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The man who was paralysed after falling 40ft but who still grasps life by the throat

Published 15/12/2015

Strong bond: Andrew Jeffrey with his wife Sally
Strong bond: Andrew Jeffrey with his wife Sally
Change of fortune: Andrew Jeffrey (middle) in his oil rig days
Andrew Jeffrey in his wheelchair today

As a young man, an accident on an oil rig left Andrew Jeffrey without the use of his legs. But while he once could have imagined few things worse than disability, he has found happiness.

It took only seconds for my life to irrevocably change. It was  March 5, 1979 ... 6am, offshore oil drilling on the Sedco 135G, just a couple of miles off the coast of sub-Saharan Angola. The sun had been poking its nose above the vast horizon for a few minutes and already the heat had created a steady rivulet of sweat in the crease of my back down to the waistband of my ancient rugby shorts. My battered aluminium hard-hat was tilted down to shade the early sun.

For three years, I had learned and earned my way "up the ladder" to the post of assistant driller. I endured, not least, the rigours of working as a roustabout, roughneck and derrickman, but also three of the North Sea's often wickedly wild winters. Drilling in Angola's Atlantic waters was a breeze.

I climbed into position in the derrick, strapping my static harness around my waist on the 40ft-high stabbing board. But I found that the board had been stuck in the vertical runners from the previous joint that was settled in before breakfast. The motor would not release it, so I jumped on it to ease it down, and it released. But the safety hook had come out of the eye above me and there was nothing to stop my 40ft free-fall to the steel deck. I didn't quite reach terminal velocity, but 40ft down, with the weight of a steel platform dragging me, too, it took a matter of seconds to abruptly collide with the deck.

The whole drilling operation came to a juddering halt. I told Austin, the rig medic who had been called to the rig floor, that my legs were dead. It was at that moment I knew I had irreparably damaged my back. It took five days to get out of the country, which was imploding with its civil war, and then five months through rehab in the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital in London. This was to herald a personal epoch, in a wheelchair.

You might think that this would be the worst thing that could happen to someone, especially a man as active as I'd been. But if there's one thing I've learnt it's that misfortune isn't rationed. And over the years, I've learnt to live with that. I've been able to grasp life by the throat and challenge myself both physically and mentally and feel I've come through stronger. Better to try and fail than not to take life's experiences at all. I can see in my granddaughters' eyes that me being disabled is no big deal - they are growing up with it being commonplace. And they still melt me.

It's a profoundly challenging situation for a person to commit to a partner for life only to see them suffer a crippling accident and then purport to honour that commitment. Looking back, I'm sure it was my accident that fractured my first marriage for my then wife. We had been engaged at the time of the accident but she decided to proceed with the marriage. Disability affects all those around you - especially those so close. At the point of the marriage's demise, I was at an all-time low. My business had closed, my marriage failed and access to our sons was grievously curtailed. However, with the passing of time, I am now positively restructuring my relationship with my 33-year-old elder son.

And life rolls on. Since I met Sally in 1990, when already in a wheelchair, we've been able to enjoy 25 fun, turbulent, testing yet astonishing years together. Freelance work with the BBC in Scotland became a focus for my future, much of which was with the inspiring programme, Out of Doors. The programme became the conduit for my outdoors passion. White water rafting, parachuting, gliding, sand-yachting... almost anything out of doors in Scotland. I've been blessed with a tenacious spirit that has allowed me to laugh in the face of adverse conditions and pick up a challenge.

And I have a family that deals with disability in the same way. On moving in with Sally, I became stepfather to her three boys, Tom, Sam and Matt, who were then barely knee-height. We lived in the Scottish Borders in a converted smithy, some six miles to the south of Kelso, and our three acres opened out to the stunning vista of the Cheviot Hills and Hoselaw Loch. But my broadcasting work increased in both TV and radio and a move closer to Newcastle-upon-Tyne became the force majeure. There were two new ventures for 2000: Sally and I married and I became BBC staff.

On reflection, I did not devote enough time or attention to looking after myself medically, or as one medical practitioner put it, I was practising "self-abuse". I'd return to work too soon after UTIs (urinary tract infections), ignore skin problems or pressure sores. I had put work before my health. This was a state of mind, more than anything. I was not prepared to let my disability hinder my progress in a very demanding business.

While all of this was going on, Sally had, and still has, her own serious issues to contend with. Von Hippel Lindau (VHL) Syndrome - a propensity to have tumours throughout the body - had run in her family and she had lost both her mother and elder brother to the disease. She has undergone successful tumour eradicating operations, the last of which, in 2008, was to remove a tumour from within her spinal cord. And a matter of days after her being discharged from hospital, she lost her father, who was living at home with us, after an illness.

There were dark clouds over the Jeffrey household. And in 2010, they got darker still. I fell out of my chair sideways, taking the full force on my left hip, fracturing it in several places. Being already paraplegic, I didn't feel anything until, in late 2011, a routine X-ray revealed a jumble of bones masquerading as my hip. In early 2012, I succumbed to what I thought was a random UTI but it turned out to be osteomyelitis - a particularly pernicious bone infection.

Next stop for me was the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI) in Newcastle for exploratory surgery. Further major surgery followed into the top of my thigh, leaving a fist-size crater. I spent much of the following 18 months having numerous surgical procedures.

In 2014, I was facing the inevitable. With little or no healing inside my leg chasm, the heart-palpitating word "amputation" came into discussions. A date was set - May 15. Time to say goodbye to my left leg; time to sell my left shoes on eBay; time to readjust to new balances and transfers. In fact, another totally new direction. I had no emotional tie to the leg since 1979, so I had no appreciable sense of loss. To be honest, I was glad to be rid of the tedious routine of dressings that had been meticulously carried out at home by Sally and district nurses.

Today, I do still miss the Highland dancing, the climbing, the rugby and yes, the sex. But, supported by the endless understanding, patience and stoicism of Sally, I am able to accept my given situation realising that life has so much to give despite its travails.

And to cap it all, for now, it looks like I'll lose my lower right leg on New Year's Eve … a little like getting your wheels balanced, I guess.

Belfast Telegraph

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