Miracle recovery: From paralysis to workouts

Gareth McCay. (3004PG01)
Gareth McCay. (3004PG01)

After a freak accident in his home the life of young Derry man Gareth McCay changed forever. He was paralysed from the neck down and given no hope of recovery. Specialists insisted the young solicitor would never walk again but the keen sportsman choose to ignore the experts and continued to push himself to a miraculous recovery.

In an interview with IAN CULLEN, the now 29 year-old speaks publicly for the first time about his darkest days, his incredible road to recovery, his upcoming marriage and his daily gym workouts. When Gareth McKay awoke from a three week-long coma to be told he’d lost his left leg, he wasn’t really that bothered.

Gareth McCay with fitness intructors, from left, Sean Hargan, John Paul Glen and Sean Heaney. (3004PG02)

Gareth McCay with fitness intructors, from left, Sean Hargan, John Paul Glen and Sean Heaney. (3004PG02)

He admits that after lying helpless and alone on a marble floor for 15 hours and spending so long in an induced coma, he was simply happy to be alive to see his daughter Annie once again.

The 27 year-old solicitor’s life had been turned on its head by a shocking prognosis that he’d never walk again. “They told me it was a complete spinal injury and I wouldn’t move again below the neck, so when they told me they’d had to amputate my leg it didn’t really bother me at the time at, surprisingly. At that stage I was grateful to be still alive to see my two year-old daughter grow up.”

After making a miraculous recovery during the last 23 months, Gareth plans to walk down the aisle arm in arm with his bride Colleen after they exchange nuptials this Friday. But it took a lot of courage, determination and persistence for the young man to achieve such a triumph.

On the night his world changed in 2010, Gareth had been watching the Champions League final and was in good spirits when as he made his way from the kitchen to the living room in his home. As it was a split level there were four steps to negotiate on his way down to the living room and, as he did everytime time before, Gareth instinctively lept the length of the steps. On that occasion, however, the floor mat was not where it should have been and as his feet made contact the mat gave way, instantaneously slipping along the solid marble floor. “I landed on the mat and I just accelerated, I remember dipping my head to try and save it from the impact with the floor and then the thud. I later found out that I had internal bleeding in my neck which went into my spinal cord so everything swelled up immediately.”

Gareth was paralsyed and alone. He wasn’t found until the next day. “I was shouting and shouting, but no one came. My girlfiend Colleen (McBride) had gone on a hen-do to Portugal and wasn’t due back until Monday. I thought that was it for me, I knew I was in serious bother and believed I was going to die. I’d resigned myself to dying. All I could think about was my two year-old daughter and how I wouldn’t be there to see her grow up.”

After about 15 hours of lying helpless, Gareth heard a car pull up outside his neighbour’s house. He shouted at the top of his weakened voice and his neighbour came running to his aid.

“Even when I got to the hospital I thought I was dying, I still couldn’t feel anything below the neck. The doctors wouldn’t tell me anything before putting me under and that was me in a coma for three and a half weeks.”

Gareth woke up with a tracheal tube surgically attached to his windpipe and was given little hope of having quality of life ever again.

He was then told that his lungs and kidneys had failed during his 15 hour ordeal on the marble floor of his home. Those conditions had led to toxins building up in his body which resulted in the amputation of his left leg at the knee. He wasn’t overly bothered at the time as the specialists kept telling him he would be quadraplegic for life. “Not only did the consultants tell me that I’d never walk again, they told me that I could never even use a power wheelchair as I wouldn’t have enough arm movement and that I’d only be able to operate a power chair with my chin. You can see why it didn’t bother me about losing my leg at the time. Of course I feel different about it now that I’ve recovered so well.”

But his recovery to almost a complete range of movement, except for his left arm which is still restricted by the injury, was a long hard struggle. After five weeks in intensive care at Altnagelvin Hospital, Gareth was admitted to Musgrave Park Hospital for specialist treatment and intensive physiotherapy which lasted eleven months.

“A week after being told the spinal injury was complete, I was told that it was incomplete and there was a possibility of movement again. Even on my first day in Musgrave I told myself and other ‘I’ll walk out of here and I did walk out. It may have been with the aid of a walking frame but I did walk out. It was great moment for me and my family. I even waited for an extra two hours so that the consultant who told me I would never walk again could see me walk out. I know that they only try to break you so that you don’t have false hope but I was always determined to prove them wrong. I have to say that the physios in Musgrave were brilliant from start to finish, they put the work in to keep your spirits up and keep hope alive.”

Gareth explained the slow progress from being quadraplegic to regaining movement in various parts of his body.

“Bit by bit my fingers regained some movement and then there was a wee bit in my right leg. The physios worked intensively to build the strength back up and it went on for about a year and a half. The haematoma in my neck is getting smaller and that’s why I’ve got so much movement back.”

In recent months Gareth, a well respected former footballer in Derry, made the miraculous step of getting back into the gym at Templemore Sports Complex. However, he says it’s something he never would have done without the help of Derry City Council’s Community Health and Well Being team led by Tommy McCallion.

“I knew Tommy and Sean Hargan (also on the team) from playing football years ago before I got a serious injury which left me without power in my left foot. “They had been on to me to get down to the gym and a couple of days a week but now I’m down nearly every day. I thought there wasn’t much I could do at the start but the boys have given me great programmes and I’ve been able to strengthen my muscles, especially in my arms and legs.”

The effects of the conditioning programme at Lifestyle Gym, Templemore has even allowed the 29 year-old to have a new state-of-the-art titanium limb fitted. “The ‘free leg’ allows me much more mobility as it bends like a real limb. I only had it fitted recently so it will take a bit of time to get used to but it will make a real difference for me.”

Gareth added: “Everybody I’ve spoken to and met since can’t believe the recovery I’ve made. Everything that people said I couldn’t do, I’ve done.”

This week is very special for Gareth as he’s due to marry his long-term girlfriend Colleen at Long Tower Church this Friday. And he plans to walk up the aisle, something which many believed he would never do less than two years ago. “I’m getting pretty nervous now but I’m also looking forward to it and I’m sure it’ll be a great day,” he said.