Following a serious accident, Philip’s life was turned upside down. But on the road to recovery, he found a new sense of freedom when he reconnected with the world around him
It was a mild, early autumn day back in 2002 when I set out on my Triumph motorbike to ride the classic winding North Yorkshire roads to Whitby. But I never arrived.
Not far from the safety of the small harbour town, my bike broke loose from the road and I slipped straight under the front wheel of an oncoming 25-tonne lorry. It probably doesn’t need saying, but it was a catastrophic near-fatal accident. Lying on the road, facing the sky, unable to feel my right leg, I had no idea what, if any, future lay ahead of me. But I knew nothing would be the same.
Somewhere between the quietness of that remote moorland road and the crucible of intensive care, my life became unrecognisable. For almost a decade, I had been working long shifts in an emotionally and physically demanding job as a children’s therapist within a dedicated therapeutic unit. I enjoyed the camaraderie of a close-knit team, and had become a team leader and manager. On my days off, I restored by immersing myself in the hills and mountains close to my home on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. At weekends, I danced until sunrise in the neon nightlife of Leeds.
All of that came to an abrupt end. The devastation of the crash had left me with multiple injuries to my legs, hands, shoulders, head, and torso, the eventual amputation of my right leg just below the knee, and the long-term effects of post-traumatic stress and depression. To hear that no one expects you to live, and then when I did to hear that you may never walk again, and then when I did learn to walk, to lose my career, home and a few of my friends along the way – let’s just say, without too much melodrama, that I have spent many days in the depths of despair and depression.
To survive, I had to reach inside and draw on all my resources, which included learning to reach out to those around me. As a professional therapist, I knew the emotional impact of limb loss would prove one of my most difficult challenges. While still in St James’s Hospital, Leeds, I referred myself for therapy sessions with a clinical psychologist who specialised in people’s experience of trauma.
I made sure to involve my family and friends in my emotional journey, too. I realised they would also feel the effect of my trauma and limb loss. In other words, we would all need to dig deep in our own ways to travel this journey together. In order to thrive, I needed to not just learn to walk again, but to return to the active lifestyle and green spaces that had previously helped restore me, albeit in a different ways. This is where my years of martial arts practice came to serve me.
A daily practice of martial arts teaches us that progress comes with perseverance, and patience. To learn to walk again after three months in hospital and eight significant operations, time at home to heal was won only through much blood, sweat, and tears. Sadly, not everyone I met travelling this arduous journey of recovery made it to the finish line.
Today, I still remain engaged in the study and practice of martial arts, only now for different reasons. I started a small business in 2016 called Discover Tai Chi with my girlfriend, Helen, teaching Tai Chi for health and wellness.
As part of continuing my road to recovery I sought out a life coach to help me to explore my new sense of identity, and help me to focus on what I could do rather than on what I couldn’t.
Tentatively, I began to try new activities with a renewed sense of exploration. With the spirit to discover the possible rather than the impossible, I found kindness and collaboration – the keys to unlocking some of the doors that initially barred my progress. I turned to the vertical dance of rock climbing and, several years later, to trail running with a ‘blade’ running leg. On the slabs and overhangs of a cliff, or deep in a forest trail running, I felt free. This period marked a return to a connection with nature I had always enjoyed before my accident. Only now the green spaces offer me a healing balm to the trauma I had survived but still struggled to understand.
"With the spirit to discover the possible rather than the impossible, I found kindness and collaboration"
In 2011, I left my career working with children and families and began teaching part-time as a facilitator, mentor, and patient teacher on the five-year MBChB Medicine and Surgery course at the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. I had the pleasure and privilege to receive invitations to offer keynote speeches at conferences, guest lecture around the country to student groups, and contribute to clinical leadership courses too.
One particular moment that stands out for me is when, in 2013, the prosthetics team at NHS Leeds nominated me for the Limbless Association Prosthetic and Orthotic Awards. In December that same year I had the honour and privilege to travel down to Westminster, in London, to receive the Award for Inspiration. I dedicated the award to work of the medical teams who saved my life, and the unstinting love and support of my family, friends, and colleagues without whom I could not have taken on the immense journey of recovery.
I began to write and collate prose and poetry as a therapeutic process. Those early pieces acted, as one of my therapists said, “as windows that offer other people a view into your life living with significant trauma”. With the ongoing support and encouragement, I produced my first short collection of poetry called Heart On The Mountain, which I self-published in 2013. It’s publication, in many ways, enabled me to draw a line between the event that changed my life so irrevocably to the life I now live and enjoy.
In 2015, I produced and directed a short film of a spoken word poem written by me and performed by Patient Carer Community members at the School of Medicine, University of Leeds. Called Voices of a Patient, it features the late Dr Kate Granger MBE, the founder of the #hellomynameis campaign, whom I had the pleasure of working with at the School of Medicine. And in September 2020, I published my second collection of poetry called Crossing the River Lethe.
Looking back, if I could speak with the traumatised and frightened man who lay on the road after such a terrible accident I’d offer, by way of advice, that the crisis of trauma will change your life in unimaginable ways. Expect ups and downs, good progress followed by setbacks, but always look for the seed of opportunity within.
Opportunities lead to new friendships and adventures I would never have contemplated had my life not flipped and turned upside down. Take each day one step at a time, with a sense of hope and openness to what may arrive over the horizon.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) counsellor says:
Philip had a good life, but a motorbike accident brought many changes and unexpected challenges, including having to cope with the loss of a limb and learning to walk again. Rather than feeling defeated, he gradually accepted his new reality, and the support from friends, family and professionals transformed his life. He found ways of expressing himself and helping others that gave his life real meaning. Often, when it comes to periods of change or endings, we focus on what we have lost. But, as Philip’s story shows, it can be far more beneficial to accept the support around us, to help us see the doors that are opening, too.