Biker Jamie Hamilton recalls TT horror smash
‘If it hadn’t been for one girl who happened to be at the spot where I crashed, I wouldn’t be around today’
Today marks three years to the day since Jamie Hamilton's life as he knew it came crashing to a halt. The promising Ballyclare road racer, who turned down a potential football career with Bolton Wanderers for his love of motorbikes, was pushing for a podium finish in the Senior TT on the Isle of Man, and that's about as much as he remembers.
Three years later and the scars are all too evident, both physically and mentally. But in one way in particular his luck was in.
"Coming off at 170mph into trees isn't going to do a lot for your health," said Jamie, now 26, "and but for one girl I wouldn't be around speaking today."
That girl was off-duty A&E nurse Ali Bunn, who happened to be right on the spot.
"Ali saw what was happening and jumped in. I still feel guilty for ruining her day off!" said Jamie.
The pair are still great friends and Ali and her partner Paul Sinclair are regular visitors. They'll be over for the Ulster Grand Prix in August.
"Ali saw that my arm was so badly broken it was wrapped around my neck and suffocating me. I'm told she got no response from me three times before she managed to bring me back. I still keep Paul going that the first time his partner met me she ripped the clothes off me!
"I'm a strong believer that your life has a start and a finish. It's up to you to fill the bits in between. It wasn't my time to go anywhere."
Stabilised at Noble's Hospital on the Isle of Man, Jamie was airlifted to Aintree Hospital in Liverpool a few hours later. Nine days after that a private plane flew him and his family to Belfast, where he spent nine further weeks.
"I can remember bits of it," he said. "Silly things like the ambulance breaking down on the way to hospital in Belfast and making up stories for the nurses about being in a mountaineering accident. I've only actually been up Slemish once in my life."
The broken arm wasn't the worst for Jamie by a long way. His head injury, a frontal lobe contusion, means he remembers nothing of the crash.
"I know it sounds weird, but everything from around 2012 until the accident is fuzzy. There are fragments in there, but it comes and goes," he said.
And it's only now that he's getting ready to set his right leg free of the cage that has been holding it together.
A horrendous foot fracture, a smashed tibia and a fibula broken so badly it will never rejoin meant the cage has been part of him for three years.
"In the end 14 centimetres of my bone was removed and had to grow back," said Jamie. "But I can honestly say that I don't really remember what it's like not to have the cage. It's just part of me now.
"I don't wake up every morning and think 'oh no I've got a cage around my leg', I wake up and think 'what am I going to do today'."
It's been far from a straightforward rehabilitation. Just over a year after his crash, the cage was taken off for the first time, but two days later Jamie's leg broke again.
He added: "I remember the date the cage came off. July 5, 2016. But it turned out the bone was hollow inside and it meant they were able to pinpoint what needed to be done. So the cage went back on. At that stage I was having to adjust it four times a day. It was like having a constant severe cramp."
There was a further setback in July 2017 when an infection set in, threatening Jamie with the prospect of amputation.
"I went to the Royal Victoria Hospital and was told my leg may need amputated. I didn't fancy that so I signed myself out. Looking back and having seen the Paralympics I might react differently now."
Fellow road racer Ian Hutchinson urged Jamie to consult his doctor in Cambridge so 13 hours later that's where he was.
He added: "I spent 11 days there and got the infection cut out. I lost another eight centimetres of bone and it probably set me back two years. One month ago I was still on crutches. I've handed them back now."
Finally free of the crutches, Jamie is now back on two wheels, though not travelling quite as fast as he used to. "I'm an engineer and as there was no way I was going to be able to ride a normal bicycle with the cage on so I've modified it by extending the pedal," he explained.
"I'm now cycling up to 15 miles every day and it feels wonderful.
"Losing the crutches was a real turning point for me. Mentally it was a big lift and I'm starting to feel a lot more confident in what I can do. I'm starting to get the blood flowing around the leg again and that's really helping the healing process."
Doctors have told Jamie the cage is now ready to come off, but he'll wait until late August.
"I'm best man at a wedding and there's a cruise involved so I'll not take a chance right now. I'm not really sure how I feel about it. You could say I've become a bit attached to it," he said.
Jamie still follows everything road racing and over the past couple of weeks has been watching the TT races.
"There is a certain jealousy there. I keep thinking these are guys I raced against and was beating three years ago. In that way it's hard, but I still put myself through it," he continued.
"I look at friends like Dean Harrison winning and think that should be me.
"But then I see Dan Kneen, who I was beating to the British Championship in short circuit racing when I was 16, and Adam Lyon.
"They can't sit and have a coffee on a sunny morning. They're both gone. Mentally that's been difficult. I keep reminding myself I have a lot to be thankful for.
"The next big test for me will be getting back on a motorbike. I know I'll do it quietly some day soon. I'll tell the few people who have been with me through all of this, slip away and see how it goes.
"I'll not really know how I'll react until I do it, but I know I will.
"At the minute I don't have a choice. I can't ride. I'm longing for that day when the decision is mine."
There is a one positive development from Jamie's crash - it helped him meet his current girlfriend.
"Yeah, that was weird. You never know how you're going to meet people," he said.
"She made a few comments on Facebook not long after the crash and we stayed in touch. Then it got off the starting grid!
"To me, it all shows that life works out how it's supposed to."
And with that he was heading for home, to his mum and his dog, to catch up on the TT, go for a long bike ride, plan a second climb of Slemish and live.