“In a single moment my identity had been stripped from me. I was no longer a big rugby player, I was literally a head on a pillow. However, the one thing that no one could take from me was my family and my friends. What this experience has taught me more than anything is just how much you should value that network. They are your only true constant in life”
For Ed Jackson, the professional rugby player, Saturday 8th April was due to be a relatively nondescript day; a weekend away from the pitch spent enjoying some unseasonably balmy weather with a barbeque at a friend’s. As it transpired it was a day that would permanently alter the life script of Ed, and his fiancé Lois, as he dove into the shallow end of a swimming pool, shattering a disc in his back and leaving him paralysed from the shoulders down.
With his doctors not wishing to steal away hope - Ed’s one true lifeline - they didn’t tell him the initial prognosis: that it was unlikely he would be able to move his arms again, let alone walk.
His remarkable recovery since owes a great deal to fortune but of equal importance has been Ed’s unwavering positivity and perseverance coupled with a network of friends, family and medical professionals who have laughed, cried and celebrated every stride, both literal and metaphorical, that Ed has taken.
What do you remember of that day, if anything at all?
It is rare to remember it in cases like this but I do.
It was a hot day so my Dad, a friend and I decided to go for a swim. It was a pool I did not know with a waterfall at one end. I must have subconsciously thought that was the deep end and dived in. It was however only three feet deep meaning I smacked my head straight on the bottom of the pool.
I remember thinking ‘that was a big collision’ but given I regularly take head knocks as part of my day job, I didn’t think too much of it. However, as I tried to stand up I realised something was wrong. Confusion soon turned to panic as I couldn’t get to the surface. The initial fear was not about not being able to move my legs but more about drowning.
Thankfully, my Dad, who is a doctor, recognised I was in trouble and knew immediately the importance of not moving my head, floating me to the edge of the pool. 25% of spinal and neck injuries are significantly worsened after the incident, so I was hugely fortunate to have my Dad with me.
What was the initial outlook and what progress have you made since?
When I woke up in intensive care, for the first few days, I had no movement or sensation from the shoulders down which was seriously frightening. I have since seen my medical notes which said that there was a ‘good chance’ I would never walk or even move my arms again. Thankfully they didn’t tell me that at the time as it would have destroyed my hope. After four or five days of staring at my feet and trying to wiggle them, eventually one of them moved! Since then we’ve been throwing everything at it.
I saw recently a photo you took of a Fleetwood Mac album cover just minutes before the incident, a photo which I believe subconsciously turned you into a mega fan?
Yes! I’ve always liked their music but not overly. Yet when I woke in intensive care I had an obsession with Fleetwood Mac. An obsession I couldn’t explain until I found that photo, taken just minutes before the accident. Andy and Sue, whose pool it was, decided to book me tickets to see them in New York. At the time I hadn’t even moved my feet yet, however the gig, which was in 14 weeks, became a vital goal for me. Amazingly, against all medical advice, I discharged myself early from hospital and made it in a wheelchair to Fleetwood Mac in New York. It was epic!
Was it difficult not to look back at that photo and wonder ‘what if’? What if my phone had gone, the BBQ was ready, or someone had wanted to kick a football instead of going swimming?
I would be lying if I said I never thought that. In hospital I had friends and family with me all day but at night you’re left to your own thoughts and those demons do creep in. However, pretty early on, with my chances of recovery being so unknown, I decided that dwelling on the past or thinking too much about the future was not healthy and chose instead to focus on the present. Taking it day-by-day and eventually step-by-step. Controlling what I could control.
I don’t dwell. I don’t impart any blame. Good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people. It is part of life. You just have to deal with that comes your way.
Visiting my cousin in Hedley Court as he was battling to recover from life-changing injuries incurred in Afghanistan, I was struck by the extraordinary positivity of each and every soldier I met. However, for a soldier they go to war knowing the price they might pay. Although you can of course be significantly injured in rugby, I suspect you never contemplated this happening to you. How did you find the mental side of recovery and how has that changed with time?
I think it is about perspective. The guys in the forces know friends who haven’t come home so have that as a point of perspective. Although not on that scale, the same was true for me. When I was moved to the spinal unit in Salisbury I went from feeling sorry for myself to being humbled by people with far worse injuries than me, people without friends or family by their bed side and I started to realise just how lucky I was. My perspective on life has changed completely. That is the one gift this incident has given me. All those things I took for granted in my life; my friends, family, even being able to feed myself or breath for myself, I started to appreciate properly.
I also saw people with debilitating illnesses, ones that were getting worse day-by-day and they were powerless to stop it, yet they remained unfailingly positive. I thought to myself; ‘that is the example, if they can do it, I have absolutely no excuse not to be positive’.
You’ve spoken about how re-assuring it was when your friends started giving you some stick again, which I believe was pretty much immediately. I read that one of them, knowing of course you were paralysed from the shoulders down, gave you some juggling balls! What have you learnt about your friends, and the importance of your friendship network?
Yes, that is true!
My identity had been stripped from me. I was no longer a big rugby player, I was literally a head on a pillow. However, the one thing that no one could take from me was my friends and my family. As a group, as a support network, they were there every day.
This is what I would tell my 21-year-old self; you put too much emphasis on the things that don’t really matter in life. The fact you’re a rugby player, you wear a tracksuit, you have a smart car, none of that really matters because it is all going to end one day. What doesn’t end, if you value them as they deserve, are your relationships.
Through your admirably open, honest and humorous blog you have documented your road to recovery. What was the thinking behind starting the blog?
It was a friend who convinced me, while I was still in hospital. I started it thinking it could be a platform to help others but conversely it became the most important tool in giving me the strength to get through that time. The reason being that it connected me with others who had been through what I was going through. It is wonderful your friends and family telling you, ‘you’re going to be okay’ but it is hard to accept that unless it comes from someone who has faced and conquered what I was.
I’ve seen that you and your fiancé Lois have recently moved into a new house together and I believe are getting married this year.
Yes, we moved recently. However, I took on less of the heavy lifting this time! More of the cup of tea in hand and giving out the orders. I loved it!
We had got engaged just before the accident and were due to get married in Italy. The date got pushed back indefinitely, however eight weeks later I was standing and we said, ‘let’s just go for it’. Incredibly kindly the venue had saved the dates for us just in case, so the show goes on!
Although all relationships endure highs and lows, part of the rollercoaster of life, few have to face up to such a life changing incident as yours. Can you tell us a bit about how this has impacted your relationship and how important Lois has been in your recovery?
Amazingly it hasn’t changed things that much. We’ve been on a really positive trajectory because of the recovery, so that has always been the focus. From day one, my priority was always to get my independence back. At the time, if you’d offered me only the use of my arms to operate a wheelchair I would have taken it. I felt guilty enough seeing the emotional impact it had on Lois, and my Mum, in particular, I would never have been able to forgive myself if they had to spend the rest of their lives caring for me. Thankfully, those fears have not been realised.
On Easter Day, less than a year after the accident, you are attempting to summit Mount Snowdon. Where did that idea come from, what is the purpose and how are preparations going?
Like with the initial goal of the concert in New York, having those targets are so important. This challenge, which will raise money for Restart Rugby a charity which supports seriously injured and ill rugby players and did so much for me, was conjured up in November when I hadn’t even walked a mile. It remains ‘medically inadvisable’ as I still haven’t covered even half the distance I need to. However, my physios know they need to come with me because I’ll be going come rain or shine! There should be about 50 of us there on the day, and it remains very much open to the public so anyone who wants to join us is hugely welcome.
Plans for Ed beyond the summit…
The fact that I can be useful, whether it is via my blog, more challenges like this, speaking with people who are facing a similar challenge, that means a lot. For so long, as I lay in that hospital bed, I felt useless. As a proud man, that was difficult to take. So, to now be able to make a difference, even if it is to just one person’s life, makes me feel like my battle was not completely in vain. Psychologically, that is so important to me.
To support Ed in his challenge, share his story or even join him on the day, here is what you need:
· JustGiving: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/edjackson8
· Blog: https://edjackson8.com/
· Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/edjackson8/
· Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/edjackson8
Words by Simon Lamb. The Iris Letter March 2018.