Fighting fit… how military training helped an army officer beat paralysis

I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul. These lines are from Invictus, a poem by William Ernest Henley, a Victorian poet who battled tuberculosis from a young age. The strength those words espouse proved to be powerfully inspirational for a young army officer who found himself facing unbelievable odds in Australia.

It began in 2001 when 18-year old Billy Hedderman from Cork joined the Irish Army as an officer cadet. He did so because he was competitive, adventurous, and loved the outdoors – all of which proved useful during his military training at the Curragh. “I learned a lot about friendship, supporting your buddies and how to work as part of a team,” he says.

This led to a commission as an infantry officer and a transfer to Kilkenny. Soon after, Billy signed up for the gruelling Army Ranger Wing (ARW) selection course. This is a highly skilled, super-fit, special operations force, whose primary role is to counter terrorism and unrest.

Following a period of intense training, Billy passed the selection course. But, as he was still only 20, he was advised to get a degree and some overseas experience. So, he studied physical education at the University of Limerick, while remaining in the army. “You go back to your unit during the breaks,” he explains.

After that, he resumed his formal military career and saw service as a platoon commander in Chad in northern Africa. “Not only were you managing the lives of 30 soldiers, you were also tasked with providing a secure environment for the Chadians,” he explains. “It was fantastic exposure for a young leader, and a terrific learning curve.”

Having gained the requisite experience, Billy was subsequently chosen to actively serve in the ARW, where he undertook “confirmatory training”, before then commanding a group of Irish Special Forces soldiers from 2010 to 2013. “To serve and lead members of the ARW was by far the highlight of my career,” he says.

In 2014, 31-year-old Billy secured a commission with the Australian Army, which allowed him to transfer his rank as captain to an infantry unit in Brisbane.

On New Year’s Eve, he and his wife Rita drove up the coast to King’s Beach. While bodyboarding, Billy was hit by a freak wave which upended him, and slammed him head-first into a solid sandbank. Suddenly, he couldn’t move a muscle.

Fortunately, a young man nearby called for help. Serendipitously, a former emergency nurse and a student of sports medicine came to his aid and ensured optimum C (cervical) spine control. This was absolutely critical in ensuring that Billy’s injuries were not made worse by incorrect handling.

Billy remained conscious throughout the ordeal. “I saw the sand below and I thought, ‘Jeez, you got wiped there. So take a pause, then stand up’. But nothing happened, and then I started gasping for air. I could feel my head coming out of the water, which was getting shallower, so I knew people must be carrying me out.

“When they laid me on the beach, I wondered if it was ‘lights out’ for me. But then my army medical training kicked in, and I calmed down, comforted in the knowledge that I was breathing and not losing blood.”

Billy was handed over to the lifeguards and then to paramedics, who whisked him to the local A&E. “When they were testing me for sensation, I knew I was in trouble,” Billy remembers. “But then Rita and I acknowledged that I was lucky just to be alive. We agreed we’d deal with whatever came next.”

At 4am on January 1, 2015, Billy was flown by chopper to Brisbane’s Princess Alexandra Hospital. By now it had been established that he had fractured two vertebrae in his neck. He had also badly damaged his spinal cord.

Suddenly, he was a quadriplegic with no sensation from the neck down, apart from one finger and one toe. When he asked his doctor if he would ever return to normal, he was told, “I don’t know, maybe”. That small positive was all he needed. “I was OK with the fact that it wasn’t a no,” says Billy.

He was fitted with a halo brace, which completely immobilised his upper body. To do this, a metal ring was placed around his head, and then anchored to his skull. Metal rods were then connected vertically from the ring to a special chest vest. This kept Billy’s head, neck, shoulders and spine properly aligned, allowing healing to take place without further injury.

Meanwhile, Billy was still totally paralysed. “It was extremely grim and there was no respite,” he says. “But I saw it as a mental challenge, and vowed not to break. Because of the nerve damage, my bladder, bowel and sexual functions had all shut down. No one knew if they would ever be restored.”

Once Billy had been moved to the special spinal unit at the hospital, a rigorous rehabilitation process began. Rita stuck a copy of the inspirational Invictus poem on his wall. “That reminded me that my destiny was in my own hands,” says Billy. “I owed it to Rita, my family and to everyone wishing me well to do my best to recover. Even men in my unit, unbeknown to me, voluntarily did odd jobs at my house, so I was indebted to them, and very touched, too.”

What comes next is a story of extreme pain, resilience, determination and triumph as Billy, helped by therapists, clawed back his mobility and dexterity, inch by painful inch. When the halo finally came off, 10 weeks after the accident, he discovered, even though he could walk a little, he couldn’t raise his arms or grip anything. So there was still a long, long way to go. “I was always grateful for any progress, but I was never satisfied,” admits Billy.

After four months in hospital, he was discharged and became a day-care patient at the well-equipped rehabilitation unit at his army base, where his continuing valiant struggle to recover was fully supported. So much so, just seven months after his accident, he ran a 10km race in Brisbane in under an hour. He and Rita have since been blessed with the birth of their daughter, Lara.

Billy, who is still based in Australia, has now written a fascinating book, Unbowed, in which he recounts not only the details of his amazing journey back to health, but also gives fascinating insights into the working life of a young military officer here and in Australia.

‘Unbowed: A Soldier’s Journey Back From Paralysis’ by Billy Hedderman is published by Mercier Press, €16.99

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