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'I dived into the sea and my head took full impact... we all have to struggle with something and being paralysed is my challenge'

In a timely warning to others, Irish student Jack Kavanagh tells Donal Lynch about the moment he dived into the sea while on holiday abroad and broke his back - and how meeting NI adventurer Mark Pollock helped him realise life could still be full of opportunity.

It was the "glistening eyes" at the end of the hospital bed in Lisbon that Jack Kavanagh remembers.

They were set in stricken faces that were bravely holding it together, but had all the telltale signs of imminent collapse. Because of the language barriers at the hospital, the prognosis was unclear but the very presence of his friends and family signalled that this was no ordinary injury.

"My friend Gareth walked around the bottom of my bed, I couldn't really speak but I just mouthed to him the words 'it's going to be okay,'" Jack recalls. "My mum and dad appeared either side and took my hands and like a bold child I just said to them, 'I did nothing wrong.' Then I started to cry and they nodded knowingly and told me they wouldn't leave without me."

It was summer 2012, and 48-hours previously Jack had been on holidays with a group of friends in Albufeira, a tourist town in the Algarve. A keen windsurfer and lifeguard, Jack had dived into the surf without fear - he had already swam in this area of the beach. The water was much more shallow than it appeared, however - the sands having quickly shifted in the meantime - and he hit a sandbank at high speed.

"My hands were ripped behind me and my head took the full impact," he says.

"I floated up to the surface face down. I was completely conscious. I had real clarity in that moment, I suppose some people talk about their life flashing before their eyes. I felt a great heat in my neck and then a sort of zapping sensation from my core to my extremities, like small electrical charges from the centre. In my mind's eye I saw my family and friends and the people who are close to me.

"I got extremely calm in that moment. I knew that panicking would only use up my oxygen more quickly. It was about a minute before the lads noticed me and took me from the water. Once the air ambulance left they had no idea which hospital I'd been taken to - they had to just call around everywhere to try and find me."  

After two weeks in intensive care Jack was airlifted from Lisbon to the Mater Hospital in Dublin. It was only in rehab that he was told the real seriousness of what had happened to him, that he would not walk again and would likely need care for the rest of his life.

"In that moment I decided that is not the way things are going to pan out for me," he recalls. "That was when I decided that I would work as hard as I could to become as independent as possible on all fronts." 

As the months went on and hard work went in, Jack incrementally regained movement in his arms and wrists.

"I moved from what's called a C4 injury to a C6 injury, and the difference is profound. It's the difference between being paralysed from the shoulders down and needing assistance to breathe and the situation I have now, where I can use my arms and I'm fairly independent." 

Jack had been studying pharmacy at Trinity College but had to take a year out following the injury. He tried to see what had befallen him in a spectrum of human pain, on which most of us exist.

"I have this phrase - everyone has their s***, it's just boxed in different ways. You might look across the street and see someone who's suffering from depression, or alcoholism, or maybe they're scared to come out as gay.

"We all have something, some struggle or challenge we are presented with in life, I just think that the difference is that mine is physical and visible."

While there was slow progress during these months, they were also marked by further tragedy as Jack learned of the death of his friend and mentor, the champion windsurfer Mikey Clancy.

"I had really looked up to him. While I was in rehab Mikey passed away. I remember being in the ward one day getting physio and getting the phone call. It had a huge impact on me," Jack says.

"He had texted me a few days beforehand. He was ranked 13th in the world in windsurfing and he arrived out to rehab with a jersey, which had been signed by all the professionals I spent my days trying to emulate on the water. Losing Mikey was very tough." 

It was a year of grief. Jack sought help from Mark Pollock - an adventurer and athlete from Northern Ireland, who was the first blind man to race to the South Pole - on the stages of pain and acceptance, which come with any form of trauma in life.

"We talked about how everyone goes through the stages at different paces and then in a 10-minute period you might go through all the stages, everyone reacts and digests at different rates," Jack says.

He explains that at the beginning he wondered how others would perceive him in his new circumstance following the injury, but quickly learned that people still saw the same person, which was important.

"The way I introduce myself to people is a big thing for me, as it is for everyone," he says. "I always recognised that how I interacted with people was something I was in control of. I learned not to hide anything, such as when I need help. I'm open and honest in all respects with people and I think that allows them to see the person first."

Not afraid of challenges and desiring to push his boundaries, Jack decided he would embark on a long-planned trip to America with a friend of his, David.

"We'd made a promise to each other before the accident that we'd go on a trip we could tell our grandchildren about. Doing this trip would be a huge step toward turning a new leaf, ending one chapter and starting something new," Jack says.

"We got some publicity around the time and got some connections - Irish people who were living in the US - who were extremely helpful to us. We researched the routes we wanted to take and how we would overcome the various practical challenges with travelling with a wheelchair."

They also decided to make a documentary about the trip, using crowd funding for its production, with the aim of demonstrating that "limitations are only perceived".

Luckily the journey was instantly rich with incident. They flew to Los Angeles first, and through Irish contacts there got tickets to the VIP area at a U2 concert. "We found ourselves face to face with these global stars having the most human of conversations. Julia Roberts, Cameron Diaz, Bono (left) and the Edge were all there. We were in a small room with Bono and about eight people.

"He was the centre of attention and storytelling. When he saw us, he said 'Jack, how is the trip going?' I remember saying to him 'look you've had a tough year, your tour manager passed away just before the tour, you've had an accident in which you broke your arm and you might never play guitar again, how are you doing?'

"And he was very philosophical about the whole thing. I was really impressed that he'd taken the time to know our story - that was a special moment."

They travelled on to San Diego, where by chance they bumped into Kyle Maynard, a martial arts athlete who became famous as the first quadruple amputee to ascend Mount Kilimanjaro without the aid of prosthetics. "His philosophy of making no excuses really set the tone for the trip", Jack recalls. 

From San Diego it was on to San Francisco, which had a pall cast over it by the deaths of the Irish students in Berkeley. "I'll never forget hearing the news as we drove toward San Francisco and the helplessness we all felt. But on the flipside of that was the power of the response from the Irish community out there," Jack recalls. "I'll never forget it. It really brought home the fragility of our existence."

One of the defining moments of the trip for Jack was his visit to Yosemite National Park in California's Sierra Nevada mountains.

"I was always outgoing and athletic and I felt I had shut that part of me away because I found it hard to interact with the sports and environments I loved in the same way," he explains.

"After I was injured that was something I was struggling to unbox. Yosemite helped me to reconnect with that part of my life. We went white water rafting, skydiving and camping in the forest. It was incredible and so nice to discover that part of me was still very much alive."

Jack is now entering his final year of his pharmacy degree in Trinity but you sense there are bigger things in store for him. The filming he and his friends undertook on the trip has now resulted in Breaking Boundaries, a documentary which will be screened on 3e at 8pm on August 1.

Jack has also gained a reputation as an inspirational public speaker. Two years ago he gave a TEDx Talk entitled Fearless Like A Child, which dealt with the insights gained through the challenge life has thrown at him. It has been viewed by nearly 35,000 people online.

Despite his young age - he is still only 23 - he seems to have the maturity of someone much older.

"When you're at the lowest you've ever been before you can view it as a vulnerable position or you can view it as a place of power - which it is, in the sense that you no longer have anything to lose.

"Once you keep challenging yourself, you put yourself in a place where instead of just surviving, you thrive in the face of adversity.

"I've grown out of this and matured in ways that I probably would not have for years to come had it not been for the accident. I don't think I was innocent in any way before I was injured, but I had nothing that would force me to grow like this has.

"So in that way, I embrace it - everybody has their s***, it's just boxed in different ways." 

Breaking Boundaries airs on 3e at 8pm on August 1 

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