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Doctors feared I’d never walk again but resilience played a part in my recovery

Following a freak surfing accident, I was paralysed from the neck down, writes Billy Hedderman.

Billy Hedderman

HAVING SERVED AS an officer in the ranger wing, I am fortunate to have had exposure to the Irish Special Forces selection process from both a student and instructor’s perspective.

The selection process aims to ensure that the students hate the entire environment and are completely uncomfortable. Only when everything else, including physical strength and mental agility, is stripped away is true heart revealed. 

Inner strength or lack thereof only becomes apparent when the student is under severe physical and mental strain.

This is part of the selection procedure because skills, fitness and tactical awareness can be taught while resilience and hardiness are almost innate.

So why does almost every Special Forces unit worldwide place such an emphasis on mental strength and resilience?

Because resilience is much more important than is normally understood in our society.

I believe that we should be looking at strategies to improve resilience the same way that we promote fitness, healthy eating and book learning.

Food for thought may even include strategies of improving resilience as a preventative measure for depression or anxiety.

What gives me the right to throw this ‘You need to toughen up’ rhetoric in your face?

Nothing. The intent is not to preach but instead to show you how I believe my personal mental fitness assisted me when it really mattered, and how I believe that anyone can achieve this.

Challenges

I am an Infantry Army Officer in my 18th year of service having served in the Irish Defence Forces and the Australian Army.

I have served overseas in Chad, Bosnia and Iraq and successfully passed the Irish Special Forces selection process. I served as a tactical commander in the ranger wing.

I have free-fallen out of planes at night into unknown dropzones, climbed up the side of a moving passenger ferry, been interrogated multiple times, fast-roped from helicopters and much more. I’ve completed numerous adventure races, a few marathons, I have a degree in PE and I’ve written a book.

I’m not listing my achievements in order to boast. Each was a tough challenge, but the successful completion gave me the confidence that I would not give up during the next challenge.

On the flip side, I have been wholly unsuccessful in a lifetime of sporting efforts, including hurling, football and rugby and had multiple disappointments – that experience only served to reinforce my will to never stop trying.

I’ve experienced the passing of two close friends and witnessed the heartache and suffering of grieving loved ones left behind. They inspired me – if they could get through that, then surely I could survive my next challenge.

Paralysed

My biggest challenge was not what I thought it would be. On New Year’s Eve 2014 at approximately 2pm I waded into the surf on King’s Beach in the Sunshine Coast in Australia. I had emigrated to Australia just months previously.

A wave caught me unawares and dumped me and my bodyboard into the sandbar below. I broke my neck and was paralysed immediately. Luckily, I was rescued by others on the beach and brought ashore. I was subsequently choppered to a hospital in Brisbane.

I was diagnosed as an incomplete quadriplegic. I could move nothing but a toe and thumb. The doctors didn’t know whether any movement would return.

It was to be the challenge of a lifetime.

My recovery was excruciating, intensely frustrating and at times beyond comprehension. I spent four months in a Brisbane hospital, battling with incomplete quadriplegia every moment of every day.

I had no bowel, bladder or sexual function to begin with. I was bracketed into a halo brace, hoisted and pushed around in a wheelchair, and spoon-fed soup and mashed foods, interspersed with water that I drank through a straw.

It was a terrible existence, borne from a tragic accident. It might seem understandable for one to feel upset and sorry for themselves in this position. But I did not accept that. Almost immediately I realised I needed to take control of my thoughts, my feelings and my situation.

Not one medical professional could tell me what level of function I would get back if any. The medical staff knew about spinal injuries but they didn’t know me.

Talking tough

Who would talk about returning to full combat military duties during their first goal setting meeting with staff?

Who would dare to suggest that they are picturing themselves marching 15km, carrying 45kg in 155 minutes?

Who would be so reckless as to aim to skydive again after receiving that type of injury?

After every improvement and meaningful progression, I was grateful, but I was not satisfied. People congratulated me on my first stand post injury but I was already focused on taking my first steps.

I worked and worked because the thought of improvement in mobility was better than the acceptance of my current state. There was no way I was quitting on myself.

Where did this drive come from? Partly nature and partly nurture – but I don’t doubt that having previously encountered extremely challenging situations was a major benefit to me.

I took ownership of my situation and knew that it was up to me how I reacted to it. I set goals and chased them down. I treated my recovery as a race that I had to win or a military challenge I had to overcome.

I’m honestly not bragging. I’m trying to explain the importance of resilience, mental strength and determination, I think the value of those traits is not fully recognised.

During your next challenge, and I mean a real challenge, I encourage you to start your own kind of resilience training.

While success is preferable, either way, you can use your improved mental strength as a starting point for when the next challenge comes along. Remind yourself of what you have survived in the past and the challenges you have overcome, if you did that, you can do this.

You are a tough individual, don’t forget it.

When I was in the hospital, my old colleagues from the Army Ranger Wing sent me a signed picture of the successful students on my Special Forces selection course. I had it stuck on the hospital wall, and would catch a glimpse of it as I was hoisted from my bed to wheelchair each morning,

‘Look at that guy’ I would say to myself ‘he wouldn’t give up in this situation… now let’s get to work’.

Billy Hedderman is a former Special Forces Officer in the Irish Defence Forces. In 2014, he broke his neck in an accident and was paralysed from the neck down. Having made an astonishing recovery, he currently serves as an Infantry Officer in the Australian Defence Force.

Billy has written an autobiographical account of his recovery process and previous life experiences in the book titled ‘Unbowed -A Soldier’s journey back from Paralysis’ published by Mercier Press. 

He lives in Sydney with his wife and young family.

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