A daily dip aids body and mind, says Cork dad who was left paralysed after road accident

Left paralysed after a road accident five years ago, Ray Murnane cherishes his daily dip in the sea off West Cork. He tells CHRIS DUNNE how he has special permission to keep doing it during lockdown, and why swimming is so important to him
A daily dip aids body and mind, says Cork dad who was left paralysed after road accident

FITNESS REGIME: Wheelchair swimmer Ray Murnane says: “I’m not right for the day if I don’t have a dip”

WHEN Ray Murnane was confined to hospital after a road accident in 2015 that would leave him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, he dreamed of getting back in the water.

“I always had it in my head, I’m getting into that water if it’s the last thing I do,” recalls Ray aged 49, who, with wife Dee has two daughters, Katie Marie, aged 22, and Hannah, aged 20.

Two years after the motorbike accident that left Ray paralysed from under the chest down, with the support of his friends, family and the community, he took the plunge off Snave Pier in Ballylickey, on the other side of Bantry from his home in Letterlickey.

Ray has been a regular visitor ever since — and has special permission from the gardaí during the lock-down to take his daily dip in the bay 12km away.

“This is what I do,” says Ray of his swimming. “It is part of my ritual. It is how I maintain myself. I can be myself in the water.”

“I can’t walk, but I can swim,” adds Ray. “Nothing would stop me from swimming. I’m not right for the day if I don’t have a dip.”

Ray was relieved to be be allowed to continue his exercise regime.

When the full lockdown was put in place I contacted the gardaí in Bantry to explain my situation because of being more than 2km from Snave,” he explains.

“To give them credit, they showed great understanding regarding my situation and gave me the go ahead to continue, all they asked was I observe social distance rules. It shows trust on their behalf at local level and I am very grateful to them, especially in such isolating times.”

For Ray, swimming is a family affair. 

“I have no business sitting in the car watching Dee and the others swimming. None of us are world champions. We doodle around and enjoy a coffee together after our swim. It helps us unwind.

“I was always a swimmer. The swimming group are all really looking forward to meeting up again. Many of us met first in 1999 when our kids were going to the Gaelscoil.”

Ray, whose therapy includes swimming to support his lymphatic system, adds: “The physiotherapy I received in Cork was fantastic.

“The fund-raising efforts of everybody in the community who helped get my house adapted to be wheel-chair friendly was tremendous.

“Strangers were coming to the door. The goodwill and well-wishes was wonderful. When I couldn’t stand up, others stood up for me.”

Ray’s life as he knew it was upended on September 16, 2015. While travelling from his home in UCC, where he was attending the second week of his Masters in Social Science, he was involved in a motor-bike accident.

The impact caused a serious spinal injury, trauma to his chest and lungs and also extensive facial injuries.

“I have no recollection of the accident or no memory from two weeks before it,” says Ray.

“Dr Jason van der Velde came on the scene of the accident within minutes and he accompanied me to CUH.”

Ray adds: “It’s funny. I remember putting a donation in a jar one day in Ballinscarthy for the Rapid Response team, not really knowing what they were about. I think it was the best €20 I ever spent!

“Eight months after that, Dr Jason was the first person to me.”

After seven days in a critical condition, Ray was transferred to the Mater Hospital in Dublin for spinal surgery. A week later, he had extensive surgery to repair multiple facial and jaw fractures. He was in intensive care and on a ventilator for four weeks before being moved to a high-dependency unit in CUH.

The surgeons had indicated Ray would not walk again.

As well as his dedicated family, friends, and medial team, he had other welcome visitors.

“The Head of the Social Science Department at UCC and some of my lecturers presented me with my degree in Social Science,” says Ray, who was moved to a ward and began physiotherapy.

Ray moved on.

“In January, 2016, I began a three-month rehabilitation in the NRH in Dun Laoghaire,” he says.

The doctors had told Ray he would be in a wheelchair for life. What was he thinking, lying on the flat of his back?

“I didn’t want to admit I was crippled, but I was,” says Ray. “I had no control over my bowl or bladder. I had slight movement in my right leg, but none in my left leg.”

Did he realise that he was paralysed?

“When I woke up after being in an induced coma,I knew. I couldn’t feel my legs, only a sensation in the soles of my feet.

“I had to re-think things and re-organise things in my head. Before the accident I had a nice life. I was fit and healthy. That stood to me after the accident.”

The sensation of being alive sustained Ray.

“I was so unwell; I felt lucky to be alive,” he recalls. “I was lucky to come through.”

Ray was also fortunate to survive pericarditis, a non-related situation where the tissues around the heart become inflamed. He was hospitalised for seven months.

“I had open heart surgery to relieve the fluid around my heart,” says Ray.

He was lucky to meet wonderful people during his rehabilitation in NRH Dun Loaghaire.

“The care assistants at the NRH are amazing. “They have an ability to laugh at your brokenness. The carers showed me how to laugh, how to smile, how to love again.

“The inter-action was great. The mental health team helped me so much. Those guys put the human back in me.

“They are beyond decent. I never laughed so hard there. I’m still in touch with them.”

He met people who were in the same boat too.

“You’re with your own kind,” says Ray.

“You get the opportunity to see how they struggle and cope.”

He had a special relationship with his carers.

“You are totally exposed,” says Ray. “Exposed from the waist down, you are at zero. Your dignity, your sexuality is exposed. You learn to re-build yourself.”

Ray lost his mother when she was very young. 

“My mother sadly died at 33,” he says. “She was a wonderful woman who loved fostering children. She had a happy life with lots of love in it.

“She was a do-er, always standing up for the little person.”

Ray, with the resilience of his late mother, got his mojo back after his setbacks.

“I learned how to change tack,” he explains, “to think outside the box.”

He got on his feet, using made- to-measure callipers and he took to the road on his hand-bike.

“Everything is at a different level when you are in wheelchair,” says Ray.

“Your perspective changes. You are socially different; not on a level playing field anymore. Our society is not geared up to be wheelchair friendly; for people in my condition. I think there is a lack of consciousness about these things.”

In the water, expanding his limits, Ray has a different, positive perspective.

“In the water, all that changes,” he says. “Being in the water helps me to appreciate what I have.

“There is lots of stuff I don’t have, but getting into the water allows me to let everything go. It takes the strain out of your body, your mind, your head. It clears everything out.”

Thanks to a €40,000 investment by Cork County Council for an improved slipway and new hand-rail at Snave Pier, following the persistent urgings of the Ballylickey Residents Association, Ray now has easier access to swim off the pier.

“It is like night and day,” he says.

Ray stretches out in the water.

“I feel the weightlessness. All of my body moves in a way it doesn’t normally get to move. It’s relaxing and floating.”

This brave Corkman says in these testing times people in isolation shouldn’t worry about asking for help.

“You don’t have to be on your own. When my house was renovated, people from all over Munster raised €70,000-80,000 to get the work done. All I did was show up. It was amazing.”

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