In September 2012, Frank Lawlor received the phone call that every parent hopes they will never receive.
His son Brian, who was 16 at the time, had been involved in a cycling accident and was being rushed to hospital.
Frank explained that he received the phone call from one of Brian’s friends but at first he presumed that Brian had broken his arm or leg and possibly had some scratches and bruises.
He quickly got into his car with his daughter Niamh and drove to Glencree where the accident had happened. By the time he got there, however, an ambulance had already taken Brian away.
Frank explained that he then drove to St Vincent’s Hospital in Dublin where he met up with his wife Carmel, and all three family members waited patiently in the hospital A&E to meet Brian’s doctors.
“We were there for a few minutes and then our names were called. The nurse who brought us through to A&E then said, ‘Come in here, the doctor wants a word with you first.’ And that was it. That was when the penny dropped. My heart sank and I’d say if anyone saw me the blood ran cold from my face.
“The doctor and nurse came in then and the doctor just said to us ‘Brian is after sustaining a very serious spinal cord injury. I’m going to bring you into see him now but I don’t want you to get a shock.’ He then told us what to expect.”
Brian had sustained a C5 incomplete spinal cord injury and was paralysed from the neck down.
He lost all sensation and mobility in his arms and legs.
Frank said when the doctor brought him through to see Brian he tried to stay calm for the sake of his son.
“It was very hard because he was strapped down to a spinal board. He was only 16 years of age and the tears were rolling down his face. He knew he couldn’t feel anything below his neck and he just looked at me and said ‘Dad, I’m very afraid.’”
Brian was rushed to the Mater Hospital that evening where he underwent emergency surgery to stabilise him.
Frank, his wife and his daughter were all warned, however, that he most likely would never regain any mobility again in the future.
Brian came out from his emergency surgery after midnight that same day and was transferred to the intensive care unit in the Mater Hospital.
“That pretty much ended the day. It was a long 13/14 hour episode and it was a day that I will never forget.”
Brian spent nine weeks in the Mater Hospital and in November 2012 he was then transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire for a further five and a half months.
Over the months that he spent in hospital, it emerged that Brian had also bruised his spinal cord from C2-C6 and his injury level meant that initially he had to have a tracheostomy installed to feed him. So, for a number of weeks, Brian could not speak.
The break through moment for Brian and his family came one day when Brian was in bed and his nurses noticed he was a bit agitated.
“He couldn’t talk because of the tracheostomy so they weren’t sure what he was saying. They thought his hands were hurting him but what he was actually trying to mouth to them was ‘My hand, my hand’.
“And what had happened was, he was actually moving his little finger on his left hand by himself. He was doing it and it was amazing. You could see the lift that that had given him. It was a couple of days after that then that he was able to make a little fist with his fingers on both of his hands. Now, his left hand was better than his right hand and even today his right hand is still not great, but the fact that he was moving them was amazing because it meant that there were signals getting down there to his hand. And it was another couple of weeks after that that he could make a little fist with his toes. Up to that point, I thought that it was brilliant that he even got his hands back but I still had no idea whether he would ever walk again.”
Brian continued on his rehabilitation at the NRH and miraculously, he managed to walk out of the NRH in April 2013.
“He went into the NRH in a wheelchair and everyday he was lifted in and out of bed using a hoist, but he walked out of that hospital. It was truly amazing. Now having said all that, he’s still a bit unsteady on his feet and his stamina would be poor. He also has difficulty lifting small things with his hands, and turning pages, things like that and that’s five years later.”
Frank explained that as a Dad, there were times when he really struggled to figure out how to help his son.
“His adolescence came to a full stop when this happened. He was only 16 years of age which was heartbreaking. He actually had his 17th birthday in the intensive care unit of the Mater Hospital.
“Every so often, even though I wasn’t there at the time of his accident, I can visually see him cycling down that road and going over the handle bars. If you know me, you’ll know I’m a fixer. I fix things and people come to me and I help them with DIY and things like that. But I can’t fix this. And that’s heartbreaking because in your mind you’re letting him down. That might sound a bit mad but that’s the way it can get to you sometimes. It changed Brian’s life as all spinal injuries do, but it’s also life affecting for a family. And it has affected our family big time.”
Frank explained that after Brian was discharged from the NRH, he wanted to give back in some way to thank everyone for their help along the way.
“I got involved with Spinal Injuries Ireland because, along with the NRH, they did so much for us and I wanted to pay everyone back. I’m not a rich man, all I can offer people is my time, so I decided to get a driver’s licence to drive a mini bus. As soon as I passed the driving test for mini buses, I offered my services as a volunteer driver to SII and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
Frank now volunteers with Spinal Injuries Ireland every month and drives the SII adapted accessible mini bus which brings SII clients out on regular trips.
“I am so proud of Brian and how far he has come. He is an incredibly determined young man and given everything that has happened to him, he is doing extremely well. He will always have hurdles to overcome but I am proud to call him my son.”