At the age of seventeen I was like every other teenager. I had a year left in school, I was working part time, enjoying my weekends with friends and I couldn’t wait to leave school. It all changed for me, however, when I had an accident in July 2005 while on holidays with my family.
One moment of madness on the first night changed the rest of my life forever. I dived into a swimming pool, hit my head off the bottom of the pool and I broke my neck. I damaged my spinal cord and was left a C5 incomplete quadriplegic. I spent a week in a Spanish hospital and was flown back to Dublin where I was admitted to the Mater hospital.
It was only when I got back to Dublin that I learned that I had to be rescued from the pool as I was drowning. If there hadn’t been people at the side of the pool I would have drowned. I spent around nine weeks in the Mater hospital waiting on a bed in the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) and subsequently I spent nine months at the NRH.
I left the NRH on the 23rd May 2006 and at that point I knew I had to go back to school. It was the height of the boom and everyone that left school at the time went on to get a trade as an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a trade so I decided I had to go back to school and then on to college.
In September 2006, I went back to school and completed five subjects for the Leaving Certificate.
After that, I went on to Inchicore College of Further Education to study a PLC FETEC Level 5 Business Management Course. Following a year there, I went to the Institute of Technology, Tallaght and spent four years there studying for an Honours Degree in Business Management.
After I graduated college, I went to a talk at the NRH which was given by one of the consultants. The talk was on tendon transfer. I was really interested in this idea and I was offered the opportunity to take part in a tendon transfer. I was the first in Ireland to receive a tendon transfer whereby I underwent an operation that removed one of the three muscles in my biceps which was then moved into the area where my working triceps once was.
It was a long process and a long recovery time. I was in a cast for five weeks to keep my arm straight at a 90° angle. If I bent my arm it could easily have torn the tendon. I couldn’t feed myself or even scratch my nose. It was frustrating as hell.
After five weeks, I was put into splints. Each week the splints were adjusted by 15° to get my elbows into a flexed position. Between 5-8 weeks I was allowed to do slight exercises to start off which was great. The splints I had on my arms made me look like RoboCop!
After nine weeks, the splints were taken off during the day to do occupational therapy and physiotherapy. At night, I had to sleep with the splints on in case I damaged the tendon in anyway while sleeping.
After 12 weeks, the splints came off completely and I began to do some light resistance exercises.
It’s tough at first trying to use resistance bands. You want to dive straight in (No pun intended.)
At week 16, there are no restrictions. Weight bearing, transfer practicing, and full resistance exercises can start. It was a shock starting back exercising.
I was lifting 5kg weights and doing bicep curls before my surgery but when I started weight training again I was only able to lift 1.5kg. That equates to a little more than a bag of sugar. When you see a slight flicker in the triceps, however, you realise the last 16 weeks were all worth it.
After I left the rehab hospital, I began to visit a commercial gym to exercise but I couldn’t get used to it. The personal trainers didn’t understand what rehabilitation work I needed when I left the hospital. One trainer started showing me photos of body builders in wheelchairs in America. I couldn’t lift my hand over my head never mind start body sculpting myself.
I looked into different forms of exercises and found TRX (Total Resistance Training). I started with a personal trainer and started messing around with the equipment until we found a routine that worked. I worked with him for almost 12 weeks. Although it ended up costing more than a year’s gym membership, it was worth it. I became stronger and learned more about exercise working with him than I had ever done over the 9 years of going to the gym myself. I was able to buy the equipment and use it at home on my own. Then all I had to do was contact my personal trainer every few weeks about changing the exercise program.
It opened my eyes to the different ways people in wheelchairs, brain injuries, stroke injuries, and the blind can exercise. It inspired me to try to find a way to get the word out there.
I went back to college and became a qualified gym instructor, personal trainer and I also trained as a TRX instructor. I have built a small gym that is fully wheelchair accessible and features TRX, multi gym dull adjustable pulleys, weight bench with barbells, free weights, an electric plinth, an easy stand, and a boxing bag.
I now put personal training programs together for disabled people so they can get the proper one on one attention that is required. Whether it is doing post hospital rehabilitation programs, weight loss programs, strength programs, muscle gain programs, mobility and flexibility programs, or sports conditioning, they can all be done in a relaxing and private space.
Whether you are living in Dublin or Donegal, my aim is to get you a program. Whether it is working with myself in the gym or in your home environment and then following up with me in person or online, my aim is to help you improve. There are no more excuses for disabled people not to get the right program and make a better life for themselves.
You can keep in contact with me on my Facebook page ‘What’s Your Excuse Fitness’. Or contact me on:
– Robert O’Byrne