‘The rest is up to fate.’
Physically, the challenge will be his ‘most ambitious yet’, and Ed has said he’ll have to ‘wait and see’ whether his body can put up with it, but he’s determined to leave ‘no stone unturned to try to reach the summit’.
Even before the team sets off, though, Ed has noted the idea of being able to attempt Mont Blanc ‘means everything’ to him. He explained that he has ‘so many people to thank’ for being able to be in such a position, doing things he ‘wouldn’t have conceived of doing, even when [he] was able bodied’.
And even though I’m even nowhere as fit as I was when I was able bodied, I’m much more resilient. It’s just taught me about having confidence in yourself, pushing yourself and taking risks, not being scared of failure.
It’s amazing what you can achieve with a bit of confidence. Just not being scared of the outcome, following your gut and your heart. By taking a leap of faith, it’s amazing where you end up.
I’m constantly reminded of how lucky I am to be here. Through Millimetres 2 Mountains, we work with so many inspiring people who struggle with mental health issues and/or disabilities, and it puts my own situation in context. I’m very lucky and I’ll never forget that.
Ed has found that in facing the fact his life might be over following his accident, he was prompted to ‘question what’s important, what you really care about and what you would miss’.
Through doing this, he realised what he had been taking for granted and now understands the importance of doing things that make him happy, explaining: ‘At the end that’s all we have, a series of memories and I won’t remember another day at home or in the office, I’ll more likely remember being stood on mountains and helping others along the way.’
Ed and Leo are set to embark upon their Mont Blanc challenge on September 16, with the former rugby player hoping to prove that ‘you can achieve way more than you think’, and that there are no limits to how much you can do when you set your mind to it.
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