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'Losing a leg has never stopped me from doing anything - I even took part in a relay swim in the North Channel'

Co Armagh man David Burke lost his leg in an accident when he was seven years old. Now he tells Kerry McKittrick how despite losing a limb, he is now a record-breaking open-water swimmer.

Published 18/10/2016

Fighting spirit: David Burke became an amputee at the age of seven
Fighting spirit: David Burke became an amputee at the age of seven
Happy memories: David on his mum Nancy’s knee before he lost his leg. Also pictured (from left) is his late father Raymond with his sister Ann Marie on his knee, brothers John, Edmund and (standing at the back) Vincent
David coming out of the water at Glendalough with a marshall
Fighting spirit: David Burke
David Burke
A synthetic hand

On September 17, 1972, David Burke's life changed forever. As a seven-year-old growing up Newry, he was taken along with his two brothers to see some stock car racing by their dad in Dundalk.

"Newry in those days was a bit of a war zone," recalls David. "My dad took us out to get away from it."

Tragically, the stock car race at Dundalk would change the young boy's life forever.

"A car came off the track and into us," he says. "My brother got some broken ribs and cuts and scratches - but I got the full front of the car," he explains.

David's left leg was severed below the knee and severely damaged above it. His right leg was almost severed, too, and his right femur broken in two places. Astonishingly, despite his horrific injuries, David has no memory of any pain.

He says: "My brother kept talking to me the whole time in the ambulance and he probably saved my life. I can remember looking down at my leg and seeing the bone sticking out. I thought 'I'm going to miss school tomorrow'."

At the hospital, the surgeon was able to save David's badly injured right leg - mostly thanks to the insistence of his father. He also told him that, while it might not seem like it, losing a leg at seven was much better than losing a leg at 17.

"He was right you know," adds David. "When I woke up after the surgery, a nurse told me I had lost my leg and all I thought was 'right'."

David spent the next weeks in hospital, at first in traction, as his broken femur healed, followed by more surgery to smooth down his stump and remove the bone that still protruded out. It wasn't until April of 1973, that he was given his first prosthetic.

"Your first leg is very basic - just a socket and ball and a rocker for the foot. It's supposed to just get you on your feet and let the muscles in your stump and your other leg develop," he says.

"My parents were very worried about me and how I would manage. They took me out to an open day at the fire station in Newry - my dad was friendly with the crew there - I had just got my leg that day. They turned around to look for me and discovered I had climbed up to the top of the fire engine. Losing a leg has never stopped me doing anything.

"I've had lots of legs over the years - as you grow, you get a new leg about once a year. Mine never lasted that long because I always wrecked them, my friends were running around and I was running around with them."

It was in the late Eighties and early Nineties when technological advances in prosthetics really developed.

He recalls: "When metal legs came in, they got a lot lighter. Then I got a Mauch knee - a gas cylinder at the back of the knee to enable me to bend it. My consultant told me to come back in a week's time so he could adjust it.

"I told him I was heading off to Germany the next day with a rucksack and my mates. He gave me the instruction booklet and a set of Allen keys - my friend had to adjust it in the middle of a train station in Germany."

Now 53, David works for a web design company and lives in Camlough, Co Armagh, with his fiancee Martina. He has two children, Cahal (21) and Tiernan (17), from his first marriage.

"I have an Endolite foot and a silicon cover on my leg, so it looks very realistic and functions much better, giving me a good range of motion. I wear shorts or three-quarter-length trousers a lot and, without properly looking, you wouldn't know I have a false leg. While I walk with a limp, it doesn't stop me doing things like driving a car."

Although he might not be able to run marathons, David has never let his disability hold him back. As a child, he learned to swim with the rest of his classmates and at the age of 17, he took up swimming and water polo. He would even go on to swim for Ireland in the Paralympics in the early Eighties.

"Then I got married and had kids and it (swimming) fell by the wayside for a bit," adds David. "It wasn't until after I met my partner, Martina McGarvey, that I started open-water swimming. Initially, I would help out with stewarding at Camlough Lake but then thought that I could achieve better times than the people who were doing it did.

"Martina bought me membership to a swimming pool and the first time I went in, I found myself swimming 64 lengths. I decided to keep going and took part in a few open-water events.

"One day, a friend put a piece of paper in front of me and told me to sign it - he wouldn't show me what it was. After signing it, I realised I was registered to do a North Channel relay between Northern Ireland and Scotland the following year."

The North Channel swim is considered one of the hardest open-water events because of the low temperatures, tides and jelly fish. The training is tough and David found himself in the water every day at 6.30am.

On July 5, 2014, David, along with his 11 teammates, completed the relay swim of the North Channel in 12 hours, 52 minutes. David also entered the record books as the first amputee to swim the North Channel in any form.

Since the 2014 swim, the Camlough man has completed another North Channel relay, going on to forge across the English Channel as part of another team event a month ago. But while David can leave the rest of us in his wake in the water - on dry land, it's a different story.

"I can't run because I have an above-the-knee amputation," he says. "It's my only regret because I absolutely love Gaelic football and would love to have played it. I might not have been any good at it - but it would have been great to put on a Down jersey."

Although his prosthetic leg has a life-like appearance, it doesn't escape everyone's notice.

"Children are the best. They will walk around me in a circle looking at my leg, or they will stand and point at it. Their parents are dying of embarrassment, so I get more fun looking at their reaction. I tell the kids all sorts of stories about it, that it got bitten off by a shark and that sort of thing.

"Generally, people don't say anything but they do look," he adds. "I saw a guy walking into a lamppost because he was too busy looking at me to see it - and some people comment.

"I was in a shopping centre one day wearing a pair of shorts. A woman came up to me and told me I was a disgrace. She said she was embarrassed by my leg and asked me to cover it up or leave the shopping centre.

"I asked the woman if she had any children - she did. I asked her what she would do if one of them lost their leg the next morning. Then I just walked away - I didn't know how else to deal with it. I think you should just ignore people like that."

As for his swimming, David admitted he's not quite done yet.

"My next challenge is to get a group of amputees to swim the North Channel next year.

"If I'm honest with myself, I also want to complete a solo swim at some stage and the team behind me at Camlough want to see that, too. The training is tough but you can only put one arm in front of the other.

"I truly love swimming. I love the chance to be equal with everyone else in the water. The training is hard but I even enjoy the early mornings and cold water.

"Our swim community at Camlough Lake is very close. We help others achieve their goals from big swims to getting in the water for the first time. After all, you never know where those first few strokes will take you."

Limb amputations... how it can happen

  • Causes which may necessitate a limb amputation; as well as severe trauma, such as a crush or wound, there can also be infections or deformations which limit the movement or function of a limb
  • In the UK one of the most common reasons for amputation of a lower limb is as a result of complications from diabetes. It’s estimated that there are now around 135 cases of amputation each week due to diabetes complications
  • Many amputees use a prosthetic — everything from a false leg or hand to a face mask. In fact, prosthetic limbs have been in use since Egyptian times. They have come a significantly long way since the days of a basic stick in place of a leg. Nowadays patients can be equipped with functioning hands that react to the contraction of arms muscles
  • Limbs can cost well over £25,000. However, with improvements in technology resulting in materials such as carbon fibre and machines such as 3D printers, limbs will hopefully become cheaper and more readily available in the future
  • For more support and information about prosthetics in Northern Ireland visit

Belfast Telegraph

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