Broken Back: when a Shower Is The Greatest Physical And Mental Challenge
black and white picture of janey mcgill scar down her back


Broken Back

Perched on a dark blue plastic chair with a broken back, five fractured and crushed vertebrae, held together by nuts and bolts. I sit frail, limp and bollock naked under the warm stream of water in a stark hospital wash room.  

the shower

Two weeks since I last showered and the nurse washes the remaining grains of polytrack from the gallops on Epsom Downs from my hair and out of my ears.  it dawns on me that I am at the start line of a very long, painful and challenging rehabilitation.

As the room filled with steam I thought to myself with an attempt at being humorous, ‘Oh God this must’ve been what Jesus felt like!’. Crumpled deep into the chair, crying inside and desperately battling to remain upright.

I pleaded with the nurse to be quick but defying any logic, and suffering a little OCD, I insisted she moisturised me afterwards. It was thick Nivea lotion that takes extra rubbing in and added to valuable time out of bed. 

Washed, moisturised but so far from refreshed I was wheeled back to the ward. There I slept for a good six hours to recover from the most simple luxury that I have, otherwise, always taken for granted. 

nothing comes close

That shower was the single most challenging physical and mental exertion I have ever endured and is yet to be beaten. It surpassed any army training I had ever done, even my JNCO’s course run by SAS staff. There is only one challenge that has come slightly close. 

The strength required to shower by myself took over a month to gain and that was sat on a little stool in the bath on a non slip mat.

I am very grateful for that accident and what it taught me about myself.

Our lives are made up of a collection of moments that shape our views, our actions and our relationships. That broken back was a defining moment for me. It set the bar high and, in hindsight, it allowed me an insight into what I, and others, are capable of.

We can always go a little bit further and accomplish that bit more if only we decide to push ourselves.

Many people would comment, ‘I don’t know how you did that’. Simply, there was no other choice in the matter. What do you do if you have a broken back and don’t strive to get better? Surely you merely exist or perish and frankly neither were an option for me.

That goes for everything, not just a broken back. My dream of joining the regular Army was dashed for various reasons. Consequently I will strive for what I want (whatever ‘it’ now is) and if I don’t find ‘it’ down one route I will try another. I will keep exploring and tunnelling until I discover what fulfils me. I might never find it but at least I’ll feel fulfilled in the fact that I have given it my best shot.

Sometimes what we are faced with is overwhelming. Tell me in that shower room that I would be walking 630 miles in a month or 90 miles non stop and I might’ve wept.

Tell me a year ago that I would be working for someone else in an office and I would’ve wept. (I haven’t yet but if I carry on much longer I might! Story for another time.) Even if it’s difficult, slowly and one step after the other. Each day building more strength and confidence, we can get closer and closer to what we are looking for.

Six years on from that shower I find myself in Kensington at the Royal Geographical Society. I am attending ‘Explore 2016’ and planning a 1000 mile battlefield tour, on foot, of the mountain ranges and deserts of Oman.

There has just been a lecture on expeditionary psychology and I have a chat with the psychologist afterwards. I tell him about this constant need to push myself harder and further since this accident.

He tells me about Post Traumatic Growth, which is basically the old cliche, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. All of a sudden my behaviours and thoughts become a little more understandable.

A fascinating, sometimes frustrating phenomena rendering me forever restless, curious of my capabilities and the will to discover how far I can go.


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