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Dublin: 8 °C Friday 18 October, 2019
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Jamie Wall - ‘I can’t force my legs to start working, the only thing I can control is my attitude'

Last June, Cork GAA player Jamie Wall lined out for his county but a freak incident has left him facing a big battle since.

Jamie Wall played for Cork in the 2013 All-Ireland U21 football final. Source: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

“THAT FIRST 10 seconds you wake up, you don’t remember what’s going on. You have your normal waking thoughts. It’s another day. But after that 10 seconds it kind of dawns on you where you are, the situation you are in.

“That is the toughest part of every day. For those 10 seconds you forget and then it dawns on you. “I’m here, this is where I am, figuratively and literally”. After that you have to get down to work.”

Jamie Wall, September 10th, 2014

****************

On June 25th last, Jamie Wall lined out in the Munster intermediate hurling final. Cork v Tipperary, a Wednesday night in Páirc Uí Rinn and the match unfolded with a routine win for Cork. Wall lined out at wing-forward, did his bit for the cause and celebrated the victory with his team-mates.

It was his first season out of the U21 ranks but he entered his adult career with a sporting CV that bristled with potential. In 2010 he played for Cork in the All-Ireland minor football final against Tyrone. For the next three years he picked up Munster U21 football medals and came up just short in last year’s All-Ireland decider against Galway.

He hurled as well. For his club Kilbrittain, for his county at minor and U21, and for his college. In the spring of 2013 he featured as Limerick’s Mary Immaculate College reached their first ever Fitzgibbon Cup final. Their teamsheet read like a roll call of stars – Clare’s John Conlon, Limerick’s Declan Hannon, Galway’s Conor Cooney and Cork’s Luke O’Farrell all involved.

Jamie Wall and Stephen Roche Jamie Wall (left) in action for Mary Immaculate College in last year's Fitzgibbon Cup semi-final against WIT. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

The intermediate win propelled Cork towards the All-Ireland series and the season of activity stretched ahead for Jamie. He’d been bothered before that game by a slight pain in his back but dismissed it as one of the expected aches that a sporting battle will bring. Three days after that Tipperary game, he was at home in West Cork and the warning signs went off.

“It was getting a small bit worse, it was a dull kind of pain. By Saturday mid afternoon, I knew there was big trouble. I still had a little power in my legs but I knew there was something seriously wrong. If you are ever going to be scared in your life, it’s not going to be heights or it’s not going to be flying in a plane.

‘Scared To Death’

“It’s trying to move your legs. Looking down at them when they are not going. You are saying ‘Jesus what is going on, why can’t I move them’. Try get out of the bed and your leg buckles underneath. If you are ever going to be scared to death, absolutely petrified, it’s then.”

An infection had developed, an abscess on his spine. He was rushed to hospital in Cork and then on to Beaumont in Dublin where he was operated on. Three days later, he met Dr Mark Delargy from the National Rehabilitation Hospital. He sought a prognosis as to when he could get out of the wheelchair and his legs would start functioning again.

“The initial meeting with Mr Delargy, he said you have a glimmer. Every case is different, my own wasn’t like a car accident or a contact injury. It was an illness, a compression. So instead of it just being a snap break it was just grinding away just down on top of the spine. You just go from playing all your life to…”, his voice trails off.

Home

Beaumont would be his home for the next ten weeks. He had to re-adjust and cope with a changed life.

“The thing with the blood pressure, that was the first problem I had. The first time I was literally brought up into a sitting position at the edge of a bed, it was like I’d got knocked out by a boxer, seeing stars.

“I rang my cousin who’s a doctor and asked her is there anything I can do. She was saying, fruit, water, salt. So the next day I’d a press full of fruit, 7 or 8 litres of water beside me and horsing salt on to all my food. I saw improvements in that straight away. In fairness to Beaumont they are very good, I couldn’t speak highly enough of them. They pestered the physios into giving me two sessions a day.”

Jamie in action for the Cork minor hurlers in 2010. Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Progress was difficult but he did notice improvements.

“When you think of someone learning to walk again and getting better, you have the image of the person with their hands on the walking frame and sweat pouring through them when they are trying to take a step. That is the glamorous stuff. That’s the stuff you are dreaming about doing.

“The rotten stuff like the shower chair. Having to negotiate how to get in and actually just wash yourself. Stuff you take for granted that you don’t realise. There is still no getting up, walking around. But I have had massive improvement in the nitty gritty, the less glamorous side of things. Just managing your whole body. Managing stuff like transfers in and out of a chair.”

Dun Laoghaire

Since the first Friday of September, he’s been in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire. Doireann O Muircheartaigh, daughter of the legendary GAA commentator Míchéal, runs the sports gym there.

“I’m doing an OT session, then I’m in the sports gym, then dinner, back for a physio session. I might get a bike done early so to get something else done.

“The way I set it up for myself first day was the most perverse way imaginable. You are a professional athlete for the time you are here. Your only job, instead of getting better at something, is getting better full stop. That’s the way I try to keep myself sane to just go at it.”

Positive

His positivity is admirable in a tough and unforgiving situation.

“I can’t force my legs to start working right now. I can’t control them to get better, they either will or they won’t. The only thing I can control is my own head and my own attitude. Being negative isn’t going to make me any better.

“There are going to be dark moments and horrible moments. I’ve had them all. There’s moments when you think the worst. At the moment I’m in a scary place, you can’t hide from that. But I just resolved myself, the things I can control I’m going to do everything I can to control them.

Bad Day

“Sometimes when you’re having a bad day, try to find one small thing I can win at. Something that makes that day a success. Even if it’s something as simple as doing something unassisted that I haven’t done before.”

And while he tries to get his legs better, he remains grateful for the use of his hands.

“I’m unlucky where I am but I’m lucky that my hands are okay. Here you see people coping and dealing with slightly different problems than yours. There are guys who can’t hold a fork, they need a hand with dinner. That hammers it home to you that these guys are getting on with it. You have to buck up and get on with it too.”

Source: jamwall7/Instagram

Sport has helped him. The day after he arrived in Dun Laoghaire, the NRH Spinal Championships took place with games of wheelchair hurling, rugby and basketball. The simple act of partaking in sport again was a joyous release.

“The basketball, I was shocking at it, horrendous. The rugby was a bit easier because you just throw the ball in to your lap, crash into some fella. We won the hurling. We had a young fella there from Waterford, only 15, called Alex. He ran the show.

“It was just class. For the last 10 weeks, the closest thing I had to a competition was a game of Connect 4 against one of the physios in Beaumont. It was great to get a hurley in your hand, a ball in your hand. Some of the physios in Beaumont had me doing it the odd day just for sitting, balance work, throwing sliotars and swinging a hurley.

“For the first time ever to lose was great, as there was something actually on the line there. I never thought I’d be happy with something that I’d lose. It’s not a competition if it’s something you can’t lose. That was the first taste of that I’ve got since the Tipp game. That was just nice to play sport.”

He played and became immersed in it and for a fleeting moment, he forgot the hardship of his situation. Those are moments he savours, grasps and tries to cling on to make them last.

Moments

“You might get it once a week, once every two weeks. That’s if you’re lucky. You could go three, four weeks without that when you mightn’t feel. That five minutes when you forget about the chair and you’re just enjoying yourself.”

Watching the Cork Tipperary All-Ireland semi-final at his aunt’s house in Kilmacud was one example. The drawn All-Ireland final was another. Witnessing live sport prompts him to wrestle with the idea of being at peace with his sporting career being parked.

“I try to say to myself that I’ve made my peace with maybe not playing again. I haven’t made my peace with not walking again. I won’t be negotiating that. I try to say, ‘Look Jamie, you have to be realistic now, the odds of you getting back on the field are fairly slim.’ Then every time I watch a match or go to a match, I’m like ‘No, I haven’t made my peace with that at all’. It’s the same every time you watch a match.”

Before that day in late June, when he looked at his legs in terror, he didn’t know much about Mark Pollock. At 22, Pollock lost his sight and in 2010 he had a freak fall and became paralysed from the waist down. But incredibly he fought back and is now helping lead the charge to investigate and fundraise for medical advances in the area of paralysis and spinal cord injury.

“Within two weeks of me being in here, my friend Sarah actually got a job working for Mark. It was really weird. You’re thinking maybe there’s something aligning here. The day I met him, he just blew me away.

“The stuff that he’s doing is fairly selfless. He knows himself that he’s really working for other people with spinal injuries as much as, if not more, than for himself. If he does find a way out of this, it’s going to be the biggest thing in the world.

“I don’t know how he’s so positive. A lot of people have said to me and it’s a nice compliment to get, about my positive attitude. But I don’t know how I’d do everything that I’ve had to do if I was blindfolded. I just think there’s a man who’s really dealt with. He still manages to stay positive, driven and fighting to say there’s going to be a way.”


Source: True Films/Vimeo

Details of where to see screenings of the Mark Pollock film ‘Unbreakable’ are here.

*******

Jamie looks at Mark, is inspired by him and borrows that ethos to channel into his own approach. The concept of giving up is not entertained.

“At the moment, I’m still hoping, praying and doing everything in my power to make Plan A work. I haven’t got my head around what Plan B might be at the moment. But there has to be one, one way or the other whatever it is.

“If this is not to go my way, it won’t be because I didn’t do enough. I’ll try, it might not work out, I’ll try again, it might not work out. But I’ll know at the end of it that I have given everything I have to get back as far as can get back.

“If that’s playing in Croke Park in five years time which would be a pipe dream, great. If it’s walking with a stick, at the moment that’s great. Whatever it is, it won’t be because I stayed in bed one morning instead of going to my therapy or it won’t be something that I didn’t do or did do.

“The big attitude I’m going to have is I’m going to go down swinging. If I go down, it’ll be going down swinging, it won’t be because I gave up.”

“Jamie Wall is supporting The Life Style Sports Run in the Dark 2014 which will take place on Wednesday November 12th at 8pm. There are 5 official locations – Dublin – Cork – Belfast – London -Manchester and 40 pop-up locations confirmed world-wide.

“This annual event plays a vital role in supporting The Mark Pollock Trust’s mission to find and connect people worldwide to fast-track a cure for spinal cord injury.” To sign up for either the 5K or 10K runs and join “Team Jamie” log on to www.runinthedark.org .”

How Podge Collins, Frank Murphy and the GAA community have helped Cork’s Jamie Wall

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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