Jonjo Bright's journey back to stable ground
As a fundraising cycle ride gets underway to help him, the Co Antrim man tells Stephanie Bell how he is coping with his devastating injury
Aged 19, promising jockey Jonjo Bright broke his neck in a horse riding accident. Hours later he faced major surgery. But from the moment he regained consciousness, he’s been fighting back. Now, he works on the family farm and has vowed to walk again.
An incredibly courageous young jockey, who was paralysed from the neck down in a catastrophic riding accident two years ago, has beaten the odds to regain some movement in his toes.
Jonjo Bright was just 19 and starting out on what was a promising career in horse racing, when he broke his neck during a fall in a Point to Point in Tyrella in March 2013.
Told by a doctor that he would never again have any movement below his neck, the Templepatrick man made up his mind straightaway to prove him wrong. With an incredibly positive outlook from day one the young farmer, now 21, has been an inspiration to the racing world, his family and all who know him, by the way he has coped.
Determined to live life to the full, Jonjo continues to work on the family farm in a managerial role which sees him out and about every day in a Jeep checking on livestock.
When he is not working, he devotes hours to a specialist form of intensive physiotherapy called Neurokinex which has helped him regain some of the movement in his toes.
The neurological activity-based rehabilitation programme aims to strengthen and stimulate the body to work as one unit again. Ultimately, the rehabilitation process will try to re-establish some form of a link or pathway between the paralysed and functioning parts of Jonjo's body.
He says: "I hate wheelchairs - in fact, I hate the very word wheelchair. Our bodies weren't designed to be in a sitting position all day, so I am determined to keep my body in good shape.
"The physio wants to use repetitive movement to get some recovery in the muscles that don't work - and for me it is really, really working.
"I've been able to wiggle my toes. My legs are starting to get stronger and my hips, and even the muscles in my trunk, are stronger, too."
Jonjo is determined to keep his body as fit and strong as possible, so he will be able to benefit from any breakthrough treatments in spinal injury.
And he is convinced that one day doctors will make a discovery that will help him overcome his paralysis.
It's an optimism which has carried him through the past two years since his world came crashing down - just as his career as a jockey was getting started.
It was inevitable that Jonjo would grow up with a love for horses - horse riding was in his blood.
Breeding champion jockeys is a family affair, too - his dad John, a gifted rider, became the Northern Point to Point champion in 1993, with his mum Jayne winning the Novice Championship the same year. Meanwhile, his uncle Robert Patton was champion in 1999, and grandfather, William Patton rode many a winner back in the 1960s.
Jonjo was just four when he got his first pony.
As a child, he was a talented show jumper competing all over Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
He was known as a competitive and determined pony rider, gaining places on the Irish team for Home Pony Internationals in both Ireland and Scotland. The keen young rider, who showed much promise and ability, also took part in many major competitions, including the Royal Dublin Show and the Belfast International Horse Show.
But it was when his dad let him get in the saddle at Comber Point to Point, as a 14-year-old novice, that Jonjo's passion for racing was born.
Having left school at 16, he was looking forward to getting his Point to Point licence and was devastated when the age requirement went up that same year to 17.
The initial setback meant he spent the next year gaining experience working at various racing establishments, as he pursued his dream of becoming a jockey.
Jonjo did get his chance, though, riding in his first Point to Point in the spring of 2011, with outings on other owners' horses for the next year. He was placed a number of times and showed great potential as an up-and-coming young jockey.
Tragically, before he could fulfil his dream of riding his first winner, Jonjo sustained his horrific injury while racing at Tyrella Point to Point - putting an end to what promised to be a championship career.
"My whole family is steeped in horses and so I was always going to go into racing. It was part of our life," he says.
"When I had the accident I was only starting off in the sport. It takes a while to get up and started, and I was just hoping to do it for a very long time and ride plenty of winners."
He recalls what happened on that fateful day in March 2013 - when his whole life was turned upside down in an instant.
"It was just an ordinary day's racing and I didn't actually know if I was going to have any horses to ride. I brought my bag just in case there would be a spare ride and one came up in the last race, and I took it," he says.
"The horse made a mistake going over a fence and fell. It was an ordinary enough fall, but it was the way I fell and the impact of the hard ground that caused the damage.
"Your first instinct is to guard yourself and pull yourself into a ball, and I knew immediately I couldn't do that.
"It felt like my body from the shoulders down was concreted to the ground. I couldn't breathe properly either and I thought I had punctured my lungs."
Jonjo praised the medical care he received at the grounds, and he remained conscious as the ambulance carefully transported him to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
Unable to move, he did fear the worst. And, after a number of scans and tests, he underwent emergency surgery at midnight.
The next morning he was given the devastating news that he had broken his neck and would never walk again.
"The surgeon came in and wanted to talk to my parents, but I had regained consciousness. Although everything was a bit blurry I told him I wanted to hear what he had to say as well. I knew it was bad and I didn't want my parents having to tell me," he says.
"He said mine was an incomplete injury, so basically the spinal cord isn't cut right in two.
"I dislocated my C3 and C4 vertebrae which connects the disc in my spine - which essentially meant I had broken my neck.
"He told me not to expect any recovery from my injury down. It was basically as if to say 'This is your life now, get used to it'.
"Very shortly after that I realised the doctors say that all the time because they don't want to give people false hope.
"Before the operation I was scared and thinking the worst, but when I woke up from it I had a completely different mindset.
"I just felt it was all about the way you deal with it, and I decided that I wanted to try to get as much movement back as possible."
To the astonishment of his worried family, Jonjo insisted on going back to work on the farm.
He spends hours every day helping his dad and loves any chance to get out of his wheelchair and do his farm rounds in a Jeep.
Throughout his childhood he had a love for the farm and was very hands on before the accident. Now, though, he is using that experience and knowledge to ensure everything is running as it should be.
"I have great family and friends, and it's good we have the farm as I can spend every day doing something. It's lambing season now, but the rest of the time I'll be busy with the cows - there is always something to be done.
"My role now is in organising things and making sure they get done as I can't really labour anymore. I have an electric wheelchair, which I can get about in, but during the winter months I spend a lot of time in the Jeep.
"I know the doctors in the hospital would be saying that I shouldn't be doing these things as I'm too fragile, but I never wanted to feel that I was made of glass. I want to do as many things as possible."
Jonjo has been greatly supported since his accident by the racing fraternity, and in particular, the Injured Jockey's Fund.
His girlfriend of six years Reah Magee (21) has also been a tower of strength to him, as have his friends and his devoted family.
This Friday, one of his friends David Stanbridge (22), from Islandmagee, is setting off on a mammoth 1,200-mile sponsored cycle from Cherbourg to Nice in the hope of raising £5,000 from the month-long jaunt, for a trust fund set up for specially for Jonjo.
His sister, Anne Marie, and uncle, Robert Patton, created the fund - www.jonjobrighttrust.com - to help secure his future and pay for treatment.
"The support I have had from everyone has been incredible," he says.
"The Injured Jockeys Fund has been absolutely amazing; they have ensured that I have wanted for nothing. Since the accident they have looked after my well-being and made me feel like I am number one.
"My uncle and my sister were also concerned about my future which is why they set up the trust.
"Everyone who has supported the fund has been amazing and I can't say how much it has been appreciated.
"What David is doing is crazy and scary. I think I'm more scared than he is, at what he is taking on. I feel very honoured that he would take the time to do something like that for me.
"I can't really thank David enough for what he is doing. Saying thank you doesn't really cut it, but I really do appreciate it and what everyone has done for me.
"The support of the Trust has allowed me to go to Watford in England for the Neokintex physio which I started in January 2014 - I went for a week, every fourth week.
"They have just recently opened a branch in Antrim which is great, as I can now go there three times a week."
Jonjo's ultimate aim to is get as much movement back in his body as possible so that he can be as independent as he can.
He remains optimistic for the future.
"I'm very hopeful that medical science will make progress in treatments and I do believe that in my lifetime there will be treatments that will help me. Whether that will be in a small way or a bigger way," he adds.
"I want to be ready for it by keeping myself strong through physio, so that I will be able to make the most of any treatments that do become available."
On his bike to help Jonjo
David Stanbridge is planning to spend the next month cycling an average 60 miles every day to help Jonjo, but he says the challenge is nothing compared to what his friend has had to face.
“I have never seen anyone show such determination and strength to continue on as normal as Jonjo,” said the 22-year-old who has already raised £4,500 of his £5,000 target for his marathon cycle.
David’s challenge, which started on Friday, will see him spend every day until May 31 cycling alone and unsupported across 1,200 miles of the French countryside to fundraise.
Every penny David raises will go to The Jonjo Bright Trust and he is appealing to the public to support him with donations.
You can help by visiting the Cycling for Jonjo Bright page at www.fundrazr.com.
For more information or to help fundraise for Jonjo go to www.jonjobrighttrust.com/