SPORTS, FITNESS & DANCE

Living Extraordinarily Normaly: How A Corner Changed My Life

Amputee

Dan Richards

The first Day of the rest of my life: Becoming An Amputee

The 31st May 2009 sits as one of the most fundamentally life-changing experiences of my life! Shortly after returning from Afghanistan I was involved in a Motorcycle RTA.

The day before I had been involved in a major review of The Queens Birthday Parade, I had managed to get the final two tickets for my father and Grandmother, this was the only time any of my family had seen me ride on parade. 

May 31st was like any other Sunday working routine, I had finished my duty at 1300 and handed over the Guardroom to the oncoming guard, I noticed the dining hall was closed for the afternoon and so realised I had missed lunch. 

I decided to go out on my bike to grab something to eat at The Ace Cafe and have a ride out with some mates before returning back to my barracks at St. Johns Wood, London.
On the way back, however, a series of events unfolded which to this day, I still have no memory of.

I was travelling along a dual carriageway (A41 South Bound, The Hendon Way) in the outside lane going around a long bend; I knew there was a blind slip road joining and traffic lights shortly afterwards, It was one of my favourites corners having been around it hundreds of times before but, something happened (which I will never know) whilst going around the bend, I slammed my breaks on so hard that the back wheel came up in the air and the bike threw me into the central reservation at around 50mph.

I was woken up two days later in hospital, where the doctor informed me of what had happened and also of my entire injury load; Two broken ankles, a severe left arm compound fracture and the amputation of my entire right arm and shoulder. I had hit the barrier that hard I had torn the stitching open on my leathers but the jacket was still zipped up, my body hit the barrier with so much force it bent the fencing barrier outward which, considering this was made of steel gives a rough idea of the forces involved.

I hit the barrier where two fencing panels joined in the middle, shoulder first, this in itself ripped my arm and shoulder from my body I landed in the road essentially on my heels which broke both my ankles (Bi Lateral Talus Fractures) landing on my left arm snapping both the Radius and Ulna in about 3 or four places, this almost resulted in the loss of my left arm. 

The shocker really came when the doctor informed me that after an initial 6 hours of surgery we were unable to save your right arm.... and shoulder! I don't remember much from the hospital (being heavily sedated and topped up with morphine does that I guess) but one thing I do remember quite vividly, in fact, was looking over to my right and where my shoulder should have been but was only a white hospital pillow; This is the only time I've ever been upset about my situation. The second thing I remember is the following, I asked probably what any other 23-year-old man would ask; 

"Is the plumbing still there and working?" 

This got a few laughs and at the answer of "yes that's fine,"  I responded with a resounding "well, nothing else matters then."  I guess it's true what they say when the chips are down a British Squaddie always seems to find humour in the bleakest of situations!

Not only did it lighten the mood, it got a few laughs but I had just accepted what had happened to me and that this is my new life.

Everything was looking good

I spent two months in the hospital (1 month in The Royal London, Whitechapel and another at The Great Western Hospital, Swindon). I began my rehabilitation at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headily Court , It was during my time here that I started goal setting, they were only small goals, thing's that I could achieve like "today I'm going to feed myself" or "Today I'm going to write my name", being right hand dominant I was going to have to learn everything left handed (I'd never used my left hand for anything before other than clapping!!) but more importantly, above anything else I just wanted my independence back.

Little did I know, at the time, of how goal setting would profound effect on my later life. Needless to say, I can not only tie a tie and it's various knots but also, tie my own shoelaces, chop food and various other tasks that I took and still take for granted and cooking is one of my hobbies.

I returned to my regiment for 3 more years before being Medically Discharged in March 2012 It was during those 3 years I started to set myself challenges more so in a bid to prove people wrong.  

Being in a mounted regiment of horses I decided I should learn to re-ride a horse although not on parade I did, however, become first amputee rider in the history my regiment (not really a title to be proud of granted!) which probably put the Training Staff through their paces.
I then went off to Spain and learned to rock climb becoming the lead climber at one point.

As far as I was concerned I was really making progress and proving a lot of people wrong in the process.

What did i have to look forward to?

The 28th September 2012 marked my final day as a soldier with H.M Armed Forces, which was strange since I had spent 10 years in a career that from the age of 8 years old all I wanted to do was be a soldier just like dad. My aspirations of becoming a farrier were now never going to happen, A friend of mine invited me into the forge to try and make a basic hoof pick, I physically couldn't do it!

I had no idea of what I was going to do, what I wanted to do, what I was good at or even who would employ me (evidently, it turned out, nobody to start with)

I had spent the six months between my medical discharge board and my final day in the military doing as much as humanly possible to better myself doing course after course to bump up my CV to better my chances and to essentially hit the ground running to get a job out in "Civi Street". 

October 2012 - November 2013 will always be the worst year of my life even more so than the loss my arm and my shoulder. That year became 327 job applications of which, not one led to an interview running parallel with this I was living on my savings by April 2013 I had 15 pence to my name, coupled with sheer boredom and the disheartening replies of "you don't have the skills or experience we require" I was reclusing I honestly felt life really had no purpose whatsoever and I genuinely thought so. 

One morning after mum had gone to work, I got out of the shower and caught a glimps of my face in the mirror, it was a gaunt withdrawn reflection, a shadow of my former self the happy go lucky, always laughing ball of moral was gone, the spark had finally been blown out I asked myself; 

"Honestly, what have I really got to look forward to? I've got no job, I've got no money, I'm 27 years old and I still live at home with my parents, If this is what life is like after the army to be quite frank, I don't really want to be part of it, I've been through enough".

I walked into my parent's room and I took the belt from my mum's bathrobe, I went back to my room shut the door and tied one end around the headboard of my bed and the other around my neck. This is it I thought, this is what happens when you've got nothing left to give, or that nobody wants not even to give even a basic job too, I've got no purpose anymore. 

I got so far into "doing it" I remember the belt getting tighter I could feel my eyeballs straining from the pressure then the horrible thought of my mum finding me dead stopped me. I couldn't do this to my mum let alone my family or friends. I'm not proud of this at all, and I still think it's pretty selfish of me to have even tried. 

I finally asked for help.

Rebuilding my life

Finally a chance,

In November 2013 I began to build myself back up, I moved into a friend's spare room in Wokingham as I was offered a job with a new startup chauffeur company; Capstar Chauffeurs, where I stayed for 3 years. It was during this time I set some bigger goals I decided that I wanted to take this new chauffeuring venture as far as I could, professionally, In 2015 I was nominated and awarded the Chauffeuring Industry's highest accolade of Gold Professional Driver of The Year 2015, after only 2 years I might add. I'd also learned to fly a plane, not to content with just flying one I thought, "well wing walking looks like good fun, I'll give that a go so, I went Wing Walking with Breitling.

In 2014 I had qualified as a PADI Open Water Diver coming forward to 2016 I learned to Ski and had cycled across 350 miles of Northern France having cycled the 100km route London's Night Rider the night before (completely my fault, whoops)

However, my greatest achievement although unsuccessful, I spent all of 2015 training to be selected for the world's first all disabled 4 man crew to row across the Atlantic Ocean with the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge. I made it to the final five, doing my final selection with 3 of the final selected crew. The reason I say my greatest achievement; and this is a question I'm asked a lot, is against all the odds and naysayers (of which there was plenty) I never gave up, not once did I think about it either, not through the blisters, the aching joints and early mornings and tiredness either, the negativity of people is what drove me on (and still does today) plus, nobody with my "disability" has ever even attempted this (at the time).

This in itself taught me a valuable lesson; whatever you want in life, you must work hard for it even if you don't get it you can still hold your head high and say, well at least I didn't give up and whilst there is no shame in giving up, there is no success in it either.

I was then asked to become an Ambassador for a large military charity, a charity which has been with me from the beginning of this journey in which I give my story and enhance the charities brand, I suppose you could call it a volunteer brand ambassador. 

I shortly moved into my own flat in South London where I currently live now.

Looking forward to the future

So what now?

Well, towards the end of 2016 I was offered an opportunity of a Project Management Internship with Vodafone through one of the military charities I'm involved with. I enjoyed it that much that in January 2017 I left my chauffeuring job and began a career in Project Management.
I also discovered a love of cycling and fitness; since complications from my injuries (left fused ankle) mean that I can no longer run.

I currently have my goals set on the 2018 Invictus Games and I'm hoping to get classified with British Para-Cycling and hopefully compete on a professional platform and dare I say, become a Paralympian. You'll usually find me training at Richmond Park!

So what have I learned from this? Well, there isn't one thing I've learned in particular, however, I read a few years back when I was initially injured sat in the hospital that really sums up everything; Life is like a game of poker. I kind've adapted it and put my own spin on it;

"Life is like a game of poker, It's not how you play the game, but how you play the hand you've been dealt."

My life is a long way from where I want it to be but I can honestly say looking back on my journey's entirety, I am genuinely happy with life. 

I was recently signed to a specialist modelling agency, which is something I never thought would happen in my wildest dreams, life is far too short to say no to an opportunity, even if you can't do it, just say yes and learn how to later, you'll never know where it'll lead. 

I'm grateful to so many people who have been with me through all this, I really haven't done any of this on my own.

But I'll end my story with the wise words of Les Brown but If you're going through a hard time keep going, the voice in your head saying you can't do it is a liar. and to all those who, like me, are living with a disability... We're not disabled, we are Differently-Abled.
 
"Somebody's opinion of you does not have to become your reality, you are better than your circumstances"
- Les Brown

I owe a debt of gratitude to:

My Family
My Friends
The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery
HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service)
Eoin Walker
The Royal London Hospital
The Great Western Hospital, Swindon
Blesma
Help for Heroes
Skiing With Heroes/ Supporting Wounded Veterans
Deptherapy
The Veterans Charity
Vodafone

Thanks for reading

Dan

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