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'I remember the whole thing. I dived in and hit the bottom of the pool. I knew something was wrong'

Last summer while Jonathan Ranson was on a J1 visa in San Diego, he broke his neck in a swimming accident. Here he opens up about his recovery and returning to college.

Jonathan Ranson

LAST SUMMER ME and about ten of my friends decided to go over on a J1 to San Diego. 

My aunt and uncle live in Orange County, so myself and my cousin stayed there for the first few days until we got accommodation sorted.

Proper J1-syle, eleven of us moved into an unfurnished one-bedroom apartment, with all of us sleeping on blow-up mattresses.

The first few weeks were spent sending out CVs to get a job. I ended up getting one at an ice-cream parlour called Baked Bear right on the boardwalk on Pacific Beach.

On one of our weekends off, we went out on the Sunday night. We didn’t realise how strict it was to get into places over there, so we ended up heading back to the apartment complex: myself, five of my good friends and some of the girls that lived in the complex too.

There were two pools on the complex and one was right beside our apartment. Even though I had been there for about seven weeks at this stage, we had never used the other pool, but that night we decided to.

We were all in the jacuzzi. It was really warm, so I said I would go for a quick dip in the pool.

Both pools on the complex had the same layout, so I dived into the pool assuming that the deep end of the pool was the same as in the other one. Unfortunately, it was the opposite.

I remember it all

I remember the whole thing. I dived in and hit the bottom of the pool. I got what I can only describe as an electric shock up my body.

I went limp and shouted over to my friends that something was wrong. I told them I couldn’t really feel anything. Some of them had done life-saving lessons in school, so they knew what to do.

I knew at the time it was very serious. My friends kept me calm and kept talking to me while they called an ambulance that was there within five minutes. I was rushed to hospital accompanied by my cousin, Jack.

I was in and out of consciousness in the hospital – it was a bit of a blur to me.

The doctors called my uncle and aunt and they arrived at the hospital. They called my parents who flew out the next day with my brother.

I had broken my C5 vertebrae in my neck. Due to the spinal damage I was paralysed from the chest down with limited use of my arms, wrists and fingers.

I don’t think it sunk in at all at the time. I don’t think it sunk in for a few months what had actually happened to me. Maybe it was medicine, but it just didn’t register. My friends were great. I can’t thank them enough. They came in every day and stayed overnight.

My parents were just happy I was okay in one sense and were so great about it.

I was in hospital for six weeks in the States. I had issues with my swallowing reflex, so I was on a lot of liquid foods. I ended up losing three stone in those weeks.

Operations on my neck

After two major operations in California I retuned to Dublin, first to the Mater Hospital and then to the National Rehabilitation Hospital.

At the Mater I did basic occupational therapy and physiotherapy. 

All my muscles from the neck down were pretty much not working and were really weak. I was getting fed by the doctors, but over time my strength built up.

My mindset was just to get better from this, get stronger and improve as much as I could.

I was very optimistic at the time – I just thought I would gradually improve and get better.

I was always just thinking in a few weeks it’s just going to get better and better, and it has. I have got a lot stronger in the last year.

Building up strength again

From the Mater I moved to the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. I was up early, doing two hours of occupational therapy, two hours of physio, then going to the gym, doing weights, every day. It was full on and it helped me build up a lot of strength again.

They teach you how to do a lot of things there. Initially I couldn’t feed myself. I progressed on to a strap to help me and now, while I wouldn’t have full strength in my hands, I wouldn’t be able to cut up anything, but I would have no problem eating.

You wouldn’t think there are so many people out there who have had similar accidents and similar outcomes. There was a huge variety of people at the NRH. It was great to talk to people in the same situation, it helps you through it.

I was lucky living in Dublin, my friends were in to me every day. There wasn’t much time for me to sit around and feel sorry for myself or get down. Every night there would be someone there. There was a lot of people there who were from the country and who only got visitors at the weekends, so I can only imagine how difficult that would be.


It helped me a lot to have people around. It distracts you from thinking about it.

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I would have bad days, like everybody else, where I would feel sorry for myself, but then I realise it could be a lot worse. You do think a lot about all the things you used to do before. I used to play football three, four times a week and I used to play for my club in Clontarf for the last 13 years. That kind of stuff has hit me the worst as I used to do it nearly every day.

I have tried a couple of sports since the injury. The interspinal games were held over in Stoke-Mandeville, but a a lot of sports are for those with lower injuries who have full strength in their arms.

It was frustrating enough being over there. I was told I would love it, but to be honest, I found it quite the opposite. I just saw everyone doing all these sports and I was sitting there watching. You can feel even more useless. I don’t want to use the word useless, but you do compare yourself to other injuries.

Not to generalise, but people see wheelchair users and assume they can play wheelchair basketball, and they think we all have similar injuries when it is different for everyone.

Unfortunately in Ireland there is no specialised rehab for spinal injuries other than the NRH. Once you have gone through it, there really is no out-patient programme.


I have been over in physio rehab in Cambridge in the UK that specialise in spinal injuries and strokes.

I was over there three times this summer for a week at a time, so that is really what the fundraising is needed for, as none of that is covered.

The hope is there will be something like that in Ireland in the future. There are so many people who need it and would benefit hugely from it. Each month I was over there I made huge improvements, building up my muscle mass.

When I look back on last year, the difference to my life is phenomenal. This time last year I had to defer the year. I said then, no matter what, I am going back to college – I just kept that mindset throughout the year.

Over the last year, my parents, family, friends and girlfriend Michelle, and the people here in Trinity have made it so much easier for me. You can get self-centered. You don’t always realise all the things that people are doing to help you out. It’s hard to thank them, but I appreciate everything people have done for me.

Jonathan Ranson is 21 years old and from Clontarf. He is in his third year of studying for a Bachelor in Business Studies at Trinity College.

Irish travel agents have come together to support a fundraiser for Jonathan Ranson. They are donating €20,000 worth of holidays to destinations including New York, Paris and Dubai for raffle draw. Tickets are available for €20 each or a book of 3 for €50 at www.teamjonathanranson-tickets.com. Every cent goes to the Jonathan Ranson Trust. The draw will take place at Harry Byrnes Public House, Clontarf at 9.30pm on Friday 30 October under the supervision of Paul McCann, managing partner of Grant Thornton.

A charity fashion show will also be held on 18 October at the Hilton Hotel Dublin. Pamela Flood will MC and tickets and more information can be found here.

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Jonathan Ranson

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