'I've constantly confused people': Rugby player who became quadriplegic now climbing mountains

·5 min read
Former professional rugby player Ed Jackson spent three months in hospital in 2017 after dislocating his neck. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)
Former professional rugby player Ed Jackson spent three months in hospital in 2017 after dislocating his neck. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)

A rugby player who was told he would unlikely ever walk again after dislocating his neck has surpassed all expectations.

Ed Jackson, now 32, was a professional athlete for 10 years, playing rugby for England and the Wasps.

Life changed forever when Jackson mistakenly dived into the shallow end of a family friend's swimming pool in April 2017.

After being resuscitated three times on the way to the hospital, Jackson pulled through, but was expected to be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life.

Refusing to give up, Jackson spent a week trying to move his toes, describing a flicker of movement as "the best moment of his life".

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Jackson now lives independently with his wife Lois in Bath and is even capable of climbing mountains, having "constantly confused" doctors with his recovery.

Now a rugby commentator, Jackson is due to cover the Paralympic Games in Tokyo later this year.

Jackson (pictured right in September 2014) used to play for the Wasps. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)
Jackson (pictured right in September 2014) used to play for the Wasps. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)

Jackson was recovering from a minor rugby injury when a family friend invited him around for a BBQ. The friend's garden had a feature pool, complete with a waterfall.

"I dived in where the waterfall hit the water, thinking it was deep," Jackson told Yahoo UK. "It was 3ft [0.9m] to 4ft [1.2m] deep. 

"I hit the bottom of my head very hard and dislocated my neck."

Jackson's father, a retired medic, was in the pool at the time.

"He knew it [the injury] was neurologic," said Jackson.

Jackson was "floated over" to the side of the pool while an ambulance was called.

"I was dazed," he said. "I wasn't in pain. The injury cut off most of the sensation in my body."

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Jackson was initially taken to a local hospital for a scan, before being rushed to a more specialist centre in Bristol.

"That ambulance journey normally takes 20 minutes," said Jackson. "I was [later] told it actually took two and a half hours because they had to pull over three times to resuscitate me."

Once at hospital, Jackson underwent a seven-hour operation.

"A disc had exploded between two vertebrates, so they [surgeons] had to remove bits of disc," he said. "The disc cut my spine in half.

"I had my spine realigned, and a plate and cage put in."

Jackson woke in intensive care, unable to move.

"I was told to accept I was most likely to never walk again, and I should aim to get use of my arms and hands back," he said.

Refusing to give up, Jackson "did everything he could in terms of effort and exercises".

"The first week was me looking at my toes and trying to move them, then I'd pass out knackered," he said.

Eventually, his toes flickered. "It was the best moment of my life," said Jackson.

After three months in hospital, Jackson was able to stand. He then moved in with his parents, who had already adapted their home for his grandfather.

"It had double handrails everywhere, a downstairs bedroom, a roll-in shower," said Jackson.

With his recovery continuing at home, Jackson was determined "not to be a burden".

"I wanted to look after myself, feed myself, do what I wanted to do with toilet care," he said

Four years on, Jackson can "hobble" if he wears an ankle foot orthosis (AFO) brace on his left leg. 

"[Otherwise] my foot will just dangle down," he said. Defined as a quadriplegic, all four of Jackson's limbs are affected by his injury, however, he is not completely paralysed.

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Jackson's accident has also left him with Brown Sequard syndrome, "a rare neurological condition which results in weakness or paralysis on one side of the body and a loss of sensation on the opposite side".

"A lot of the injuries are unseen," he said.

"The left side of my body is all weak. I can't feel pain or temperature on the right side. 

"I can't sweat below the chest so I have thermoregulation issues. 

"I get 30 seconds to a minutes' notice when I need the toilet because of my lack of sensation."

Jackson has "learnt to manage" his complications, using catheter bags and "medication to help with sexual function issues".

Told he would unlikely ever walk again, Jackson climbed Mera Peak in Nepal in October 2019. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)
Told he would unlikely ever walk again, Jackson climbed Mera Peak in Nepal in October 2019. (Supplied: Ed Jackson)

With all he has endured, Jackson has "constantly confused people".

"My recovery in terms of my injury is so unprecedented," he said.

Now "completely independent", Jackson works as a keynote speaker and sports commentator, covering Channel 4's European Rugby Champions Cup and the Six Nations.

Motivated by his ordeal, Jackson also founded the charity Millimetres 2 Mountains alongside his wife and fellow rugby player Olly Barkley.

The charity aims to help people overcome mental health challenges via "exploration and adventure". Jackson himself climbed Snowdon in 2018 and Mera Peak in Nepal the following year.

"Sometimes in life we are faced with hurdles which seem too high to even contemplate getting over," said Jackson. 

"It's times like these we look outside of ourselves to find inspiration. 

"As a recovering quadriplegic, I am a living example that no matter how impossible it seems, you can move forward into a brighter future."

Watch: Quadriplegic girl paints with her mouth