‘I don’t get flashbacks about the accident, I get on with life ... I’ll learn to drive soon, Reah and I will be getting married next year and I’ll keep doing 2,000 steps a week in my bionic suit’
Eglinton student Jennifer Smyth made headlines this week as she stepped out in a new robotic suit. Now, in an inspiring interview, Jonjo Bright, from Templepatrick, who was paralysed in a riding accident, tells Una Brankin why he's got good reason to feel positive about the future
When the news spread this week of ex-gymnast Jennifer Smyth's ability to walk again - via a robotic 'exoskeleton' body-frame - another brave former sportsperson from Northern Ireland was rooting for her all the way.
Like Jenny, Jonjo Bright broke his neck while taking part in the sport he loved. After falling from his horse in a Point to Point race in Tyrella in March 2013, the young Antrim man was told he was paralysed from the shoulders down.
But he vowed to walk again, and - almost five years on - he has regained some movement, with the help of his own bionic suit and the support of family, friends and, most importantly, his fiancée, Reah Magee.
The couple have been together for nine years and got engaged on Christmas Eve.
"We've known each other all our lives, from pony clubs and horses," says Jonjo. "We've been going out since I was 15, so Reah has been through it all with me."
Jonjo proposed to Reah, who works in an interior design shop, with a diamond ring.
"It's a funny story - we went for a walk along the river near Greenmount; I wasn't using the Ekso (robotic suit) - that would have been a good idea, but it would have meant I'd have one of my physios behind me, which would have been embarrassing!" he laughs.
"So, I told Reah I had the ring in my pocket and she dropped it - right on the edge of the water! She said 'yes', thank God. We've definitely been through hard times, me and Reah, but we don't dwell on them, none of us do."
For her part, Reah was delighted when Jonjo popped the question. "I'm delighted to be engaged, it was a huge shock," she says. "Jonjo did very well to keep it a surprise."
And asked what she likes best about her fiance, she replies: "Jonjo's attitude and outlook are his best attributes - they were even before his injury."
From Templepatrick, Jonjo had his horse-riding accident when he was 19.
Student Jennifer Smyth, from Eglinton, near Londonderry, was only 11 when she broke her neck while descending from a vault during a gymnastics training session on September 24, 2013.
A talented young member of the Shooting Starz gymnastics club in Derry, Jennifer was rushed to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast where she underwent surgery, and was told she'd never walk again. But, now, with the help of a ReWalk 6.0. bionic suit, which was handed over to her by her late father's company, Landmarc Solutions, the 20-year-old can now stand and walk.
ReWalk is a wearable robotic exoskeleton that provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injury to stand upright, walk and climb. The suit is controlled by a smart watch.
For the last three years, Jonjo has been using a similar contraption by a different brand, Ekso Bionics, based in California. Costing more than €100,000, the robotic suit was acquired by the Irish Injured Jockeys fund in a joint purchase with the IRFU rugby association. Jonjo has the use of it three days a week. "The doctor from the Injured Jockeys fund pushed hard to get the Ekso for me and others like me," says Jonjo. "My suit differs slightly from Jenny's - hers can be used at home whereas mine is a rehabilitation tool. I see it as a maintenance tool.
"The body is not designed to be sitting down all day; in the suit, I can get up and do 2,000 steps a week. It has all sorts of benefits. It helps my muscles, blood pressure and bone density. My body wants to walk and the suit helps it move automatically, in the exact walking pattern nature intended, heel first.
"It's a very expensive piece of kit but it would be very hard to put a price on what it does."
Cheery and optimistic by nature, Jonjo has never succumbed to depression over his injuries. "The Ekso is extremely good for me mentally. It felt slightly strange at first, but I had been standing as much as possible in rehabilitation," he explains. "I've noticed that when I'm really concentrating and thinking about the walking pattern, I get heated up and out of breath. That's very, very important. Given my level of injury, which was high, I shouldn't even be able to get out of breath."
Jonjo grew up with horse-riding in his blood. His father, John, was the Northern Point to Point champion in 1993, and his mum, Jayne, won the Novice Championship the same year. His uncle Robert Patton was champion in 1999, and his grandfather, William Patton, won many races in the 1960s.
Jonjo was four when he got his first pony. A gifted and determined show jumper as a child, he competed all over Ireland, Scotland and Wales, gaining places on the Irish team for Home Pony Internationals in both Ireland and Scotland. He also took part in many major competitions, including the Royal Dublin Show and the Belfast International Horse Show.
But it was when his father 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. After leaving school at 16, he spent the next year working at various racing establishments as he pursued his dream of becoming a jockey.
He rode in his first Point to Point in the spring of 2011 and was placed in several races throughout the year, showing great potential. But, before he could fulfil his dream of riding his first winner, Jonjo sustained his horrific injury while racing at Tyrella, putting an end to what promised to be a championship career.
"I'd been waiting to ride all day and didn't get a chance until the last race," he remembers. "The horse just made a mistake going over a fence and fell. The way I landed, and the impact of the hard ground, caused a lot of damage.
"My first instinct was to protect myself by rolling into a ball, but I couldn't. It felt like my body from the shoulders down was concreted to the ground. I couldn't breathe properly; I thought I had punctured my lungs."
Conscious and unable to move, Jonjo feared the worst on the ambulance journey to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast, where he underwent emergency surgery in the early hours of the morning. When he awoke the next day he was given the devastating news that he had dislocated his C3 and C4 vertebrae connecting the disc in the spine, and that he wouldn't walk again.
From that moment, Jonjo decided to prove the doctor wrong. He threw himself into gruelling hours of rehabilitation physiotherapy and insisted on going back to work on the family's beef and sheep farm, doing the rounds with his father in his jeep.
He says: "I haven't much to complain about, pain-wise. I started to get feeling in my toes in hospital. Now, I have some movement in my arms and a slight bit in my legs and hips, and I can wiggle my toes. It's a bit like jigsaw pieces with some bits still left to get.
"My goal is to be in the best possible shape and to be fit and healthy. There are exciting new developments happening all the time, all over the world, and I want to be ready for them.
When he is not working, Jonjo devotes hours to walking in the Ekso suit and in a specialist form of intensive physiotherapy, Neurokinex. 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.
"Driving is the next goal on my list and we'll have the wedding next year," he says. "I keep myself busy - there's always something different to do on the farm, with the cattle, sheep and horses.
"I just keep looking ahead; I don't get flashbacks or dreams about what happened. It is what it is; I just get on with it. One day at a time."
For Jonjo's blog and the fundraising initiative set up by his sister Ann Marie, see
www.jonjobrighttrust.com. To follow Jennifer Smyth's progress, see the Facebook page: Jennifer's Journey to Walk Again