Last reviewed 5 June 2013

In 1993, Jason Anker fell from a ladder at work and was left paralysed from the waist down. Here, he explains the devastating impact this had on his life, family and friends.

On 3 January 1993 I was working for my father-in-law’s roofing business on a building site. I was married with two young children: Abbi was two years old and Sam was only six months. At around 2:30pm we were asked to look at a rush job; a leaking roof on another building where we had not worked previously. A two-hour job that we had an hour to complete.

My colleague went to climb onto the roof and I tried to stop him; I knew something wasn’t right. The ground conditions that day were terrible, really, really icy, the ladder was not secure, so I thought I had done the right thing. He went up anyway as I stood at the bottom. Then my father-in-law peered over the top saying, “Get a bloody move on, we’ve only got an hour as it is,” and I thought to myself, “These guys have got all the experience they obviously know what they’re doing, if it’s alright for them, it’s alright for me.” So, I climbed up there, got onto the roof, and we got the job done. By the time we finished I was the first one to start climbing down. The ladder had been moved by my colleague and as I came down it moved again. As I got to the bottom rung I was actually called back up. I was about half way when I felt the ladder split. And I fell.

Loss of feeling

I remember being on the ground, a bit winded, but I actually thought I was okay, and when I tried to sit up that was when I actually became aware that I couldn’t feel my legs. An ambulance was called; it took about an hour to get there. I was taken to the local hospital and by the time I arrived, my wife was already there. Initially I was taken for an X-ray and put into a side room to wait for the results. My wife was sat at my side, and the doctor walked into the room with the results of my X-rays in his hand, with a big smile on his face. I watched him walking towards me, thinking if he’s smiling it’s got to be good news.

He came to the side of the bed still smiling and he just said to me, “We can’t actually find anything wrong with you.” I was 24 years old and I couldn’t feel my legs, so I was still sort of panicking and he explained: “Look, you’ve had a nasty fall, it’s a condition known as spinal shock and hopefully over the next couple of hours, couple of days — it could even be a few weeks — you will eventually get all the sensation back into your legs. Think yourself very fortunate.”

Then he decided to send me for a CT scan, just for a closer look, to be sure. When he walked back in the room, he wasn’t smiling. Straight away, before he even spoke to me, I just knew. He came in and sat at the side of the bed and he said: “We’ve found a small fracture in your back; you suffered a massive spinal twist” and then he simply added: “You will never walk again.” With that, he stood up, didn’t say another word and just walked out of the room.

In the hospital

I went for a massive operation the next day. A couple of days later I was transferred to Sheffield, 50 miles away from where I live, to a specialist spinal rehabilitation centre. I truly believed that I had been sent there to learn how to walk, but I spent the first three weeks laying flat on my back, and all my bodily functions were seen to by the nurses, on the bed. Then about three weeks later they sat me up in bed bringing me cups of tea, glasses of water, and were encouraging me to keep drinking. It wasn’t long before I realised I’d wet the bed, so I looked round embarrassed, and I rang the buzzer. The nurse came and I made my apologies and she just said, “Oh don’t worry, we’ve been waiting.” “Waiting for what?” I asked. She explained that “after an accident like yours, with that level of injury, we’re never quite sure how your bladder is going to respond”.

The week before my accident if I saw somebody in a wheelchair, I would simply have presumed that they could not walk. The not-walking bit is probably the easiest bit of it all. So the nurse came back to the bed and she brought me one of those bags, a catheter, and said to me that for the rest of my life I will have to wear one. I laughed and said: “No chance, I am not wearing one of them, that’s what old people have to wear”. And she just told me: “I’m really sorry to say but in your case this is your only option.” She also came with a condom-type thing to secure it in place; now I have to wear one of them 24 hours a day.

It has now been 20 years since my accident, and I still detest these condoms. They are a lot more reliable now, but they’re not 100%. Now if ever I go out, I will take a bag of clothes with me, just in case something goes wrong, but in the early days it would come off probably once or twice a month and always when I was in the pub with my mates; I would just wet myself in front of everyone.

The catheter I am using now came out about 10 or 12 years ago and was developed by NASA for astronauts. It may not sound very interesting to you but as I look at it, at least I’m one stage further on in my training to be a spaceman than anyone else. This joke always cheers me up a little bit. But without a doubt the hardest thing you have to deal with is going to the toilet.

In a wheelchair

So, back in hospital after the accident, I’m put in the wheelchair, taken to the toilet and I’m sat there, and the nurse passed me a tube that looks like laxative and some rubber gloves. The simple instructions are squirt this up your backside, wait about 10 minutes, put on a rubber glove and basically scoop it out.

When the nurse left the room I broke down, I thought: I can’t do this. The first time actually took me over an hour, I went back onto my bed and was crying all afternoon, feeling really sorry for myself asking the usual question: “Why me?” I was a good lad, a family man, a hard working man. That evening my wife came with my kids. My daughter sat on the end of my bed and I just thought to myself: I haven’t really got a choice, so I decided to get myself as fit as I could and get out of that hospital.

On 25 April 1993 I was finally discharged. My friends took me down the pub and they raised a load of money for a new wheelchair. I got home and woke up on Saturday morning and my wife says to me: “You stay in bed, I’ll take the kids to my mum’s and I’ll see you later.”

In the late afternoon I got a phone call, and it’s from her mum and she just said: “Look, there isn’t an easy way of saying this, but she isn’t coming back — she’s left you.” So I’ve been out of hospital for one day, and on the very first day she walked out with my kids. In her defence I can say that she was 23 at the time, my daughter had just turned three, and my son Sam was not yet one. My wife can’t give her side of the story about how my accident affected her life. I suppose it would be quite easy for me to sit here and slag her off. So I will. The total reality is that she came to the hospital every single day, she didn’t drive, she got a lift, 50 miles there, 50 miles back and, like me, she truly believed that I was going to walk out of there. When it became apparent I wasn’t, she couldn’t face it and she left.

We’d had a few problems before the accident, I’d been out of work for a few months, and things were a bit tight. At the time I was told: if your marriage or relationship has got any kind of problems whatsoever, the chances are it isn’t going to survive, and it didn’t. My mates were all running around doing the best they could and at the end of the day, blokes being blokes, we’re rubbish at those sort of things and the only one cure to try and cheer somebody up is going down the pub.

Alcohol problems

Alcohol quickly became an issue, my dad was still working, my mates used to be at work all day, my mum used to come round and try and help, but I’m pretty embarrassed now about how I used to treat her. I vented all my frustration, all my anger out on my mum and she stopped coming round. I’d be sat in the house with a bottle of vodka, drinking all day long. My friends would come home from work, they didn’t have a clue what they were supposed to do with me, apart from push me down the pub, get me more drunk, push me home. I was drunk for a matter of weeks and I fell out of my chair when I was drunk, snapped one of the screws in my back which meant in July 1993 I went back into hospital for another major operation. When I came out I’d lost the house I was living in.

So just try and imagine a six-month period of your life where you go to work one day with no cares in the world but because of something you do, that you know is unsafe, you’re going to spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, you’re doubly incontinent, your wife and your kids have walked out and you’ve lost your house.

I really wasn’t coping. I was seeing a counsellor, I was on anti-depressants, and I was drinking really heavily. All I did before my accident was football — I was football mad — every weekend, we’d all play for the same team. But instantly my mates refused to go back to football telling me that if I couldn’t, they were not going to either. And they took a bit of persuading; I said to them to start the football, I’ll be alright. It meant I started hanging around with a different group of lads, and it’s quite common knowledge to everybody: these lads all did drugs. But I decided that I would hang around with them because there was no way I’d get mixed up with drugs. I’d just have a drink. If they wanted to do it, it was up to them — who I was to speak to them?

Drug abuse

If you don’t have courage to speak up when you see people doing things wrong, eventually you start picking up their habits. The very first time I was out somewhere I was absolutely blind drunk and one of these lads comes up and said: “Here you are Jase, take that”, and passes this ecstasy tablet. I can remember looking at it thinking to myself that my life was at rock bottom, it couldn’t possibly get any worse than what it was. And I took it. 20 minutes later I was sat there thinking life isn’t too bad, it’s alright. This drugged me out of my mind, and for the first time since my accident I thought to myself that I could cope but I could never get that feeling again. It didn’t matter how much I drank or how many drugs I took.

After that night, things escalated out of control and nobody could stop it, even when Abbi came to live with me full time in the autumn of 1994 to try and give me that focus. Unfortunately by this time it was sort of too late. On 3 January 1995 I had gone out somewhere and I’d taken a couple of these tablets and was starting to feel a bit different, a little bit unwell.

The next thing I can remember is opening my eyes, staring at a white ceiling and I didn’t have a bloody clue where I was. I was back in the hospital, in the intensive care unit, on a life support unit. I’d been in a coma for 17 days, with suspected serious brain damage. My dad was simply told: “Your son isn’t responding to anything we try, we haven’t got any ideas, we suspect he’s got serious brain damage. If he wakes up, he will probably need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. You have seriously got to consider turning the machine off.”

Brain damage

Try and imagine my mum and dad, with all the trauma of my original accident, watching their son’s life just disintegrate in front of their eyes in two years and they could do nothing about it, and now faced with the decision that they must switch the machine off and watch their son die. But on day 17 I opened my eyes. The brain damage I’d suffered was not as bad as they expected, though even to this day I still really struggle and suffer with short-term memory. I could barely string about three or four words together. The symptoms were very similar to having a stroke; I lost the use of the left hand side of my body completely and I spent the next five months in the hospital literally learning how to speak again, how to dress myself, how to be myself, even how to go to the toilet in the morning.

I came out of hospital with a new determination and I was quite fortunate to stumble upon waterskiing. I started to deal with the wheelchair, looked after my daughter Abbi, and saw my son as much as I could. I was still drinking far too much, but I was coping. In 1998, five years after my accident, I was finally offered compensation, but it was for less than half the value of the claim. I was told that if I went to court, there was a 50/50 chance of coming out with nothing. So I accepted the offer. A couple of weeks later my solicitor rang me back up and said, “I’m really sorry, but there are a few more complications, it will probably take another couple of years.”

In 2000, my son Sam was eight years old and he asked if he could come and live with me. I always remember the day my dad went to pick him up. Sam came back walking down the drive, with a little bag on his back with some of his clothes and his football. I sat in the garden with my mum on a lovely summer’s day, watching my dad, kicking a football round the garden with my son. I don’t think I’d cried since I left the hospital but I went back in the house and I absolutely sobbed. Football was such a massive part of my life, and because of something I did at work one day, that I knew was unsafe, I’ll never kick a ball with my boy. Years later, I bought him many things with the compensation money, but the only thing he has ever wanted from his dad is to play football, and no amount of compensation, no amount of Xboxes has ever made it up to Sam.

Another moment was to teach my daughter how to ride a bicycle. At the end of the day I had to sit and watch my dad do that, and it’s not my memory, it’s my dad’s memory. There is the guilt I feel towards my kids of not being able to do the things that dads should do because of something I did at work one day, that I knew it was unsafe.

My daughter Abbi is 23, she’s a lovely daughter and she’s got a lovely boyfriend and they have been talking about getting married. How the hell am I suppose to walk my daughter down that aisle? Eventually, hopefully, I will get grandkids, am I ever going to bounce my grandkids on my shoulder at the seaside? No, because of something I did at work one day that I knew it was unsafe.

Compensation payout

In 2005 I finally had my day in court. My compensation had risen quite considerably over the years. The defence told me, “We’ve agreed what we agreed on in ‘98, we’re not paying you”. But my solicitor said: “If we continue you could get substantially more, but please be aware that you can still come out with nothing”. So, I again accepted the offer. I was told they’d pay in three months, but it came more than two years later.

I was finally paid some compensation in January 2007, which was 14 years after my accident. For the first time since my accident I became aware of how depressed I was and yet I had all this money in the bank.

I started spending, I bought a nice flat, paid cash for it, got a new car, nice clothes and nice holidays. I could now do virtually anything I wanted, but nothing made any sense to me.

At a Christmas party in 2008 this guy came over to me and asked if I’d had an accident. I said, “Yeah, at work: I fell off a ladder,” and he said, “Do you mind telling me the story?” “With the greatest respect, who are you?” I asked him. He introduced himself as someone who deals with health and safety. He said that he truly believed that sharing my experiences could make a difference. I’d not spoken about this with my mates, with my mum and dad; I could hardly have a conversation with myself. I absolutely hated it, but I used to speak for about 15 minutes purely about my accident to groups of workers. I couldn’t understand what my story had to do with everybody else.

But one day I told my story to a very young lad, and then he came up and shook hands and said thanks. In that moment I got it, this is not about me, it’s about people listening to my story. This is about people sitting there and imagining something like this was happening to them, something that would devastate their life. I’m just a normal guy and the only reason I put myself through this now is for them, to stop one more person going through something like this.

I’ve been scuba diving, on helicopter rides and many experiences I’d never had in my life before, but not one has caused me to say it is worth being in a wheelchair for. I detest the way I live, and if I could stop one more person going through this, then I will keep sharing my story. I was quite fortunate I had two kids, because the chance of having kids after something like this is really difficult.

Damage to others

I have talked about how my accident affected my life; the hardest thing I have to deal with is what I have done to everybody else. It is now 20 years since my accident and my mum still sees a counsellor and she’s still on anti-depressants. My dad was a rough-and-tumble steel erector by trade, he went back to work for a couple of years but retired early to look after my mum. If I rang my dad now and simply said I have got a puncture in my wheelchair, he would break down and sob. He comes out for a pint, he has a couple of drinks and still makes an excuse to leave early because he starts getting emotional. And the guilt I feel regarding my mum and dad. With the compensation I bought them a big caravan at the seaside as if to say I’m sorry, but they still don’t enjoy their retirement like they should after what I’ve put them through in the last 20 years.

I’ve got a brother and sister both older than me, and my sister’s been my rock, my brother has struggled, not because he’s embarrassed of me being in a wheelchair, but because there is nothing he can do or say. This will go through the rest of your family and then your mates.

For the first couple of years after the accident, nobody seemed to do anything in which I would like to be involved. Over time there are things like lads’ holidays, rounds of golf in which they had a really good time, but they would just come back full of guilt that I wasn’t involved.

I know I was an absolute nightmare for years after my accident, I used to get absolutely blind drunk I was always falling off my wheelchair, always causing problems and I’d need my mates to literally push me home and physically put me into bed. I traumatised so many of mates, especially the football crowd. And even today, if I convince my oldest mate to have a drink and a chat, I’d guarantee by the end of the night the guy would be in tears, not just because of what I went through but for what I have put them through. The hardest thing I have to deal with is what I have done to everybody else.

But it went a lot further; my ex-father-in-law was at the top of the ladder when I slipped and he watched me fall. After my accident his business collapsed and all the guys who worked for him lost their jobs. Six months later his house was repossessed; he’s been out of a job; he still has nightmares to this day of watching me fall.

As much as I hate my wheelchair, which I do, what happened to me was my fault and not that of my workmates.

This feature is re-published with kind permission from the British Safety Council, https://sm.britsafe.org/.

Jason Anker works as a motivational and behavioural safety speaker. For more information, see www.jasonankerlive.co.uk.