Like many people in the airline industry, the thought of early retirement had always been appealing.  Spending more time with the family?  The odd round of golf?  More likely for me, being selfish and taking one of my motorbikes to the Isle of Man or the Nurburgring, or my sports car on a few track days.  But what I hadn’t expected was to start my retirement strapped to a spinal board, connected to a life support ventilator in Intensive Care in a hospital in Mexico.

Up until November 2007, I’d had a very fortunate flying career, starting with a flying scholarship, gained through the St Albans School combined Cadet Force, learning to fly at Leicester airport just after my 17th birthday.  This was followed by joining The University Air Squadron whilst at Sheffield University, and on graduation going straight on to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell.  A RAF career which included operational flying in the first Gulf War based at Dhahran Saudi Arabia, and which culminated in an instructional tour on the Tornado at RAF Coningsby.  During this time I was also a member of The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, flying the DC3 Dakota and the Lancaster.  I was privileged that whilst in my first full display season, I flew the Dakota down The Mall for the 50th Anniversary of VE celebrations and the Lancaster for the 50th Anniversary of VJ celebrations, dropping a million poppies over the assembled veterans and Royal family at Buckingham Palace.

The decision to leave the Air Force was not an easy one, it also involved doing lots of exams and studying for my airline transport pilot's licence (ATPL) something I'd never been particularly keen on!   Fortunately though, I was able to take my initial type rating and instrument rating test on the Dakota - an enjoyable way of becoming civilian qualified!  I flew the Lancaster for the last time the day before my 38th birthday and had a wonderful leaving party at RAF Coningsby.

I joined the Boeing Fleet of Airtours International in March 1997 (technically I was still in the RAF for the next three months) and was fortunate to gain my command within a couple of years.  Having name changed through My Travel, and by merger, I was part of the Thomas Cook Group by November 2007.

A spot of leave in late November 2007 enabled me to catch up with some painting and decorating of an investment property bought five years earlier (part of my pension plan!)  The phone rang with the inevitable call from the company's crewing department,  “Jerry is there any chance that you could operate to Las Vegas tomorrow?  You’ll position home the following night”.  It was only two days away, good overtime rates in time for Christmas, and maybe some extra presents for the family or an upgrade on one of the motorbikes - so of course I said yes.  I had never flown to Las Vegas before, so thought it would be a good idea to take my camera with me, hence this photo of what would be my very last commercial flight.  I hadn’t been in Vegas long when another plea came from crewing for me to position (flying with American Airlines) to Cancun, Mexico and operate back to Manchester after a few days rest.

Time off down route had enabled me to put in some much needed training for the 2008 Great Manchester run, in which I was determined to beat my wife!

Taking a swim in the sea changed my life forever. As I started to walk out from the sea I was hit from behind by a big wave, the impact of which knocked me face flat in the water causing a huge compression injury to my spine. I was left face down in the water with a broken neck, unable to move anything apart from my mouth. I tried to shout for help, but all the sound was muffled by the water, and it meant I drowned more quickly. By the time I was pulled out of the water by some passers-by on the beach, I was unconscious and drowned.  My life did, quite literally flash before my eyes - the good, the bad and, mostly in my case, the ugly!  Just like in the movies or books, everything was spinning round and then went black, a strange but not unpleasant sensation.  I was resuscitated on the beach before the lifeguards and paramedics arrived to take me to the hospital which had only recently been rebuilt after hurricane Wilma had hit Cancunin October 2005, fortunately it had state-of-the-art new facilities, and a neurosurgeon, Raphael, was on call.

Welcome to retirement, not exactly the start I had envisaged.  Less than 24 hours later my wife and children had been flown out to Mexico, ironically in the aircraft I was due to take command of to fly home.  Much to their relief , I was still able to breathe and talk, but by the following morning things had seriously deteriorated.  My breathing had failed several times in the night, and I had to be resuscitated again.  I was given an emergency tracheotomy to support my breathing, and I was now on a life support ventilator, unable to talk, eat or drink.  Although I would need a very major operation which could have been performed in Cancun by Raphael, who spoke perfect English, trying to communicate with some of the other Mexican hospital staff by lipreading was seriously problematic! They didn't seem to understand that I wanted "cerveza" all the time! Therefore, it was decided to have the operation in England, and arrangements were made to medivac me back to the UK with a company called Jet ICU from Tampa, Florida.

A well coordinated arrival at Manchester meant I was quickly in an ambulance and out of the cargo gates, stopping only briefly to say hello to my wife and children.  Sadly, by this time my condition was such that I don’t even remember this precious moment.  Nor do I remember the police escort to get me to the Hope hospital at Salford, now Salford Royal.  After a day in ITU, I was stable enough to go in to theatre for an operation to ‘fix’ my neck.  This involved the removal of all the shattered parts of my C4 vertebrae, replacing it with a chunk of my right hip and a titanium plate being wrapped around the vertebrae above and below the damaged site and bolted in to place.  Coming around in ITU the only movement I had was a half inch rotation of my head from side to side, and I would continue to be fed via a tube up my nose.  About a week later I managed to shrug my shoulders, but only by a tiny amount, and a tube was connected directly into my stomach, called a PEG, for food and drinks much more comfortable than the one up my nose.  The initial prognosis was that I would be totally paralysed from the neck down and likely to remain on a ventilator for the rest of my life.  Not the most wonderful news I had ever been given in my life!

Thanks to the tremendous efforts of the nursing and physiotherapy staff, by the time I left Hope hospital in mid January, my breathing was much stronger, although I was still on a ventilator, I could eat and drink a little - including a Guinness - and I had a little more movement in my neck.  It looked like I would be able to eat and drink normally and that it might be possible for me to at least breathe by myself during the day, if not at night.

During the 3 weeks that I was in the Spinal unit in Sheffield, I was weaned off the ventilator completely, the tracheotomy was removed from my throat, the feeding tube was removed from my stomach and I had a tiny bit of movement in my right arm.  Even more rewarding, I was allowed out of bed so that I could sit up in a wheelchair for the first time with my family and friends, and they could push me outside into the cold, fresh, winter air.  Unfortunately, by the time I was transferred to Southport Spinal unit, there was a mark on my skin, which developed into a pressure sore and kept me in bed for a month.

Whilst in the Hope hospital, I had set myself the goal of competing in the 2008 Great Manchester run.  From my bed space in intensive care I could see the ‘finishing line ‘ - the Hilton Hotel, Beetham tower.  Beating my wife might prove even more of a challenge!   When I said I still wanted to take part the nursing staff in ICU thought I had gone mad, but none of them were brave enough to tell me.  After all I was on a life support ventilator and being fed through a tube.   Initially the staff at Southport were not keen either, until they realised that my bloody-mindedness and determination would get me through.

By the end of March I was starting to get up into a wheel chair for a few hours each day.  This quickly progressed to 5 – 6 hours a day which meant that my rehab could start in earnest. Equally importantly, at Easter I was able to go out to the pub with my family for a meal and a pint of Guinness!  I had some movement in my right arm, which the occupational therapists and physiotherapists could work with.  Initially only my right bicep was functioning, meaning that I could move my right arm a little to the left and up towards my chest.  Driving a powered wheelchair at this point would have been tricky as I could only move left and backwards  which could clearly have presented problems for myself and other road users.  More work needed in the gym I think!

By May 2008, I was well enough to start venturing out and about.  I wasn’t allowed to attend the 65th Anniversary of the Dam Busters raid in the Derwent valley, but with huge help from family and friends I was able to take part in the Great Manchester 10k run, otherwise known as Fatty’s Big Push!  Although beating the wife still looked unlikely, we were escorted by a member of the hospital nursing staff who thought that she was coming out for a stroll around Manchester.  However, the pushing team got a bit carried away and went through the first Km in 6 minutes and 30 seconds - sorry Sarah!  We were supposed to do a TV interview half way round, but ran straight past the crew waiting at the side of the course.  Fortunately though, there was a big reception committee at the end, including my old friend Hazel Irvine, from the BBC.  My friends still don’t know how I managed to get a kiss from Hazel live on TV - a supersonic flight in a Tornado raising funds for children in need may have been a contributory factor!

Rehab and visits to the pub continued through June, July and August.  I also started to make longer trips out and about, including lunch in the Peak District with the guys from work, a visit back to the Airport offices and a few hours back home to see how the building work was progressing, altering the house for full disabled access and my anticipated homecoming.

Sadly however, throughout the summer I’d developed quite severe involuntary muscle spasms.  Initially they were treated with tablets, but the large doses involved resulted in unpleasant side effects.  The alternative was to have an operation to install a pump in my abdominal cavity which dispensed the drug via a system of pipe work directly into my spinal cord.  This was completed at the end of August.  The muscle spasms were completely eliminated, but sadly, shortly after starting to get up and about, problems developed.

A large swelling, which quickly became known as ‘Arry the Alien’ formed on the side of my stomach where the pump was fitted.  We all hoped that it wouldn’t be a leakage of fluid from my spinal cord, as the risk of infection was huge.  When ‘Arry was first removed by having an aspiration operation, the lab. analysis confirmed it was cerebrospinal fluid.  Various consultants around the world were contacted, but none had never encountered a similar kind of problem.  Just my luck!  A variety of repair schemes were suggested by many different people, including myself, but most of these were quickly discounted - especially mine!  Four long months, mostly in ICU, of lying on my back finally ended with a second operation in January 2009.  Thankfully, this time it worked and the pump is doing ‘exactly what it says on the tin’.

2009 was very much a different year, as thanks to the generosity of the BALPA (the British Airline Pilots Association) and RAF Benevolent Funds and GAPAN (Guild of Air Pilots and Air Navigators), my electric wheelchair (complete with all the toys!) arrived just as I was able to get out of bed again.  The only draw back is that it was fitted with an airbus side stick controller which meant that I needed a conversion course to learn how to drive it.  Needless to say I ignored the rules and did a little self driving, including high speed taxi trials and reversing out of tight spots trying not to get caught in the process.  The tyre squeal is sometimes a bit of a giveaway.  As soon as the weather improved, I tested its range to the pub! 

The next few months went a little slowly, but by early May 2009 I was ready to have a trial day at home followed later by an overnight stop.  I was also ready to take on the great Manchester run for a second time in my wheelchair.  The weather in 2009 was nowhere near as kind as 2008, the team got soaked, and really cold.  We were saved by a hot meal at lunchtime and a couple of cold beers!  At the end of May I was discharged from hospital, loaded into my van and driven home by my carer.  Sadly, only two days later I had a serious chest infection and was readmitted to hospital.  After a week, the infection developed into massive septicaemia, my internal organs started to fail and my heart stopped.  A fairly big setback to say the least!  I was back in intensive care again and had to celebrate my 50th birthday wired backup to the mains.  Two months later just when I thought I was getting ready to come home again I developed a pulmonary embolism and had huge blood clots on both lungs - yet another setback.  In September 2009 after 22 months in hospital I was ready for another try at the great escape, and this time, made a home run!

During the time that has followed I have had many trips back to hospital, but thankfully, all but two have been day visits. Now, with the aid of assistive technology, I'm able to start getting on with my life again.  I can access my computer via a mouth controlled mouse and coupled with voice recognition software I'm able to quite quickly write e-mails, letters, surf the Internet and of course, write this article!    And despite my lack of computer knowledge I try to do the updates for my own website.

Technology also helps me to control the channels on my TV, make and answer telephone calls and control my own environment.  My wheelchair now has controls so that I drive using my chin, which means my arms are better supported and my posture is improved.  I have a specially adapted vehicle which has a lift at the back so that my wheelchair can be loaded inside.  Now trips out are relatively easy, although they still require careful planning.


None of the above would have been possible without the help of many people.  Notably, my family and friends who have always been there for me, despite some very dark days.  The American lady who resuscitated me on the beach in Cancun who we couldn't find to even say thank you.  Raphael, my consultant in Mexico who got me through the first few most difficult days.  All of the medical staff at the various hospitals where I have been a patient, at times a very difficult one, who always treated me patiently, politely, and with great dignity - it can't have been easy!   Friends and colleagues at the Thomas Cook group as well as those from my university and RAF days.

So, is there life after a serious spinal-cord injury?  You bet there is!  Has it changed?  By so much that at times it's hard to believe.  Would I change things if I could?  Undoubtedly, but it's impossible to rewind the clock.  Perhaps one or two things to bear in mind though:

1          Remember never to volunteer for anything!

2          Check the small print of your life insurance policies and private medical cover.

3          Plan for the future, but live for today and enjoy life.

4          I used to tell my students "keep checking your six o'clock" but forgot to do it myself! Lesson learned! - The hard way!