I broke my neck — but my injury didn’t break me

Corkman Jim Clancy tells CHRIS DUNNE about an accident seven years ago which changed his life — and his charity sailing voyage in aid of Spinal Injuries Ireland
I broke my neck — but my injury didn’t break me
Jim Clancy. Picture: Donal O'Connell

JIM Clancy doesn’t remember much about the fall in the Dublin Hills that changed his life in June, 2012; but he does recall when he wanted to continue living.

“It was when I started to learn how to walk again,” says Jim, aged 46, who broke his neck in the terrible accident.

Now, after intensive rehabilitation, he can ramble in his beloved hills again — he uses a cane and is a little unsteady, but is back on his feet.

The first stage of his recovery meant he had to re-learn how to breathe.

“The horrible landing left me with an acute lesion in the spinal cord and creeping paralysis from the shoulders down. The pain was unbelievable,” Jim recalls

“When I was admitted to the Mater, I was coughing incessantly and coughing up lot of phlegm. I had to learn how to breathe again.”

He also had to learn how to adjust when he became conscious.

“I woke up in a cage-like structure. I was twirled around for movement. My hands were in a splint.”

Jim’s whole body was in shock, traumatised from the fall.

“My skin even stopped functioning properly, it didn’t exfoliate naturally. Years ago, it could be likened to having the consumption where you’d just waste away. Physiotherapy began with learning how to breathe effectively again.”

He had to take strength from within.

“I broke my neck. I didn’t let it break me. It was an ‘incomplete’ injury, so I had some sort of chance. I did not die.”

Almost seven years on, he is more like his old self. “I recently completed the 92km walk of Sheep’s Head again,” he says.

Jim is originally from Kilrush, Co Clare, but now lives in Kilcrohane, near Sheep’s Head. Not content relearning how to walk across mountains again or swimming in the sea — he intends to return to sailing as well.

“I can’t do it alone,” he says. “I’m inspired by the work of Spinal Injuries Ireland, so I’ve signed up as crew for the Lord Nelson Tall Ship in aid of Spinal Injuries Ireland.”

He will be leaving Cork Harbour for a five-day trip to Southampton on May 22 and admits: “It will be an enormous challenge.”

Enormous challenges are not new to Jim.

He says of his accident: “The condition is described by the American Spinal Injury Association as one occurring in the cervical region with sacral scarring and loss of power in the limbs, worse in the arms and legs.

“With me, none of the aforementioned appendages worked. They call it tetraplegia or, if you prefer, being quadriplegic. Paralysed from the neck down. Forever.”

It was a lot to comprehend for the young man who had everything going for him. Life was good; Jim had a good job in Dublin and a steady girlfriend. The pair had the love of walking in common and enjoyed rambling holidays at home and abroad.

“In 2011, I attempted walking across Europe,” says Jim. “I did my research before-hand and trained with a member of the American Special Forces. I was in good shape.”

Jim didn’t sweat the small stuff.

“I was going well until my heel split open. I thought I could carry on. The pain was unbelievable! And I was carrying 30km on my back. But I did complete 500km in freezing cold weather in January. The doctors insisted I return home.”

Jim, armed with mighty mental strength, never did things by halves. After his accident, he had to put himself back together again.

“It was time to begin again,” he says. “Physiotherapy began in the Mater Hospital with learning how to breathe effectively.”

Those six weeks on the flat of his back were a wake-up call.

“All lingering delusions of self-importance and self-sufficiency gave way to the stark realisation that I needed others to assist me in this primal, brutish struggle to survive.”

Did his resilient spirit survive?

“Morphine dulled the pain,” says Jim. “But I began to hear the Black Dogs bark.”

He felt that low?

“I didn’t want to rely on painkillers to dull the pain,” says Jim. “At night, the pain felt like electric shocks. Going from being a vigorous, able-bodied man to sudden invalidity, all because of a falling out with gravity, is traumatic. I did not choose it,” says Jim.

Life often throws us off kilter.

“Bad things happen,” says Jim. “It’s part of the human condition. There are things we cannot, or don’t control. From such a catastrophic fall the only way is up. And, though in the throes, I thought at times of getting well enough to quit this life, now I mean to get well enough to enjoy it before I get too old to do so.”

After undergoing an operation in the Mater, when Jim had two discs in his back removed and two plates inserted, he went to the National Rehabilitation Hospital for three months.

“Dr Eimear Smith is a brilliant surgeon,” says Jim. He had a brilliant team around him, willing him back to the summit of good health.

“From cleaners to consultants; everyone at NRH seemed concentrated on my recovery,” says Jim. He concentrated on making the long climb back to get well, step by step. Good things can happen too.

“I overcame bowel and bladder dysfunction, which was brilliant,” says Jim. “The day the catheter came out was a day of celebration.”

He celebrated in style.

“I told my friend, Dimitri, when he came to visit me, to go to the off-licence and swap the grape juice for the proper stuff!”

He could see the wood for the trees.

“I worked hard on the physiotherapy,” says Jim. “It was very hard work.

“And though the muscles atrophied or went into frequent spasm, neutral pathways were eventually prodded and bullied into use.”

Jim’s mind and body were made of strong stuff. “The trek across Europe the previous year got me into rare physical shape,” he says.

“It was a huge step on the road to recovery, as was a positive mental attitude.

“I spent eight hours in the gym, doing my own stuff as well as the intense programme. I had occupational therapy. The staff at NRH are brilliant. I made great friends there.”

Slowly but surely, real steps were taken.

“The day I made it up the hospital ramp was a big day. My muscles went into shock!”

Jim walked out of the hospital and into a new apartment. 

“It was a lovely apartment in Dublin 2. I could see the Google building from my balcony.”

He walked back into his job too.

“It seemed the right thing to do. I was welcomed back. It was a great job with nice people.”

The road back to what he loved best beckoned.

“I did a half-marathon in The Burren the following May after coming out of hospital,” says Jim. “I told people it was a 10K road race!”

How did he get on?

“It was straight road, which was great.”

He made the finish line like he always does.

“I think I was last; but I made it,” says Jim. “I slept for three days afterwards!”

He headed back to the place that gave him the best views of his life. 

“It seemed the right thing to do. West Cork was familiar to me.”

The beauty and tranquillity of the friendly, close-knit community in Kilcrohane gave him a new lease of life.

“I came back here to recuperate,” says Jim. “It was the right place to do it. Dublin was hard to navigate with so many people.”

“I found a community good enough to take me in, where the old are warm in winter and happier in summer. Big hills to the North; sea to the South, surrounded by delightful, caring people.”

He began to get his life back.

“I walked Sheep’s Head again, scooting on my ass some for some of the time and wearing knee-pads.”

No hurdle was too great for Jim to overcome.

“I made it over the stiles! Balance is a big thing for me. I have no balance. I can’t feel my feet. But I keep at it.”

Now he’s finding his sea legs.

“I sailed before on the Asgard from Cork Harbour,” says Jim. “The Lord Nelson Tall ship challenge is something I’m looking forward to.

“For me, balancing in the boat will be a big challenge. I’m aiming to raise €3,000 for Spinal Injuries Ireland.”

He’s also aiming to do a lot of living.

“Second time around is not so easy,” says Jim. “And it’s certainly less fun. It takes massive concentration to stay upright, especially on hills. It just must be done.”

Jim is proud of his neck of the woods where we sit in the sunshine under the ‘Shadow of Seefin’ and overlooking Dunmanus Bay.

“The early Christian Kilnaruane standing stone, just this side of Bantry, depicts two rams with horns interlocked,” says Jim.

“It is said to illustrate two Old Testament tribes of Israel in a war neither could win or lose. They carried on regardless. It represents resilience. I represent it.”

See: everydayhero.ie and look for Jim’s Challenge to donate.

Spinal Injuries Ireland (SII), is the only charity supporting people and who have become lifelong disabled through a spinal cord injury and their families.

www.spinalinjuries.ie

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