The ride of his life

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In June 2016, Steven Dowd, like most other London city workers, commuted to his office on a regular basis. He signed up for Ride London, a 100-mile bike ride. By way of training, Steven rode the 10 miles to his workplace – a large financial services company were he was the Head of Recruitment, each day picking up a colleague along the way. “We’d take it easy. I’m not a risk-taking kind of guy. This one particular morning, I went into work and didn’t come home from hospital for four months.”

Just yards from his colleague’s front door, Steven collided with a traffic barrier jutting out into the road. He was immediately paralysed from the chest down. “I was traveling fairly slowly, but I didn’t see it until the very last second,” says Steven. “And when I did, it was too late to stop. I went over the top of the barrier and landed on my head. I had no pain other than in my cheek where I’d smashed my face into the floor. Then I tried to move and I couldn’t. That was when I realised I’d done something serious.”

World of pain
Steven had suffered an incomplete spinal cord injury; dislocating the third and fourth vertebrae in the middle of his neck, crushing his spinal cord, and snapping ligaments in his spine. The immediate aftermath was harrowing. As well as dealing with instantaneous paralysis, Steven was struggling to breathe, as the strap of his helmet was caught around his throat. “I remember thinking I need to manage this on a second by second basis,” Steven recalls. “So, get through this second. Okay, did that. Now get through this second. And I just carried on living through each second until the ambulance turned up.” Steven was assessed as being suitable for an experimental surgical procedure at St George’s Hospital, headed up by neurosurgeon Professor Marios Papadopulous. For the doctors, every second counts in terms of minimising secondary damage. In addition to stabilising the vertebrae, they placed a catheter in steven’s spinal cord to facilitate pressure monitoring and to allow for shorter reaction times. The heart frequency was lowered, but the blood pressure was raised. This is necessary to prevent the oedema from spreading.

A difference of just a few percent can have a significant impact on the long-term severity of an injury.
In normal circumstances, searing pain is not a good sign. But when Steven awoke in agony on the second day after his operation, it was a positive outcome. The return of sensation, no matter how unpleasant, was an indication that the procedure had been a success. “I felt like my whole body was on fire,” says Steven. “My wife Helen was there and I opened one eye and said to her that 200 days from now – December 22 – I’d be back to normal. Then I went back to the world of pain. But I used that promise to Helen as motivation to get better every day. I now had a goal.”

Tiny, tiny movements  
From living second by second, Steven moved to living hour by hour, then day by day, setting himself targets for his own recovery and celebrating every victory along the way. “That was my whole mantra – just to be better than yesterday.” Steven says. “All I did was focus on win by win. The tiniest thing – being able to twitch my fingers for the first time – just tiny, tiny movements. I would celebrate every victory.” Doctors were amazed by his progress, to the extent that they themselves would set him new challenges each day: from turning his head to ultimately taking his first steps.

True to his word, come December, Steven walked the turkey to the family table on Christmas Day at his house in Woolwich.
The recovery of the 38 year old is extraordinary. And he knows what it means if life changes in a heartbeat. A cure has the potential to transform the lives of tens of millions of people with spinal cord injuries worldwide, along with those of their families and their societies as a whole. “They may never work again. They lose their jobs and relationships break down. And that can change within our lifetime, within the space of just a few years. We can cure this.”

The 200-day challenge
The struggles faced by people Steven encountered in hospital, who had similar injuries to his own, were the inspiration for his 200-day challenge. On Boxing Day last year, Steven pledged to start a fundraising campaign and ride 100 miles on a static cycle – on the same day as Ride London – and to do it in under six hours. While searching for a charity partner, Steven came across Wings for Life. He was unaware of it at the time, but we had funded the very trial that had enabled his recovery. It was a natural partnership, and on the July 30, a Sunday, the Wings for Life UK team arranged for Steven to use Red Bull’s London HQ to complete his challenge. They also helped him assemble a group of other fundraisers to ride alongside him. “It was an incredible atmosphere. At mile 96, I realised I was going to be a couple of minutes over, so I put my head down and cycled my guts out. I didn’t even know I’d crossed the line until everyone cheered. I looked up at the clock and I was 20 seconds under the six hours. It was the Hollywood ending.”

Valuable support 
The event, as well as a previous fundraiser via a fundraising platform, raised over £30,000 for Wings for Life. Next year, Steven plans to take his personal mantra global. He wants to encourage a global audience to set themselves a meaningful 200-day challenge to improve their own lives and raise money for spinal cord research at the same time. It’s a cause he believes everyone has reason to care about. “You should care, because it could happen to you,” he says. “Anyone can slip in the shower or trip on a kerb and it can be devastating. I’m abnormal in the amount of recovery I’ve had. It’s great for me, it’s great for the trial, and it’s great for Wings for Life. But most people won’t get that springboard at the moment. I want to support this foundation because they are not trying to get wheelchairs or people’s houses adapted; they’re trying to stop them needing that in the first place.”

Fancy doing something fun, crazy or adventurous to raise money for spinal cord research? Click here to start your fundraiser today.

*Secondary damage: A spinal cord injury is followed by a massive breakdown of neuronal and supporting cells that leads a loss of functions.