Life after a cycling accident: ‘My world changed in a heartbeat’

Geraldine Lavelle lives in a care home after being paralysed in a collision in 2013

Geraldine Lavelle uses a hand-cycle to keep fit at IT Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

Geraldine Lavelle uses a hand-cycle to keep fit at IT Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

 

Geraldine Lavelle’s life changed “in a heartbeat”. That was in October 2013 when she was left paralysed from the chest down following a collision with a lorry.

The Sligo native had become accustomed to enjoying an early-morning cycle before work, until the accident cycling on the Longford-Mullingar road changed life for the then 27-year-old.

The collision left Ms Lavelle, a graduate of NUI Galway where she gained a first-class master’s degree in neuroscience, with spinal fractures and paralysed from the chest down.

“I was a keen cyclist, I cycled 25-30km Monday to Friday before work and I was only getting into it when the accident occurred. I had done one 60km race and one 100km race before the accident,” Ms Lavelle said.

Despite the accident, the now 31-year-old, who works at Sligo IT, says she tries to remain positive rather than focus on what could have been.

“My life has changed since the accident. Every day is a hurdle but it’s one that I have to get through. I don’t like dwelling on the past too much. I am an extremely positive person and I like to focus on that and not what could have been.

“You could spend your whole life thinking about what if, and if only I’d been a few minutes late but that’s not healthy. I’m here and that’s the main thing,” she said.

Spinal cord fracture

She suffered a spinal cord fracture. “Mine was a fracture of my cervical bone in my neck, C6. It was quite a high break and the results life-altering – I’m quadriplegic,” said Ms Lavelle.

She had been living in Co Longford before the accident but since then has returned to living in her home town of Sligo, in a care support setting. Moving back was difficult because she had been away for over 10 years living independently.

“I live in a care facility here in Sligo and there are some really wonderful people around but I admit that I don’t like it. I was so used to living on my own and being very independent, so for me this was one of the most difficult aspects of how my life changed.

“It’s not the same as having your own apartment and, for a 31-year-old woman, I found that a number of people with different disabilities are bunched together and at times this can be a little difficult,” she added. Leaving the hospital can be a bit daunting too.

But she said that other cyclists facing into their first few months of recovery after an accident should not be afraid.

‘Shape of normality’

“Look, I’m not going to sugar coat it; it can be extremely difficult at times especially in the early days. I don’t want to scare people but this is the reality. My life changed in a heartbeat.

“I have got my life back which is the important message to put out here. My life is of course different but people can get their life back to some shape of normality.

“It might not be what it was before but you’re still here. I think it’s very scary to see that cyclists deaths have increased 100 per cent this year.”

Sometimes she gets upset thinking back to the day the accident happened but her message is simple. “Drivers: check your mirrors and be conscious of other users on the roads. After a life-changing accident like mine, you literally have to come out like an adult and learn every single thing you learned as a child.”

One thing she is keen to emphasise is the costs involved once patients begin their journey back into the real world, away from the hospital bed.

“My wheelchair cost me €6,000 and I spent a further €6,500 on a specialised battery pack which allows me more independence. The battery pack allows me to get out of the house on my own or down town.

“I do need assistance for certain things but, for the large part, I am independent and this is something that I hope will always continue.

“What happened was four years ago, and I really don’t like wasting energy on the ‘What ifs’ in life. My hopes for the future are to continue living the life I have now and would like to focus more on my blog,” said Ms Lavelle.

To learn more about Geraldine Lavelle’s experience, visit her blog: spinalcordinjury.ie/category/blog/