‘I hit the ground and I knew I would never walk again’
A cycling accident left sports mad Mark Nugent paralysed but he refused to let it stop him from pursuing his athletic goals
Mark Nugent with his wife Jacqui. Mark has completed five marathons.
Mark Nugent had always loved physical activity and lived for the next challenge before an accident in 2016 left him wheelchair-bound.
“My life before the accident consisted of playing every kind of sport,” says the Kildare man, who now lives in Dundalk. “From an early age, I was heavily involved in the GAA, playing first-team football at 16 and first-team hurling at 17. I won many underage medals and continued my success into the senior ranks. I also played golf and ran for the school sprint team. Then I took up cycling when I started picking up ‘old age’ knocks with the GAA. I completed my first Dublin marathon in 2013 and then turned my attention to a cycling challenge around Ireland in 2014 with a group of friends.”
Not long after that, the keen athlete, who is married to Jacqui, was involved in a cycling accident which would change his life forever.
“Jacqui and I were visiting her sister in Perth and on the way back we stopped over in Dubai and I proposed,” he says. “We set a date for the August bank holiday 2016 and early that year, with wedding plans in full swing, I was given the opportunity to compete in the adventure race called Coast to Coast – and that is when the accident occurred.
“It was Tuesday the 19th of April, 2016, in Maynooth when I hit the ground and I knew I would never walk again. I couldn’t move anything and couldn’t even feel the bike between my legs. A kind lady held my head and when the ambulance arrived, I was taken to hospital before being transferred to the Mater the following day for surgery.
Going into the operation room, the doctor asked me what my goal was and I told him it was to do my fifth marathon in a wheelchair
“Going into the operation room, the doctor asked me what my goal was and I told him it was to do my fifth marathon in a wheelchair. I remember him laughing and saying that most people just want to get through the operation.”
After the lengthy procedure, Nugent was transferred to the spinal injuries unit where he was told the devastating news that he only had a 5 per cent chance of ever walking again. “Doctors told Jacqui to forget about the wedding and honeymoon as we had a very long road ahead of us,” he says.
“We were very upset and found it really difficult to process. Due to complications, I spent 10 days in the high-dependency unit with drains on my lungs, attached to an oxygen system and being fed through the nose. I couldn’t swallow or taste anything and I had neuro damage, which was visible in my face.
“I moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in June, 2016 and my goal changed from getting better to getting independent. I had to learn how to dress myself, sit up and move. I had to learn how to stand in a standing frame without fainting and push a wheelchair. I even had to learn how to shave and take general care of myself. What people don’t realise when they see a person in a chair, it might not just be the inability to walk, it’s everything else that needs to be learned again. In my accident I didn’t just lose the use of my legs, I lost a lot more.”
When the original wedding weekend came around, the couple found it very tough and Nugent broke down for the first time when the reality of his situation hit home. “On the Friday, the day before the wedding, I was in the physio room at 2pm and Ronan the physiotherapist was doing his thing,” he recalls. “Another physio called Mark came in and asked if I had any plans for the weekend and I started to cry. I could see Ronan telling him to go away but it was too late as the tears were in full flow.
“Mark asked what was wrong and when Ronan told him, without a second thought, he fist-pumped me and said ‘the things people do to get out of a wedding these days’. I went from crying to laughing in the blink of an eye.
“On the day of the wedding, Jacqui and I decided to spend it on our own so we hired a wheelchair and went home for the first time. But news had got out that I was home and before long the place was full of visitors – it was a day I will never forget.”
Realising that his life would now need to change to accommodate a wheelchair, Mark and Jacqui had their home modified in order to help him navigate the world around him. It was hard, but he says the mental and physical support he received in hospital helped him to adapt.
“I had to learn to look after myself, move the wheelchair, get on and off the bed and dress myself, as well as learning how to wash and dry myself and go to the bathroom on my own,” says the 42-year-old. “I only had my arms but in the grand scheme of things I count myself very lucky to have what I have. When I left the NRH, I was equipped as well as I could be for life outside and those people who helped me deserve a lot more than my thanks. They deserve support from the top down. I think I’m a better person because of how the staff in both the Mater and NRH shaped me.
I made it to the church on time and finally married the love of my life in October 2017
“I returned to the Mater in May 2017 with a pressure sore on my hip which needed six operations and with the wedding rescheduled for October, the pressure was on. But I made it to the church on time and finally married the love of my life in October 2017 before 200 friends and family members on a weekend we will never forget. Jacqui looked as amazing as I knew she would and a week later we began life together in our adapted home in Dundalk.”
Despite the drastic turn his life had taken, Nugent, who works for Mondalez-Cadbury, refused to be beaten. And although he had lost the power in his legs, he vowed to continue his love of physical exercise. “Everyone at work has been so good to me and I couldn’t have asked for more,” he says. “All through the two years I was off sick, I was supported fully by this amazing company and I continue to be to this day. I have returned to work four days a week and I love it. It’s important to recognise that with a spinal injury you can get back to some kind of normality with a supportive workplace.
“I ran my first four marathons – the first was in Dublin in 2013, then my second, third and fourth in 2015 – in Cork, Berlin and Dublin. I was delighted to do three in one year and my best time was in Berlin at four hours and eight minutes. I was planning to do it again the following year and had a place in Berlin before my accident in April 2016.
‘Dream come true’
“But [instead of Berlin] I completed my fifth marathon [using a hand bike] in September 2018 and fulfilled the promise I made to the doctor on the operating table. When I came over the finishing line, I was very okay but had to stop about 1km before the finish to pull myself together as I had got very emotional. But it was a dream come true and we had a great time in Kilkenny that night.”
Having overcome so many hurdles, Nugent has registered to do the Berlin marathon later on this year and is also planning an extraordinary feat from one end of the country to the other.
“Later this year, 2019, I will go back to Berlin to do my sixth marathon and would love to do the Dublin Marathon again but they don’t allow hand bikes, which I find very difficult to understand,” he says. “It’s my home marathon and I just think it would complete the circle.
“But I am taking on the challenge of a lifetime later this month for Spinal injuries Ireland and Breast Cancer Ireland and all money raised will be split 50/50 between both charities. The event starts in Mizen on Sunday, May 26th, and I, along with 22 other normal cyclists, hope to complete the journey to Malin on June 1st [to make a donation, visit gofundme.com/marknugentm2m]. I’m being joined on this by one of my best friends, Mary Fitzgerald, who happens to be Jacqueline’s aunt by marriage – she is recovering from breast cancer and had not been on a bike for 35 years before January of this year.
“People talk about heroes and inspiring people; well Mary is one and has always been an amazing person. She and I will get from Mizen to Malin and prove that neither injury nor illness will ever stop someone from trying if they put their mind to it. Mary is my hero and I can’t wait to do this with her.”