spinal-cord injury

Almost one year on – the fateful day

On 7 October it will be the one year anniversary of my accident. As we lead up to this auspicious day, I thought it might be of interest for my wife and I to post a few recollections on our experience of the past year.

I guess the obvious place to start is the day itself. It was mid-semester break and my family and I were staying with my parents at beautiful Callala Bay. The morning of the seventh started perfectly with an early surf in a crisp swell with offshore breeze. There is no doubt that surfing is one of the things I miss the most, and I still find myself looking longingly at waves. But it is, at least, a nice thought that my last day with legs included embracing the joy of the waves.

Returning from the surf the family was keen to head into Nowra. My boys, especially the oldest Jeremy, had been longing for some weeks to have a go at the skate/bike jump that had been set up for the youth group at Nowra City Church. The generous pastors Peter Pilt and Simon Clegg were happy to oblige, so off we all went – my wife, my boys and my mum – to the church.

The kids were having a great time, and I’d seen photos of other “old men” like me using the jump. It looked safe, as the landing was a seemingly soft pit full of foam. Grabbing a pushbike off I went, into the air and landed unspectacularly in the pit.

I knew instantly I’d broken my neck. I did not black out but I simply could not move anything. I shouted out as much to my wife who was videoing the jump (we have a video but I have not had the fortitude to see it). She thought I was joking, but my repeated avowal created instant shock waves. Elly and others came into the pit. With my head under the foam I was struggling to breathe and I pleaded to be lifted up. Wisely, they moved the foam around my face but kept me still. Thank God, because movement could have worsened the damage, further crushing the nerve cord (although I’m not sure what it means to thank God in this situation – can you be thankful that things are not worse when they are bloody terrible?). An ambulance was called. Paramedics arrived, stabilised my neck. A helicopter thundered in. Sometime later I was taking the 23 min flight from Nowra to Prince of Wales Hospital – my first in a helicopter!

It is impossible to describe the feeling of the seconds and minutes and hours that follow spinal-cord injury. On the one hand it is surreal; a phantasm – the “feeling” of moving an arm or leg, but no response. On the other hand you are consumed by utter panic, by the sense that this cannot be real, but the certain knowledge that it is. It is simply overwhelming, the realisation that your whole life has changed and, perhaps worse, that you have placed a terrible burden upon your wife and family. I remember apologising to Elly. I remember being thankful that it was me and not one of my sons lying on the stretcher. I remember kissing my family goodbye. I remember the paradox of pain, yet having no feeling. I remember drowning in fear. I remember trying to be calm, making a conscious choice to slow my breathing. I remember being encircled by paramedics and yet being completely alone.

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About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Anne Cunningham
    October 13, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Hi Shane,

    Confession time – I have been a ‘lurker’ on your blog ever since I heard about your accident. I have prayed countless times for you, for Elly and for your boys, many times feeling that ‘nudge’ to pray in the middle of the night.

    Thought it was about time I told you what an inspiration you have been to me and just how much influence you have had on my life. I don’t say that lightly… perhaps you should first read the post on Jo Hilder’s blog entitled “Because Influence Must Be In The Real World, Not Just In My head” to understand what I mean by ‘influence’.

    I have been struggling with ME/CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) for over 20 years. It’s a woefully inadequate name for the illness because it involves a myriad of symptoms, not just disabling fatigue. I often struggle to maintain a positive faith-filled attitude, and am often temped to have a moan about my limitations and the ‘smallness’ of my life. And then… I read about your limitations, your struggles and issues, and I am ashamed! You have inspired me to aggressively pursue an attitude of gratitude, to really appreciate everything I am still able to do no matter how small.

    No matter how fatigued and wracked with pain I am able to get out of my bed, to toilet myself, to shower myself (the longest I’ve gone without a shower in a bad spell is four days), to get my own food, etc etc etc. When I’m tempted to have a little ‘pity party’ for one, I remember your situation. I give myself a stern ‘talking to’ and remind myself to be grateful for the things I am still able to do, and how much it would mean to you to be able to do these things for yourself. I could at least have switched off the distressing Norah Jones music!! (From the blog post after this one).

    Please keep writing your recollections. You may at times feel like there’s nothing worth saying, but as I see it (and I’m sure many others as well) it’s all worth saying. You are real, honest and ‘raw’ at times. It all needs to be said, and it needs to be heard to balance some of the ‘super-spiro’ in Pentecostal faith. Don’t know how you deal with the “you will be healed if you have enough faith” people so graciously. After 20 years of it I confess I just want to slap them down… but I don’t have the energy! Ha!

    I continue to pray for peace for you, and for quality of life for you and your family – whatever that may look like in your unique situation.

    Blessings, Anne

  • Anne Cunningham
    October 13, 2011 at 11:22 am

    Oops… the correct link for Jo Hilder…

  • Shane Clifton
    October 13, 2011 at 11:49 am

    goodness me Anne, this is a very humbling reply. I have been doing this for a year and simply can’t imagine the challenge of 20 year struggle with fatigue and pain. but thank you for your prayers and your encouragement. It is staggering to hear that this little blog can influence anyone – and I have been worried lately that I am sounding like a whinger. Blessings also to you, sincerely Shane

    • Anne Cunningham
      October 13, 2011 at 2:30 pm

      Loved your definition of faith on a blog from earlier in the year… “Faith knows that God can heal (and prayer for healing is an appropriate response to such knowledge), but it also trusts God in all the messiness and crises of life. Faith is able to hold together a hope for a better future with acceptance of the reality of life as it is.”

      I wrote that down and carry it with me in my purse… and I have shared it, and your story, with quite a few people.

      Anne 🙂


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