Being told I was paralysed was devastating. But I'm a fighter: Steve Brown reveals how he overcame a broken back, and his anger, to become GB wheelchair rugby captain
21:00 GMT, 8 September 2012
Steve Brown was in bed at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 2005 when it was announced that London would host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
‘The idea that I might be in any way involved in those Games would have been laughable at the time,’ he says now. ‘It didn’t seem to have anything to do with me.’
A month earlier, while working as an area manager for a holiday company in Cologne, Steve had lost his balance on a first-floor balcony and fallen 12ft to the ground below.
Inspirational: Steve Brown has been paralysed from the chest down after falling just 12ft from a balcony in Germany in 2005
‘I landed on my bottom,’ says the 31-year-old. ‘But my head flipped backwards – a bit like whiplash in a car crash. I was completely conscious and there was no pain. But as I went to stand up, my arms wouldn’t respond properly and I couldn’t move my legs at all.’
Since that day Steve has been paralysed from the chest down, becoming one of the nine million Britons to have an acquired disability. While some of those who are disabled are born that way, about 83 per cent develop a problem later in life due to illness or an accident.
Yet Steve’s story is one of triumph – he is one of the best-known faces in disability sport as captain of the GB wheelchair rugby team. For the past ten days, the Paralympic Games has played host to disabled athletes who, like Steve, have showcased remarkable physical abilities against seemingly insurmountable odds. Today, the wheelchair rugby final will be played in front of thousands of fans.
But inspirational sporting victories are only part of the story, and today Steve is speaking out to raise awareness of the psychological challenges faced by all those who become disabled.
There is no doubt that Paralympic athletes are elite sportsmen, but for the majority of those with disabilities the biggest hurdles are mundane, everyday tasks – preparing food, going to the shops, going to the bathroom – which they may have once taken for granted.
So it comes as little surprise that an estimated quarter of those with an acquired disability are diagnosed with depression or another mental illness as a result of their new situation.
Getting physical: Steve crashes to the ground after colliding with the USA's Derrick Helton during their Paralympic match on Wednesday
‘Those who go blind are more likely to become depressed,’ says Professor Paul Kennedy, Director at the Oxford Institute of Clinical Psychology Training, and Head of Clinical Psychology at Buckinghamshire Hospitals NHS Trust (with specific clinical responsibilities for the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital).
‘Those with spinal injuries are slightly less at risk because they’re often younger and more resilient.’
According to Dr Clive Glass, consultant clinical psychologist at the Northwest Regional Spinal Injuries Centre in Southport, how individuals react depends on what they were like before their accident – and how much support they get from family and friends. ‘Each patient goes through huge emotional turmoil and it takes a long time to accept and accommodate the injury,’ says Dr Glass.
After his accident, Steve says he was at first optimistic but as it became apparent he would never walk again, those feelings turned to despair. He had been rushed to the local A&E where X-rays revealed that he had dislocated the sixth vertebra in his neck, squashing the spinal cord that sends messages from the brain to the body.
Watching these loud guys play murderball sparked something in me – it was the turning point
‘The only parts of my body that I could move were my shoulders, my neck and my elbows,’ he recalls. ‘I remember asking the doctor if I was going to die.
‘He looked at me and said, “Steven, I don’t know.” I was lying on my back and I was conscious of one tear rolling down my left cheek. But I couldn’t lift my arm to brush it away. I was the most frightened I’ve ever been.’
The post-operative prognosis was gloomy. Steve spent a month in Germany before he was transferred to Stoke Mandeville in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
‘Since the age of 18, I’d been living a totally independent lifestyle,’ he says. ‘Now, if I wanted something as simple as a drink, I had to ask a nurse for help.’
As the swelling started to subside, Steve became aware of small tingling sensations in his fingers and legs.
‘Perhaps I was on the mend. Six weeks after the accident, though, it was clear I’d reached the maximum mobility I’d ever achieve,’ he says. ‘It was as though I’d run out of hope. I was 24. This was going to be it for the rest of my life, as good as it would get.’
To give it its technical classification, Steve had been left as a C67 incomplete tetraplegic. From his breastbone upwards, he has complete, normal sensation, including full use of his hands and arms. Below it, he has little or no level of movement.
Suit of armour: A young Steve in a knight's costume
‘On two or three nights in Germany, I’d cried myself to sleep,’ said Steve. ‘Then at Stoke Mandeville, I was taken on a tour of the hospital in a wheelchair – the first time I’d been out of my room. I have never felt so helpless. I remember thinking, “This isn’t how I planned my life. This isn’t who or how I want to be.” Back in my room, I cried again.’
When he was introduced to a physiotherapist called Kara – now a good friend – Steve was irritated by her upbeat attitude. ‘She was full of plans about how I’d learn to swim and use my wheelchair properly. I felt nothing but resentment. How could she be so positive when I felt desolate’
So began the painstaking process of Steve learning how to dress himself, how to pick up a knife and fork and how to get in and out of an adapted car. ‘Slowly, I came to realise that while I wouldn’t get back any more function, I could increase the potential of what I’d been left with.
‘I like a challenge. And I didn’t want to let my family down. They were driving 200-mile round trips from Kent to see me. My mum and dad and my three younger brothers were scared so I wanted to be strong for them. But none of that meant I wasn’t angry.
‘My father Paul is a leaning post for me. He’s awesome. One day I asked him what was going to happen to me. He said, “Surely, by doing your best here, you’re going to get more out of your future.” I’ll never forget that. He made me see that every cloud has a silver lining.’
Wishing that the accident hadn’t happened seemed increasingly pointless. ‘You can’t choose the cards you’re dealt,’ says Steve. ‘What you can do is make the best of whatever’s in your hand. I’m a competitive sod. I didn’t like to think that anyone else with my injury might have coped better.’
At Stoke Mandeville, expert psychotherapy was available to anyone deemed to be clinically depressed, but Steve chose a different route. He first watched a game of wheelchair rugby – dubbed murderball because of its combative playing style – while still at the site. ‘The guys were loud, aggressive and competitive, emotions I hadn’t experienced since before my accident. That sparked something in me. They reminded me of what I used to be like. That was a turning point.’
He left rehab in October 2005 and had his first wheelchair rugby training session at the end of that month at the Aspire Centre in Stanmore, Middlesex.
‘It pushed me outside my comfort zone and was exactly what I needed. The more I played, the better I got and the stronger I became. So it was not only helping me with my physical recovery but with my confidence, too.’
Dr Glass says: ‘Rehabilitation is a combination of mental and physical therapy. Peer support is of great benefit, which is where things like team sport comes in. Psychological support depends on individual needs. We meet with the patient and family on admission and work out their clinical needs.’
Although the 11 spinal injury centres in Britain all have a psychotherapist attached, people with other acquired disabilities may not have access to such support. ‘There are many fantastic examples of care, but equally many situations in which patients aren’t given the support they need,’ says Guy Parckar, head of policy and campaigns at charity Leonard Cheshire Disability.
‘Some will leave hospital and go back to unsuitable houses or find that they or their partners have to leave work and end up in debt. Many will rely on social services, which can vary from county to county.’
Steve began playing wheelchair rugby regularly soon after leaving Stoke Mandeville and within 18 months was invited to join the London wheelchair rugby development squad, just missing out on being chosen to represent Britain at the Beijing Paralympics. But he was made captain of the GB team at the European Championships last year, a role he has repeated at London 2012. He’s also in demand as a motivational speaker.
And beyond the Paralympics ‘I’m looking forward to having a family one day, and being as good a dad to my kids as my dad has been to me.’ Does he have a partner in mind He comes over uncharacteristically coy. ‘I’m not saying,’ he says.
But ask Steve if he’s happy and he doesn’t hesitate. ‘I’m truly content with how my life has turned out. I’ve got no one to blame for what happened.
‘My life changed in that moment, but it didn’t change for the worse. It just changed direction.’