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


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.

Flown home
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.

I started getting into a routine over the summer. One big milestone was being able to transfer in and out of bed with assistance and another was being able to transfer into the front seat of the car with help. That was great because it meant I could go off for the day with my friends.

A lot of people said I was mad to consider going back to college just over a year after the accident as it would be too difficult but I was determined to give it a try and my family were fully behind me.

I started back in September and it has been brilliant. If I was at home, I think I would be going mad, I wouldn’t be able to handle it. I am in the thick of it everyday.

Support services
My friends are around me all the time and I have access to so many support services here. I can go to the gym every day and go out and about to different events with my friends.

My adapted apartment on campus is like a train station. I feel some sort of sense of normality again. It is definitely the best place for me at the moment and Trinity has been hugely supportive. I have to admit studying has not been a high priority this term, there has been a huge amount going on and I have been knackered all the time but I have made all my lectures.

Fundraising support
Without fundraising support, I would not be here. I have an assistant with me most of the time to help me get up in the morning, get to lectures and complete assignments, and so on.

I was really shocked to find that although the Government support people with injuries like mine through primary and secondary school, they provide no financial support for third-level education.

I had some funding from the HSE for an assistant at home, some of which has carried over to college and the rest is being paid for privately and through a grant for which Trinity applied. However, there are a lot of other costs involved that the State do not provide for which I think is shocking.

Many people have told me I have exceeded expectations for the severity of injury I have suffered and I intend to continue to exceed expectations until I regain as much independence as I can and walk away from this situation. I am trying hard to keep my body in the best possible condition and to be as independent as I can with the function I have so that I will be in a position to avail of the cure when it comes along.

There is no cure at the moment but there is a huge amount of research going on around the world and I am really confident that there will be a breakthrough in my lifetime.

In conversation with

The Jack Kavanagh Trust has been set up to help Jack to continue to make progress. See