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Dublin: 5 °C Wednesday 1 April, 2020
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Opinion: It was a day like any other, until my motorbike crashed and my life changed forever

Jerry Towey lost a leg after a road accident when he was just 19 years old. Tragedy struck again 22 years later when he was training for a cycling race.

Jerry Towey

IT WAS A normal Sunday night in a rural house. My mother and father would have been getting ready to go to a dance in Ballaghaderreen. My dad would always wait for the headlines of the 9 o’clock news and they’d be out the door. The Urlaur Utd reserves had a match that morning so I’d been gone all day, as any 19-year-old fella would be in 1990 or today. Everything worked like clockwork in the Towey house.

But what was unfolding below in Foxford at the same time was changing my life forever.

I was lying face down on a road. I heard voices ‘you’re all right, you’re all right, what’s your name, keep talking to us, don’t go to sleep or you could go into a coma, there’s an ambulance coming, you were out for as good while!’

A mate of mine there said “You hit a tractor, keep the helmet on and don’t look around at your leg!” It was at a 90 degree angle to my body and I was lying face down. I don’t remember anything after that until I woke up in Merlin Park Hospital. My first reaction was ‘it’s just broken’. Two of the lads that played with me for Kilmovee Shamrocks had broken their legs playing football just weeks previously, so I thought it was no big deal.

I was put into isolation with an infection

The who, how, what, why, game was just about to start, but first I was made aware of the extent of my injuries. It didn’t sink in until I had to be transferred to the regional hospital and put into isolation with an infection, and I thought ‘I might be in trouble here’. I caught a peek at the leg when they were doing a wound dressing.

I can still see it to this day.

From just under my kneecap down along my shin to the front of my foot was missing. The back of the leg was there, but let’s just say you wouldn’t need an X-ray to see the broken bones, with a few bits of flesh over the front where my shin bone should be.

They fought a losing battle for three weeks with operations about every second day to save it. I was hardy enough of a lad, but when they told me they were going to amputate I spent about ten minutes crying. But that was it – I had to get myself out of this mess. I knew I was the worst case in Merlin over that Christmas, but I also knew when I’d go to Rehab in Dun Laoghaire I’d be the best case there. A below-knee amputee would be like a runny nose up there! I got the leg five months later and, after four weeks at Rehab, walked out the door.

I got active again by cycling

Developments in prosthetic limbs over the years have been slow but progressive. They finally nailed it with a new gel liner that they were developing for years and it worked wonders for me. It got me active again about three years ago as, with the old system, sport was more or less out. Cycling was my sport of choice quite simply because I had a mountain bike above in the shed. I stumbled over a chap that was training for his first Rás – I thought I knew what training and commitment was through GAA but this was mental stuff. He set a target for me and I went for it, hook, line and sinker.

Twenty years of watching lads piss away chances of improving themselves in sport probably drives me. Watching people with disabilities that grab with every ounce of energy and every shilling they have to improve motivates me. Those guys know they are after getting a second chance. The Para-cycling programme Cycling Ireland have is to be commended.

Tragedy strikes again

But, 22 years after losing the leg, I found myself upside down in the middle of a road again. Whether you’re a 19-year-old petrolhead or out training for the World Para-cycling Championships, the tar road is just as hard when you hit it.

This time a car went through a stop sign and hit me on a racing bike while I was out training. I had nine days in hospital with head and neck injuries. I had a bit of road rash on my hip and shoulder, another bike and helmet destroyed – and my chance of being picked to go to World champs gone with it. I couldn’t f***ing believe it. This time the odds were even greater with my own family, mortgage, job all in jeopardy.

As I’m jotting the notes for this, my mind is on an upcoming Para-cycling race. I got a text from one of the lads that’s helping organise the race, himself a hand cyclist after being involved in a road traffic accident that left him paralysed from the waist down. It reads: “No harm if we had a minute’s silence for that cyclist that got killed yesterday”. It made me realise why I was asked to writes this – maybe we can’t save a life but maybe we can try. God knows I mix with enough people that have been through the mill. I’m one of the lucky ones.

Carnage on our roads is savage but we are all just stats. I remember being a nervous 19-year-old lad at my first limb fitting appointment. It was a stupid question to ask a limb fitter but I said “Are ye busy”? as if he was a builder or a chippy. Answer I got back was the cold, hard but unfortunately the truth. “Very busy, Jerry, trying to get the leg amputees tidied up before September as the lads that will lose their arms on PTO shafts will be starting to come in by then.” (There was a few lads there that year, as every year, due to an unguarded PTO shaft.)

The most alert road users …

Back to stats, unbelievably the safest I feel on a road is in the middle of a cycling road race. God knows I’m not saying I’m a great cyclist, and obviously I struggle against good, able-bodied guys. But anyone that pins a number to their back the morning of a race is 100% focused. The bicycle is checked, rechecked, and checked again. Their body is properly nourished, hydrated, everything is monitored down to what time you ate the night before at.

In the bunch you’re listening for gear changes behind you in case you get jumped, every one is alert, sharp, visualising every bend ahead and every possible scenario is going through your head. Everyone has to be communicating or you end up in a ditch. One person makes one wrong move in, then let’s say two or three will mention it to him and everyone moves away from him.

The second accident was worse than losing the leg. From last July when I got hit till now was the hardest scrap of my life. But I’m still in physio and have trained through most of it; you have to take what life throws at you and deal with it.

The trick is to move away from danger – that doesn’t necessarily mean parking the motorbike and getting the bus, it means keeping the odds stacked in your favour. Your leathers can save you as much as helmet. As for a bike, if you mind it, you will mind you. Safe driving!

Be careful when you go out on your motorbike! Watch this video.

Watch: Gardaí release some examples of Ireland’s bad driving

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About the author:

Jerry Towey

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