Banbridge model Nicholas Gray narrowly escaped being paralysed
Model Nicholas Gray (27), from Banbridge, tells Stephanie Bell how almost dying while doing the sport he loves, made him change his priorities
Superfit local model Nicholas Gray had the world at his feet when his life changed in an instant last July. He was due to fly to London for a major modelling photo shoot and was excited to be competing in his first mountain bike contest - the Irish National Trails - when fate dealt him a horrific blow and he broke his neck.
Lucky to be alive after completely shattering two vertebrae at the top of his spinal column - an injury which doctors said should have left him paralysed - Nicholas now faces a very different future.
He has gone from enjoying a full-on glamorous and active lifestyle - partying, modelling and working out in the gym every night as well as running and cycling several times a week - to being almost completely housebound.
Nicholas depends on friends and family to take him out as he can no longer drive because his neck movement is so limited and he can only walk with the aid of crutches. He also has paralysis in his left arm.
What is perhaps most astonishing about the traumatic events of the past few months is how Nicholas has dealt with them.
Instead of regrets, sorrow and even understandable self pity or anger, this inspirational young man feels only gratitude and says the ordeal has taught him valuable lessons about appreciating life.
He is determined to get well enough to go back to the gym, return to modelling and is currently working with a business partner on setting up his own company specialising in graphic design and photography. "I just want to keep negativity out of it," he says. "It could have been a lot worse. The doctor told me I could have died and because of my injury I should be paralysed from the neck down and I'm not.
"Yes, life is tough but I'm lucky, I'm walking and I'm talking and there was definitely someone looking out for me."
Nicholas, who has been a fashion and photographic model from the age of 17 for an agency in Dublin, had just taken up mountain bike riding a year ago.
Like everything he puts his mind to, he gave it 100% and was practising for his first major contest in the Irish National Championships when his accident happened.
He recalls: "It was a week before the championships and me and a few guys met to go over some race style runs.
"I was coming downhill and there was a bank corner. I knew if I came into it too hard I would be either thrown off the bike or the bike would come out of the corner too fast.
"I did hit the bend too hard and went off the bike and flew head on into a tree at about 30mph.
"I got up and felt pain in my arm and I don't know if it was adrenaline or just plain stupidity but I got on my bike again and rode down the rest of the hill."
It was obvious to his friends that something was wrong and by the time he reached the bottom of the hill Nicholas believed he might have broke his collar bone. Pain was shooting through his neck and back.
"I still had no idea how serious it was and one guy wanted to get an ambulance but I didn't want a fuss and said I would drive myself to A&E but because of the pain I couldn't. When the paramedics arrived they were shocked that I was still on my feet," he says.
At hospital, Nicholas still didn't realise that he had just experienced a very close brush with death or that he was at risk of permanent paralysis. In fact, it would be nearly two weeks before he found out just how grave his injury was.
He was put in a neck brace and discharged and told he would receive an appointment to see a spinal specialist within two weeks.
It was only when he attended that appointment in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast 13 days later that the enormity of his injury was revealed.
"I went to the appointment under the impression that I had broken my arm and my neck wasn't too bad," he says.
"I had even gone up to watch the mountain bike Irish Championships the weekend before and while I was at those, people were whispering that I was the bloke who had broken my neck and still rode to the bottom of the hill, which I found amusing.
"But as soon as I went into the appointment the specialist said 'There is only one way do this and that is to show you the damage'.
"He got my CT scans andX-rays and told me that I had completely shattered the C6 and C7 vertebrae. He said that I could have potentially been killed and was within a hair's breadth of being paralysed.
"He said that I needed surgery immediately and I had an operation the next day when they took a bone out of my hip to put in my neck, where they also put in pins and screws."
Nicholas has been undergoing physiotherapy ever since and recently had some feeling returned to his left arm.
Since then, however, he has developed lower disc problems and without warning can lose the power in his right leg, making him dependent on crutches.
He has been told the full implications of his injury can only be known through time but Nicholas hopes with a positive attitude and the help of physio he will get back to a point where he can return to the gym and lead as normal a life as possible.
His attitude is inspiring and he plans to soon start a blog about his road to recovery in the hope of giving a lift to others who are facing a challenging time.
"It's a strange thing, because in many ways it has made me look at everything completely differently. I have a new appreciation of life," he says.
"You soon learn who your real friends are when something like that happens and the friends you do have, you really learn to value."
His family, too, have been left traumatised by how perilously close he came to paralysis or death.
"My family has been shattered by what has happened and I'm closer now than ever to my sister," says Nicholas.
"I take one day at a time. Whatever will be will be and that's very much the way I live each day."
He adds: "I would have thought nothing before of going out and speeding £400-£500 on a pair of jeans or going away for a weekend to binge on drink. Now, I have a life worth living and I'm not going to waste it on material things.
"I'm sitting at home not able to get out and about and when you are in that situation you appreciate your health really is your wealth and money means nothing. At the minute, it's like I take one step forward and 10 steps back. I'm also on morphine every day because of the pain.
"I can only move my neck about 50%, so I can't drive but I'm hoping that will change through time.
"I've lost an awful lot of weight, I'm like a skeleton and as much as it should get to me it doesn't, because I know I will get back to the gym one day. I can't run and I can't cycle but I'm really hoping I can get back to being fit again.
"I want to get back into modelling and I studied graphic design and am in the process of getting a business off the ground in photography and design. I'm the sort of person who won't stop until I do what I set out to do.
"I believe if you want something badly enough you can get it.
"I've missed out on the summer and missed out on activities with friends."
A clearly reflective Nicholas adds: "I have a one-year-old niece who I couldn't hold because of my arm and last week I was able to hold her for the first time and that meant everything, that puts it into perspective for me.
"My accident has been life-changing but that doesn't have to be for the worst. If I can inspire one person through my blog and encourage them then that will mean the world."