Steven Dowd is truly inspiring- a walking quadriplegic with a unique against-all-odds recovery journey from neck-down paralysis. He has spearheaded a number of amazing initiatives to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries. These include cycling 100 miles for Wings for Life-Spinal Cord Research Foundation and being the first quadriplegic to virtually summit Mount Everest. He is also a specialist Keynote Speaker for international organisations on forced change and crisis resilience.
In 2016 you were involved in a cycling accident that would change your life forever, can you describe what happened?
I was training for Ride London, a 100 mile cycle for charity. Of course, I wanted to buy all the kit to be the fastest and sleekest. But soon I found out that having all the state-of-the-art kit is not what matters most. It was June 2016 and at 6:30am, I set off on my bike to work when I hit a barrier I didn’t see and went over it. Head first. As I lay there face on the ground in shock, I tried to touch my face to see if I was ok, but I couldn’t do it. I tried again. Nothing. No movement. I tried to call for help, but no sound came out of my mouth. At this point I knew something wasn’t right, and a huge wave of panic rose through me. The panic was so intense it felt like someone’s hands were around my throat strangling me. And then I thought: “OK, STOP! Panicking is not going to help me. Park it to one side and just get through this next second.” So I got through one second, and I thought “OK, I got through that, so let me just get through the next one”. And the next and the next, living second by second by second.
Two ladies who were out running heard the crash and ran over to find me on the ground and alerted the emergency services. After being taken to the hospital, the doctors told me that the injuries were devastating. Due to the angle of impact I had snapped the main ligament at the back of my neck dislocating it, and one of the vertebral discs had shot toward the back of my neck. As a result I had sustained a serious spinal cord injury and instantly lost feeling and movement from the neck down. However, there was some hope. The Doctor explained that, luckily, the injury hadn’t severed the spinal cord and that Wings for Life, a spinal cord injury foundation, were trialling an experimental intervention on just 50 people and I was eligible. What would come out of this no one knew, but some hope was enough.
The surgery you had was based on a clinical trial, were there any major risks and what was going through your head when deciding to take the risk that it might not work?
I was 37 when the injury happened, and my wife and I had very frank conversations. Without the surgery I faced spending the rest of my life
in a wheelchair unable to move from the neck down. Many in similar situations can live a very fulsome life but I wasn’t sure I could go through life like that and also put my loved ones through having to care for me 24/7. At one point we discussed the option of booking a one-way ticket to Switzerland. The Doctor said there was no guarantee the surgery would work but they couldn’t make me any worse. For me it was a no brainer. Within 24 hours the surgery was complete.
What was involved in the rehab?
On day-two following the surgery I could feel really intense pins and needles from my chest to my waist and down both arms which felt like my body was on fire. To avoid bed sores I had to be turned every four hours. Anytime someone lay even a gentle finger on me, I felt excruciating pain. Hypersensitive neuropathic pain is common with spinal cord injury, and so whilst the pain was intense, it was progress. I told myself: ‘Yesterday I couldn’t feel anything, now my body feels like it is on fire; this is a good thing, something has changed. Small steps, but we are moving forward’.
Nobody gets through this alone. There was a “Team Steve”-nurses, consultants, physios, friends, family, colleagues and people I never met offering support through social media. I also had a trauma team made up of an occupational therapist for my arms and hands and a physio for the rest. We made a pact: I told my wife that in 200 days I would walk the turkey to the table on Christmas day. And so I would give my everything. It started with trying to move my left thumb. I had been trying thousands times a day, and one day it moved. At first I thought it was just a spasm, which I get a lot of, but I did it again and again. I felt great. I thought to myself: What else can I do? The trauma team recognised the determination in me and I am grateful to them, as they pushed me to try new things, sometimes out of my comfort zone, allowing me to make huge progress.
Often people focus on walking but there are other issues as a consequence of spinal cord injuries: how has this impacted you and how do you manage them?
Being quadriplegic means all four limbs are effected. It isn’t just about being in a wheelchair. Some people will need a ventilator as they cannot breath unaided. It often impacts the bladder, bowels and sexual function too. Fortunately, I have pretty much returned to normal on this front
although it’s not the same and I have to manage more carefully. With a spinal cord injury you often lose the ability to sweat. Therefore your body cannot properly thermo-regulate itself and risks overheating. You are also more exposed to urinary tract infections which can lead to autonomic dysreflexia which causes hypertension and a heightened risk of aneurysms. This can be lethal. I still have patchy sensation so, if I stub or even break a toe, I might not realise it at the time. But because the body doesn’t know how to react to the shock sensation, it again risks going into autonomic dysreflexia. As you can imagine, this can all be a knock to the self-esteem so it is really important to have support for your mental health.
Acceptance is important: to be clear this isn’t giving in but it is understanding what your situation is and what it isn’t, what you can change and what you cannot, and being smart enough to know the difference. Once you do that, it is about putting all the energy into the things you can change and not worrying about those that you can’t.
Have you always been very resilient or is it something you have learnt over time?
I once heard that resilience is 50% genetic, 10% situational and 40% how you respond. I grew up with an alcoholic dad, and my mum worked in the City in technology, then as an osteopath. She was like a mum and dad. I knew my dad had his own problems, but my mum was a role model, seeing her deal with everything. She would come home from work, look after us, then in the weekend she would build a shed or something. She never complained and always accomplished the task, so I definitely have her to thank for showing me how to keep moving forward in the face of adversity. I have learnt that you don’t know how strong you are until it is your only option. Resilience is like a muscle that you can train to respond to situations in a resilient way and over time you can call upon your experiences and how you dealt with them when you next need it.
A toolkit I developed since the injury when dealing with forced change and adverse situations is best described through C.H.A.L.L.E.N.G.E:
Choose to response effectively to a situation – Choosing to take control leads to better mental state and decision-making;
Help others help you – Make sure you have a great team around you and acknowledge it’s their journey too;
Accept the situation – Understand what you can change, what you can’t change, and the difference;
Leverage all of your resources – Understand what you have, where to go and who to call on in difficult times before you need them so it’s easier to take action quickly;
Learn through trial and error – Try new stuff. Often! Then use every outcome as a way to see what’s working (and what’s not) to tune where you put your next focus or effort;
Engage – Be 100% involved in your process and get in the driving seat. You can often have a part to play in controlling the situation and sometimes it is as simple as learning how to ask the right questions;
Never Quit – Know when to stop but don’t quit;
Grow – Regularly set new goals after hitting old ones to keep moving forward; and
Ease Up – Go easy on yourself! You won’t be your best every day and that’s OK. Remember what you’ve achieved and refocus for tomorrow.
How do you go back to a ‘9-5 job’ from this kind of injury?
I never went back to a 9 to 5 job. After the injury I realised my priorities and my definition of success had changed. Pre-injury I had a successful career in financial services, but spending 14 hours a day at work and only getting to spend time with my family in the weekends wasn’t something I wanted to go back to. I physically and mentally wouldn’t be able to anyway. So I entered a mode of “challenge creation.” For example, during the time I was in rehab I set the 200 days promise to Helen my wife that I’d learn to stand and walk again, then to return to some form of normality workwise I co-founded a tech start-up. I had never been involved in tech before so it was great to learn something new and have a focus. Naturally from there other projects and goals started to form.
Can you tell me about some of the initiatives you have since been involved in and whether you need to make any modifications to your equipment?
My resting pain levels since the injury are usually 6/10, but when I work hard, the pain can be an intense 8/10. My body will often go into spasms but it is just something I work through using my C.H.A.L.L.E.N.G.E approach. I don’t have modifications. In hospital, when I was re-learning to eat with a knife and fork, I refused to use fat handled cutlery although I was struggling. “When I have no option I’ll consider fat handles” I’d protest. “I’m recovering from injury” I’d insist. This has become a metaphor for everything I do: No fat handles in my life! I still think of myself as ‘recovering from injury’ and no matter how long it takes me, I will do things without adaptations. That said, every injury is unique and some people absolutely need those adaptations to make life possible. I’m hugely respectful of that. You do you!
At the time of the accident, I was training for a 100 mile charity race. Still determined to complete it, I created the #200DaysChallenge to raise money for Wings for Life: I would cycle 100 miles on the same bike I had my injury on but hooked up to a turbo trainer. I have since learned to ski (even though in the first week I fell over every 6ft for days on end and had to be helped up each time), I ran again in the Wings for Life World Run for charity aiming for 3k. Step by step I ran through the pain, the spasms, got to 3k, and it was like a Forest Gump moment, I kept going, got to 5k, then finally to 7k! So of course, the next year I did 7.5k! During lockdown I also did my #IsolationEverestChallenge where I climbed and descended my stairs the equivalent elevation of Mount Everest. Just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it is enough reason to quit!
As a motivational speaker how do you make your extraordinary experience and achievements relatable for people with more ‘ordinary’ struggles, say, procrastination?
Through my own experiences I hope I can share with others what I have learnt through forced change, provide effective and practical ways to face challenges in their lives and to respond differently. There is no hierarchy in challenge; what may be your most challenging moment in your life may differ from mine. But it is still the most challenging moment for you. The tools and resilience we need to respond to the situation are the same.
What advice would you give to someone who was going through a tough period?
1. Accept it: When you are going through a tough period, don’t minimise it. Don’t pretend it’s not tough. Honesty gives you the power to make the most effective decisions.
2. Share it: You’re going through a tough period, but at some point so is everyone else. You’re not alone. It will help you get a sense of perspective and some crucial support.
3. Set yourself challenges: Write them down as a plan in your diary. Very small achievable goals and when you are going to take action. Then hit them!
When was a moment you were most proud of and why?
Walking the turkey to the table: I beat the odds and fulfilled a promise to my wife, family, friends, supporters and to myself. I achieved something that was not impossible but pretty close at one point in my life and yet I really took ownership of it and made it happen.
Name a book or podcast that has inspired you? There are two podcast to recommend:
This Is Spinal Crap: This engaging podcast features spinal cord injury patients at Stanmore hospital (the same place I was in) and they discuss the ups and downs of such an injury. It can be comforting to hear them speak about similar experiences.
How I Built This: It is a business focused podcast, however the lessons we learn from business are often translatable to recovery and overcoming personal challenge. You can’t be an entrepreneur and not face difficulties.
Which song makes you feel good?
Portugal-The man. My PT in rehab was obsessed with this song and had it on repeat.
What inspiring quote would you like to share?
“Your challenge is defined not by what it is but by how you respond to it.”
If people want to hear you speak on challenge, forced change & crisis resilience or find out more about joining your next charity challenge how can they contact you?
My website is www.stevendowd.com and my contact information is there or through Linkedin. I am easy to find.
And finally, what next?
I’m really excited to share that I am creating the boldest and most ambitious new charity challenge to date. EnduRow Challenge will be the World’s biggest, fully inclusive, live, indoor-rowing charity event. Everyone. Everywhere. Pulling together. Fundraising for spinal cord injury research. Those who want to be the first to get news should pre-register interest for free (with just an email address) at EnduRowChallenge.com!
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