"You feel better when you're laughing, even if it's at yourself."
If you lost function in your legs today, how would you react? Few people have to answer that question for real. On a late-summer Sunday in 2011, Alex Brooke-Turner did. Six years later, the Londoner is 26 and happy to face that question every day—and he's living a fuller life than most able-bodied people. Here's how he learned to answer that question with authority.
So run down what happened that day.
When I went over the handlebars, I blacked out. But here's what I remember: I was in university in 2011 and that August I wanted to cycle to the Outlook Festival in Croatia with a couple of friends. At the time, we'd made it from London to Belgium. We were staying at a campsite in Belgium for the day because it was a Sunday and nothing was open. I was on one of my friend's bikes, which was broken, riding around looking for a bike shop to get it repaired and was riding back to the site. I'd also stopped for food and beer for the evening so the bike was loaded and I wasn't really used to that bike.
I was going down a hill—I think—and I can't remember what happened. I had a bruise on my shoulder and cuts on my hands, so they think I went over my handlebars and tried to roll and landed on my neck. But rather than break my neck or collarbone, the impact compressed my spine and injured it at the bottom. So it could've been a lot worse. I could've been stuck on a ventilator. My legs don't work now, pretty much from my bikini line down. Saying it that way sounds more exotic. (laughs)
How did you react when you came to? Did you know how badly you were hurt?
I woke up when the ambulance was there. I was lying in the grass and couldn't feel my legs. The first thing you hear people with a spinal injury say is, "I can't feel my legs." I never understood what that meant but it's like they've just been switched off. You just can't feel them.
I blacked out again going into the ambulance. The next thing I remember is being loaded onto a helicopter. I don't remember anything after that but they say the surgery was 8 hours. So the whole process was 16 hours from hurting my back to finishing surgery. I woke up in intensive care. And still couldn't feel my legs. I asked a nurse if this was a temporary thing and he said, "It'll be a miracle if you walk again."
Guess they have to be brutally honest.
It was shitty. I was pretty upset for the first couple of weeks. But I got used to it quite quickly. I was in hospital for like 4 months. One month in Belgium and 3 months back home where I was getting used to the wheelchair and all that. I had friends with me in Belgium for that first month and my family came out and there was lots of humor the whole time, which really helped. When I was still in intensive care, one of my friends said, "At least you don't have to cycle anymore." So I told him we would go back and finish off the trip at some point. Just to annoy him. I told my friends to go out and drink every night because I wanted them to feel as bad as I did in the morning.
I think people underestimate the power of dark humor.
Even when I was in hospital I was laughing quite a lot. My dad said, "At least you're still 100 percent you, even if that's not very good." So yeah, lots of humor. If you can laugh at it a little bit, it helps, especially if you've got your friends along with you. Everybody needs to deal with bad things in their own way, but I found that if my friends can laugh at it, they treat me the same as they always have. They're not going to tiptoe around the subject. You feel better when you're laughing, even if it's at yourself. If you're going to mope around the whole time, who's going to want to spend time with you? It's a whole lot more fun for everyone involved if you can enjoy the time.
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How did you adjust to life in a wheelchair once you're out of the hospital?
Some people never come to terms with it. I was focusing all my time and energy on rehabilitation, so many goals, so that keeps you distracted. In rehab, they have you set goals like getting dressed on your own. My goals were to swim a mile before leaving hospital, to finish the Croatia trip, to do an Ironman, and also to do a back flip in the wheelchair. I should probably do the Ironman first in case I break my neck doing the back flip. (laughs) I set them as a joke at the time, but they seem real now. That's how you start.
One of the first things my [physician] said to me was, "You're young, you're fit, you'll be able to lead a completely independent life." That stuck with me. It's just a different way of going about things. I see everything as a challenge now, and not in a bad way. More of an exciting way. Everything I do can be an adventure.
So run down what you've been able to do in the past six years.
I finished university in 2013. In the summer of 2013, I bought a handcycle and started training (a handcycle is a three-wheeled cycle powered by arms instead of legs). Then I went back to finish the trip we'd started with a couple of guys I crashed with, cycled to Belgium where I was in the hospital, where I crashed, and from there to Croatia, over the Dolomites (mountains). That took about a month.
Since then, I've cycled from London to Paris in 24 hours. I do shorter ones, London to Brighton, London to Bristol, things like that. I'd like to do some mountain routes they do for the Tour de France. I like challenges that able-bodied people can relate to. If I do something in a wheelchair, people are like, "Oh, that's good." But if I do something on my handcycle that they can't do on a bike, they can relate to it. "Oh, he's doing something."
Then one of my friends had the nice idea of cycling around the world in eight years. So every couple years we'll do parts of that. This summer we rode down to Pula (Croatia) and cycled down the coast of Croatia, maybe 900 kilometers to the border. Next time we'll go to Istanbul. Just having a lot of fun with friends along the way.
I'm also training to become an accountant. Which is why the cycling is so important, because no one wants to talk to an accountant. With the cycling, at least I have something to talk to people about. Accounting kills any conversation pretty quickly.
Oh, and I have a lot of fun goals just for myself. On the anniversary of the accident, I have what I call Leg Day where I get my friends so drunk they can't walk.
You do realize that there are people with fully-functioning bodies that aren't as well-adjusted and having as much fun as you are.
I spent the whole time in the hospital with the nurses telling me, my parents, my friends, that everyone in my situation gets depressed. It's going to happen at some point. I spent the last month in the hospital worrying about going home, expecting to get depressed. But I was fine. The night I got home I went to the pub with my friends. Life basically got back to normal. Then I went back to university, started cycling, and got a job. My outlook's been good the whole time. My family thought I'd be in a much worse place throughout. But it is what it is. You can't do anything about it. It helps that it was just me on the bike, there's no one to blame. So there's closure. I'm not bitter, I'm just getting on with my life.
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