People’s support lifted me up when I needed it

It’s five years since Nathan Kirwan was left paralysed, but he has just completed his second Cork City Marathon, writes EMMA CONNOLLY
People’s support lifted me up when I needed it
Nathan Kirwan at the start of the 2018 Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon. Picture: Darragh Kane

FIVE years ago this month, a young Cork man fell 25ft and suffered a life-changing spinal injury that left him paralysed from the chest down.

Speaking from his home in Currabinny, Nathan Kirwan, 29, says the anniversary is not really something that’s registering with him — he’s been too busy doing college exams and training for his second Cork City Marathon, which he completed in a specially designed hand bike.

“The years have gone by pretty fast to be honest, but at the same time there’s been a lot of time for me to adapt and get used to the new life I have,” he said. “I was hopeful at first that something would materialise to help me but I have become less so over time.

“At the back of my mind, I’d like to think something will happen but I’ve had to get on with it and just find ways to make me happy.”

On June 3, 2013, then aged 24 and about to graduate in marine engineering, Nathan fell from a tree while with friends on the way home after a night out.

In an interview a short time after the accident, he said: ‘The moment I hit the ground, I knew I had broken my neck. I heard a crack and I couldn’t move and I just knew straight away.’

He had suffered a serious spinal injury which, after initial medical treatment, required five months in the National Rehab Centre in Dun Laoghaire, followed by further rehab in Barcelona.

Five years on, he’s living in his family home in Currabinny, which has been adapted to suit his needs, studying Supply Chain and Business Transport Management in CIT, and is actively involved in sports.

Nathan Kirwan, a graduate of the National Maritime College of Ireland addressing the SeaFest "Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth" conference about his fundraising for an exoskeleton to support those who cannot walk. Pictured also are Colin O'Shaughnessy and Minister Simon Coveney TD. Picture. John Allen
Nathan Kirwan, a graduate of the National Maritime College of Ireland addressing the SeaFest "Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth" conference about his fundraising for an exoskeleton to support those who cannot walk. Pictured also are Colin O'Shaughnessy and Minister Simon Coveney TD. Picture. John Allen

He recently made headlines when, along with Colin O’Shaughnessy of Elite Gym in the Marina Commercial Park, where Nathan trained after his accident, he raised €150,000 to buy a bionic wearable suit that allows him to get out of his char and to physically take steps.

The pair set up a charity called Helpful Steps in 2015 and covered the cost of the Exoskeleton, which has been permanently based in the Cork gym for the past two years for Nathan and other wheelchair users.

While some people might first think the Exoskeleton is a way for Nathan to walk while out and about, he regards it purely as another element to his training.

“I don’t think the Exoskeleton is going to make me walk again — it’s not practical and not the kind of thing you’d take through Cork city. I use it twice a week at the end of a training session and regard it as another piece of equipment which gives me the benefits of walking. I think it’s made a big difference to my health,” he said.

In the run up to last week’s marathon he regularly completed 30km sessions on his hand bike, including the Fort to Fort cycle in April; and also plays wheelchair rugby which he enjoys but says he prefers to be in the fresh air with friends.

Physically, he says he’s feeling good, as well as mentally.

But he’s very honest and doesn’t sugar coat what happened to him or the reality of his life now, and like everyone else has ‘good days and bad’.

“Life can be frustrating, it can be sad. But sadness is just another human emotion and is fine as long as it doesn’t take over or bring you right down.

“I have a very good support network around me and find that getting out and exercising helps to boost your mood and any sadness you might be experiencing,” he said.

Socialising in busy places is among the more challenging experiences for him, he says.

“It’s an environment that’s very frustrating — everyone is standing up and you’re sitting down, it’s not very enjoyable,” he said.

So, too, can be total strangers who ask him outright what happened to him.

“That really frustrates me — I mean, who goes up to anyone and asks that? Are you serious? It’s quite annoying. I’ve been stopped going into bars and asked that. I just keep going. I find that very strange. In general, though people are very supportive and offer assistance if necessary,” he said.

Access has also become easier as he’s got stronger and more familiar with where to park: “I know now from experience areas that I can manage.”

He’s made some peace regarding any breakthroughs or discoveries which could help his recovery and doesn’t think they will come in his lifetime.

“I could search all day long for something but at the end of the day I know that if there are any breakthroughs or anything significant happening then we’d be told about them.

“There is a lot going on in and that is great. It might not improve anything for me but there may be something for future generations. Me? I don’t know.”

As he said, the focus has switched to finding things that make him happy.

“For me that’s hand cycling — I’m delighted I found that. I’ve good friends and they come out with me,” he said, adding that a grant from Lord Taverners Ireland (a charity that helps the disabled) two years ago helped cover the cost of a €12,000 bike designed especially for him.

Asked if he had any advice to someone who found themselves in his situation, or if there was something he wished someone had said to him five years ago, he pauses.

“I don’t think I’d know what to say. It is catastrophic.

“There is life after something like this. It is very difficult, but there are ways to do it and live a quality life.

“There’s not one way to deal with things; there’s a series of emotions that you must deal with in your own way; everyone is different and it takes time.”

He hasn’t had any counselling since his accident and has relied on himself and the support of family and friends, acknowledging mum Ann and siblings Aisling and Darren.

His dad, Gerry, a Michelin Star chef, who spent many years as head chef in the Rochestown Park Hotel, passed away in May, 2014, after a battle with cancer.

Nathan was also keen to thank all people in his native Cork for their support since his accident five years ago.

“I’d really like to thank the people of Cork for the initial support I got. It was overwhelming and very appreciated.

“It got me through the first year, encouraged me and lifted me up and kept me going for the first 12 months. When it was most needed it was most plentiful.”

Looking forward, he says next on the agenda is to find a job. But first there’s a biking holiday in France with family and friends to enjoy.

As he says, it’s about finding those ways to make you happy.

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