My Health Experience: ‘I intend to walk away from this situation some day’
Despite suffering a broken neck, this Trinity student is planning an independent life
Jack Kavanagh in Trinity College Dublin where he is studying pharmacy. Photographs: Dara Mac Dónaill
My name is Jack Kavanagh. I’m 21, a pharmacy student, a windsurfing fanatic, a fluent Irish speaker, and a bit of a talker. Having spent the summer of 2012 working as a windsurfing instructor and lifeguard in Uisce, the Irish language water sports centre in Belmullet, Co Mayo, myself and eight friends travelled to Portugal for a week’s holiday.
On the first day of our holiday, August 31st, 2012, I ran down to the sea for one final swim after a long afternoon on the beach and dived into an oncoming wave. In that moment my life changed – I broke my neck.
As I dived, I remember feeling my arms being ripped back and my head hitting the sand sharply. My whole body went limp and I floated to the surface but I was face down in the water. I knew I was in serious trouble but my water sports training helped me to stay calm. The waves washed me into shallow water but I couldn’t move and was close to blackout.
At that point, one of my friends put his hands under my arms and lifted my head out of the water. He thought I was messing but I told him “I can’t move anything, I think I’ve broken my neck.”
He rolled me over and called the lads who brought me onto the beach. They called the lifeguards and the ambulance and in the drama that ensued, I was airlifted to Lisbon where I spent two weeks in intensive care.
When I woke up the following day, my body was in traction, my head in a kind of Frankenstein cage with weights hanging off it to straighten out my spine. I was on a respirator because I could not breathe, I couldn’t speak and I was being fed through a tube. I was completely helpless but I was on so much medication for pain that I was not really aware of what was happening. My parents and the lads were there and I was happy to see familiar faces around me.
I had sustained a C5 injury, which refers to the vertebrae where the spinal damage occurred. It means that I have no feeling below my upper chest and have limited use of my arms and wrists.
Still on a respirator, I was then flown home by air ambulance. I spent four weeks in the Mater Hospital Spinal Unit, where I managed to relearn to breathe unaided. From there, I was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital where I began occupational therapy and physio.
I was absolutely determined to build up as much strength as I could in the muscles I had left while I was there. I had to learn to balance with my head and arms which was a real challenge. By the time I left rehab, I had been nine months away from home. I could push my chair a tiny bit but was not really in any way independent at all.
My parents had the house adapted and an extension put on for me and they and I had PAs (personal assistants) coming in every day to help with my care needs. The first couple of weeks were a whirlwind of appointments and people calling in.