I am Peter Gray and this is my story. I'm 31 years old, father to a 9 year old daughter named Jessica, and since suffering a sever spinal injury from an accident almost seven years back, I am paralysed from my neck down.
I was born in Doncaster Royal Infirmary in 1983 and raised in the village of Armthorpe. I grew up in a house with my mum, Amanda (Mandy) and my younger brother, Mark, attending Shaw Wood Junior School and later, Armthorpe Comprehensive. An avid fisherman along with my dad, if I wasn't at school I was on the bank of a river or pond. I had a passion for rugby and football, playing both for school until joining a Sunday league Football team at the age of 16.
At school I was a relatively quiet and shy student, but a bit of a rogue at times. I did pretty well in my GCSEs but didn't complete Sixth form, leaving school initially to work with my Uncle Steve as a block paving trainee. This didn't last long though and after a brief temp role in the stockroom of a clothing store where other family members worked, I secured employment with insurance provider Direct Line, working my way up from adviser, to floor walker and on to team manager.
I continued my love for fishing after I'd left school and also for Sunday league football. After narrowly passing my driving test first time at the age of 17, I went on to be passionate about cars as well. All in all I'd describe my teen years as eventful; full of both good and bad experiences that helped shape the man I became. Some things stand out in my memory from these years like recording my first and only Ibiza trip for a football tournament, watching England play at Old Trafford and having lots of terrible cars with lots of terrible modifications, until at 19 years old I acquired my pride and joy; a BMW 325 coupe, along with my first speeding ticket shortly after.
At 22, my daughter Jessica was born, who turned out to be the true pride and joy of my life. Things didn't work out with her mum but I remained a hands on parent. At the start of 2007, I met a girl called Sarah at work. After a trip to Venice and a week in Crete, with things going well, we decided to book a two week tropical holiday before settling down together with the view of sharing a home and a family.
On 18th April 2008 me and Sarah flew first class from Manchester to the Dominican Republic on a nine hour flight and proceeded to spend the first couple of days acclimatising, exploring the resort, and dealing with constipation.
It was Tuesday the 22nd of April at around 11 in the morning, easily the hottest day of the holiday so far, the breeze had dropped too and I was feeling better than I had for the whole vacation so far. Having booked all the trips and excursions that we'd undertake during our stay that morning, we went down to the resort's beach and got our first Cuba Libre of the day (rum, lime and coke) and had been sunbathing for about half an hour when I turned and said to Sarah “I'm gonna lay here and bake for as long as I can physically take it, then I'm going into the sea to cool off.”. In response, Sarah dropped her headphones and ran into the sea saying “Not before me you're not”. I immediately gave chase and ran into the sea. At about waist deep, I attempted to dive through the next wave that was washing in...
All I remember is a juddering thud go through me and then nothing but silence. When I came to, I realised I was floating face down and could see fish swimming around the reef beneath me. I quickly realised that I couldn't move, I just felt disconnected from my body. There was no pain, just nothing.
I then became aware that Sarah was moving towards me and could hear her saying “You best be kidding about Pete”, I remember shaking my head (or at least trying to), in order to indicate to her that there was a problem. At this point I knew that the possibility of drowning was very real. Sarah saved my life by turning me over and dragging me to shore.
As we approached the edge of the water, Sarah, exhausted and panicking, couldn't move me any further and began to call out for help. Other holiday makers ran to assist to such an extent that it became crowded and the atmosphere was panicked. There was a suggestion to get me onto a sun lounger and get me off the beach; fortunately a French doctor and her husband had been sunbathing next to us that morning and she provided instruction not to move me and stated that I needed a spinal board and a medical team ASAP. A retired Scottish soldier took control of the crowd and confusion and along with the hotel staff facilitated my rescue by the emergency services. It is at this point that my memory fails me and I've no recollection of any events for around two weeks.
For more info about this period read “Sarah's diary”, a daily account of the weeks following my accident.
My next lucid thought was being in a private room within intensive care back in the UK, my mother at my bedside, talking to me but me not being able to talk back. I was aware of machinery beeping and whirring and just felt unbearably hot. I passed out again.
It was pretty much like this for the next four weeks; in and out of reality (either from the pain, the meds, the fever or the sleep deprivation), hallucinating and having night terrors.
As each week went by, I seemed to be able to differentiate more and more between what was reality and was just happening in my head. My six weeks spent in intensive care were all about working to get off of the ventilator, this involved reducing ventilated assistance day by day which was exhausting. The head of the spinal unit at that time, a Mr McLellan, proved to be the biggest motivator to get me through this, and in “black and white” told me that there was a bed on the Osborne Ward with my name on it but I had to be off of the ventilator ASAP in order to get the bed and subsequently give myself the best chance of breathing entirely on my own again, a diagnosis that we were told would be very unlikely. He set goals for me and challenged me to push for it. Whatever he did, it worked and I was soon moved to my place on the new ward and we hoped, towards further rehabilitation.
At around six or seven months after I'd had the accident, I was in a position whereby I was “trialling” family life in a really helpful scheme arranged by the ward whereby I was able to stay in a flat on site and have my daughter Jess stay overnight, so we could prepare for what it would be like in the “real world” once I'd left hospital, but still have care staff and services nearby as a precaution. It was around this time too that we did lots of campaigning to raise funding for the powered wheelchair that I needed. My mum and family did a 10 mile sponsored bike ride, my colleagues and friends at Direct Line had a fund-raising day, my group of mates also did a sponsored walk and arranged a local football tournament.
I was finally discharged on the last Tuesday of January, 2009, still in a state of total paralysis excluding the use of my head and neck plus the ability to shrug my shoulders. I moved into a house with Sarah in Stainforth, Doncaster and had one carer around me pretty much 24 hours a day with a bit of a care team on backup, just the basic level really. The next year was spent coming to terms with my spinal injury and adjusting to the life I now had to lead.
During this time I had various setbacks with my health. I had chest infection after UTI after chest infection, and felt like I was just going round in circles and I was not in the best place mentally. After around one year from my time in the Osborne ward a pressure sore was discovered right at the bottom of my back which was the start of a long and arduous process that saw me bedridden for almost a year, requiring a three month stint in hospital as a result of three surgeries (one of which resulted in me having to have my coccyx removed).
I remember that during my stay in hospital it was looking highly unlikely that I was going to be home for the 2010 World Cup and unexpectedly my mates Mowg (Wayne to most people) and Ivan turned up with all kinds of flags and England memorabilia to kit out the ward and set me up so that I could watch all of the games. My dad wasn't far behind with a few beers and other than the performances, I was enjoying myself, given the situation.
I was finally discharged with a massive wound rather than a small pressure sore and as a result of the vacuum therapy that was initially deemed an unsuitable solution, I was able to go home where I continued the therapy and was healing nicely within three to four weeks after I'd got back.
Fortunately, that has been the last of the major health problems and the last time I had to stay in hospital for any real time. Things were just ticking over until around June of 2012, when Sarah and I decided to call time on our relationship. From here on out my focus was on getting into a place of my own and setting the foundations for the rest of my life. This turned out to be a long and gruelling journey and was quite a stressful time for everyone. I did manage to enjoy that summer though and I recall my friend Ash arranging with a bar in Doncaster for me and all the lads to go out and watch the England vs France match during Euro 2012, which turned out to be an amazing night which I'll never forget, but probably never entirely remember either...
After lots of hassle sourcing and kitting out a suitable home for me, enlisting the help of a couple of local councillors along the way, I was eventually able to move into an ideal little bungalow in my native Armthorpe on March 10th 2013, with wheelchair access throughout, a few useful environmental controls (such as voice guided TV interaction) and my friends and family nearby. I was set.
Since then things improved dramatically. I think I'm always going to struggle with getting the absolute best care that I need at all times, but I'm very thankful really as I haven't had to spend a day in bed since moving in and I feel a hundred times more independent, which is testament to having the right support behind me. Now, I'd say that my physical health is better, but by far my best improvements have been psychologically. With assistance, I am able to pursue hobbies such as gardening, cooking and baking, I keep chickens and grow my own herbs, fruit and veg, and I have a pet tortoise. I also enjoy the odd spot of Strictly Come Dancing and essentially just living out the ideal life of a retired, 70 year old man.
All in all, I'm just enjoying life right now, I have my daughter around me as much as possible, me and my dad have a Saturday football betting ritual and I've had a Man Cave built in the back garden so that the lads can come round for poker nights and to watch a game whilst someone oversees a BBQ, the usual stuff a 31 year old bloke from Donny should be doing. Things are good, finally.
Up until recently, I had totally disassociated myself with the world of spinal injuries, the stories of others and just what kind of things were happening in terms of advancements with medical procedures and technologies. If I'm completely honest, I was still struggling to accept that I was disabled. It wasn't that I found it particularly upsetting and it didn't trigger any emotions from the accident, but by looking into those sorts of things it was going to force me to think about my condition and confront the depressing reality of my situation. Or so I thought.
Both Ivan and Mowg had made many attempts to get me to look at websites about new technologies that could help me out or stories of successful research with stem cells and spinal injuries, of which I was definitely interested, but once they would leave I'd not look much further into it. I think after everything that I'd been through, “hope” was not a phrase that meant a lot to me, as almost everything that had been hinged on it since my accident felt like it had gone on to be a failure, and as my adventure to get a powered wheelchair had proven previously, all of these new “opportunities” would require me to commit some kind of hope that a long and hard battle “could” be won, which I was very reluctant to do.
I've been very fortunate to have the love and care of many family members and close friends, but to an equal extent, I have also lost many friends and many relationships have broken down as a result of my situation, which is to be expected really, but some of the “I'll definitely visit you”s and “We'll try to make it happen”s eventually come at a price. So when Ivan first came to me with news of a championships for “parathletes” full of high-tech disciplines that included one for people with my level of paralysis, I was highly intrigued but even after agreeing to let him run with it and see what would happen, I had soon let the idea leave my mind.
As the weeks went by, I was getting more and more calls and more and more emails from Ivan telling me to read attached conversations and look at forms and documents. Once I read that “our” Cybathlon project had interest from establishments on three different continents, I realised that as crazy as the idea was, things might just pan out. I immediately got myself familiar with all of the details, fully connected myself with the project and began to research for further information online off of my own back. I was finally seeing what I could do with my life, rather than dwelling on the things that I missed and that were no longer possible.
Now, in April of 2015, as part of a non-profit project and with a great team and network of supporting organisations, I am registered as a pilot in the first ever Brain Computer Interface (BCI) Race at Cybathlon 2016: the World's first competitive championships for Robotic and Technology assisted paralysed athletes. The training process is under way and I'm all set to welcome our Team's Technology Leader, Dr. Rolando Grave de Peralra Menendez for his visit from Geneva at the start of May as part of the development process for our BCI device.
The rehearsals for the Cybathlon games are set for July of this year and I cannot wait to go to Zurich and get back to competing and winning. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I've always been quite competitive and I can't wait for the chance to apply myself in a competitive environment and get that edge once again, having felt numb as a mind not just as a body, for going on seven years, excluded and excluding myself from almost everything that I used to love doing.
I take each day and week as it comes, and for the most part don't like to plan too far ahead. But I now have a whole new focus and I'm loving getting my teeth stuck into information about new technologies and pursuing the new opportunities that keep presenting themselves. I hope that my story and my involvement in this project will inspire others going through similar difficulties and in time, I hope that we'll be able to develop new and innovative technologies that, as a result of my experiences, I know will help not only myself, but the lives of many others as well.