Co Antrim man Ross Davidson on his life-changing bike crash in Thailand, the depression, post traumatic stress disorder and helplessness that followed ... and how he managed to overcome it all to build a brighter future
Not many people could turn their lives around like Ross Davidson.
As a talented young rugby player, he may have harboured dreams of doing something special in the sporting arena.
But following an horrific accident in south-east Asia — after which he tragically lost a leg — the Co Antrim man was left battling severe depression and wondering if he would ever walk again.
Now, however, the 27-year-old is dreaming of representing his country as a wheelchair basketball player in next year’s Commonwealth Games.
His remarkable recovery, both physically and psychologically, from a catastrophic, life-changing incident, has surprised and delighted many, not least the man himself.
Indeed, his main concern these days seems to be finding the time for training and making it onto Northern Ireland’s first wheelchair basketball team at the games.
Carrickfergus native Ross, who is currently at training camp in Jordanstown, admitted that it was his love of sport that ultimately saved him.
“Sport found me at the perfect time,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I was seeing a physio at Musgrave Hospital and she linked me up with Phil Robinson [from Disability Sport Northern Ireland].
“Phil is absolutely brilliant at what he does. He’s turned my life around in a massive way.
“It was Phil who asked me to try out wheelchair basketball with the Belfast Knights.”
But it was no easy transition for the young man who, prior to his accident, had wanted to become a firefighter.
The Liverpool John Moores University graduate really had to motivate himself to accept Phil’s invitation because, back then he was “at a point of real depression”.
“It was only about seven months after my crash and amputation, so everything that had happened was still really fresh,” he recalled.
“But I made myself go — and soon discovered that I absolutely loved it.”
Fast forward three years, and Yorkshire-based Ross now trains at the English Institute of Sport (EIS), plays for the Sheffield Steelers wheelchair basketball club and has his heart set on making it to the Birmingham games in 2022.
“The ‘cut’ hasn’t been made yet, so I’m still competing for a place,” he said.
“I’m currently in an intense training programme, I’ve stepped back from work and I’m living back in Northern Ireland for the whole summer to try to become a better player and end up physically fitter.”
Like all serious athletes, his commitment is all-consuming.
Up until recently, he had been working full-time at a special school, as well as running his own camper van business.
But to give him a chance of realising his sporting dream, the rugby-loving Carrickfergus Grammar past pupil, who has two brothers, knew something had to give.
“I’m dropping everything for the cause because it’s all or nothing now,” he said.
You don’t have to tell him how far he has come since that dreadful motorbike crash in Thailand in November 2017.
Having turned 23, he had gone out to the faraway ‘Land of the Smiles’ to help build schools teaching English and agriculture and was fully embracing the experience.
But then the horror began, and what was meant to be the trip of a lifetime quickly morphed into the stuff of nightmares.
Ross had been due to meet friends in the jungle-covered hills when his bike came off the road in Pai, in the north of the country.
He skidded down a ditch and smashed his right leg against a tree, severing his femoral artery.
“I didn’t see the road properly because it was night-time and the road was so badly lit,” he recalled.
“Next thing I knew, I was in an ambulance, on my way to a hospital in Chang Mai, and not fully aware of just how bad things really were.”
By the time parents Andrew (51), a financial advisor, and Desna (51) a retired nurse, arrived in the Thai city, Ross, who had been told about the life-threatening infections, had already had his amputation.
Four weeks, 13 operations and scores of blood transfusions later, Ross was flown back to Belfast for another ten days of treatment in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
By May 2018, he had been fitted with a prosthetic limb and was taking his first tentative steps back to his own ‘new normal’ at Musgrave Park Hospital.
“I’m only just starting to get to grips with how I’ve been affected mentally,” he admitted.
“I’ve been in and out of counselling and therapy.
“I faced death; it terrified me and I wanted to live, no matter what.”
Now, though, survival means living through the tough times, and learning to deal with whatever the future throws at him.
“I’ve just started seeing a counsellor again, in order to get my head straight,” he said.
“I’ve been suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) since the crash. Having said that, I’m actually in a good place; I’m starting to become aware of what help I need and when I need it.
“It’s only now that I’m learning to get a handle on it.”
Ross said he cannot emphasise enough how crucial it is for anyone who is struggling mentally to ask for help.
“It’s really important to speak to counsellors and professionals about your mental health,” he said.
“I’ve suffered depression for other reasons in my life but suffered most after what happened in Thailand.
“It can be a daily thing. There are days when I don’t feel up to doing anything, even though I’ve got loads on my plate and still have to push through.
“Conversely, sometimes I have weeks where I’m not depressed at all, so it varies.
“Getting involved in any kind of physical activity will help, but people also need to seek help and be okay with it.
“My advice is this: do not take as long as I did to get the help that I eventually realised I needed.”
He added: “I don’t find it easy to reach out, but I’m actively doing it. It is important to let people know when you’re struggling.”
Ross has just secured a scholarship place at Loughborough University to play basketball and study psychology, because he is “really interested in how human behaviour works”.
That interest follows on from his job at Greenacre special school in Barnsley, Yorkshire, where he helped young adults with learning disabilities.
“I really enjoyed learning about people’s different needs and disabilities; it was a really positive, feel-good environment,” he said.
His basketball training is partly funded by Disability Sport and Sports Aid (part of Sport England), but Ross said he supports himself financially “pretty much on my own”.
It helps that he owns a classic VW Westfalia called Cherry — which he has rented out for the summer via his company Cherry Tales Travels — having spent £18,000 adapting it, including a new engine, solar panels and everything new underneath.
Now that post-pandemic travel has taken off, Ross is delighted to report that his business “has boomed”.
But although it looks as though nothing could stand in his way for long, Ross knows he doesn’t “live a normal life”.
“I live life in pain,” he revealed.
“Nobody realises that people who use a prosthetic are going to be in pain. Amputees live in pain.
“People think you get over your injury, then you wear a prosthetic and then you’re fine but that’s not the case.
“When you walk you’re in pain. At the end of the day you’re relieved to take your leg off.
“It’s about trying to get that balance between rest and physical exercise. Over the years I’ve learnt to manage my pain and to manage my skin and all the medical things.”
Ross has steeled himself to the inevitability of ending up in a wheelchair on a permanent basis.
“I know that’s going to happen, but I’ll wear a prosthetic until I have to cross that bridge...”
For the more immediate future, he has been snapped up by the same modelling agency that represents Bernadette Hagan, the Belfast cancer survivor who had her right leg amputated in 2018 — yet he fancies himself more as a designer.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities and I do bits and pieces. I’m really grateful, but modelling is not my cup of tea,” he admitted.
“Designing clothes is definitely on my list, specifically shoes, because of how important shoes are for amputees. But I want them to be inclusive for everyone.”
No matter what happens with the Commonwealth Games, Ross Davidson already deserves a gold medal for his inspirational battle in the face of such adversity.