Saturday 21 July 2018

'I survived losing my legs at 20; there was nothing left to fear'

When he was just 20 years old, Paul McNeive lost both his legs in a car accident. For him it was a world-changing event - but, as he tells Donal Lynch, the confidence he gained in recovery helped make him a success as a songwriter, impressionist and novelist

Kate Egan (RTE news reader) married Paul McNeive at the National Gallery of Ireland Pic: Mark Doyle
Kate Egan (RTE news reader) married Paul McNeive at the National Gallery of Ireland Pic: Mark Doyle

Nietzsche wrote the famous line 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger', and he might have had Paul McNeive in mind. The Wicklow man was on the brink of death after a catastrophic car accident that resulted in him losing both of his legs.

Despite this enormous trauma, Paul would go on to marry (twice), father three children and forge successful careers in multiple fields.

He became managing director of a property company that later sold for €50m, reinvented himself as a songwriter and penned the tune that became the theme song for the Irish soccer team's exploits in the 1994 World Cup. He moonlighted as a comedian, writing for people like the late Dermot Morgan, and performed his signature Bono impression alongside Mario Rosenstock. He became a columnist - he still writes on property for the Irish Independent - and is one of the most successful motivational speakers in the country.

And, all the while, he has been one of the most inspirational national symbols of disability overcome; his winning personality and almost preternatural confidence providing constant evidence of just how much is possible with the right attitude.

Now McNeive is moving into yet another field: fiction writing. His first novel, The Manhattan Project, is a compulsive, rollicking thriller about one man's race against time to save the inhabitants of New York from a terrorist intent on causing a catastrophic medical meltdown.

Like all good books it has been a long time in development: the idea has been percolating in his head for a decade now and he drew inspiration from his long recovery from his injuries, and particularly the serious issues he encountered with antibiotic resistance.

Paul McNeive whose new book, The Manhattan Project, is now out. Photo: David Conachy
Paul McNeive whose new book, The Manhattan Project, is now out. Photo: David Conachy

"The United Nations has only called world leaders together for three health emergencies in its history," he explains. "The first was HIV, the second was Ebola and the third was antibiotic resistance, which they have declared a world crisis.

"Patients tend to put pressure on doctors to prescribe antibiotics, but doing this constantly causes huge problems. People become resistant and superbugs develop - they become resistant to multiple drugs.

"It's a serious issue in Irish hospitals and it was, for a time, a huge issue for me."

That issue grew up out of a life-defining tragedy. Paul was just 20 and a trainee auctioneer when he was involved in a major car crash in Dublin in December 1982.

He was lucky to be near a hospital when it happened, but tremendously unlucky that the car burst into flames after impact.

"Some of my memory of it is hazy," he tells me. "I go by what other people tell me happened. It's also difficult to talk about the event itself; it was so traumatic. I was immediately taken to the burns unit of Dr Steevens' Hospital. There I found myself with some survivors of the Stardust tragedy, so that was pretty scary for a young guy."

Paul was so close to death that priests visited him five times to give him the last rites - he has a distinct sense memory of the cinnamon-tinged scent of the oil they used.

He survived those first few days, but in some ways, the worst was still ahead.

"The dressings being changed was agony, it took hours every day. You just couldn't believe the pain. I had a permanent epidural so that I was dead from the neck down, and I was semi-sedated a lot of days."

After several months of excruciating grafts and removing skin from his arms, back, backside, hips and legs, it was decided that too much skin had been lost. Paul was dying and his ill-health was evident in his enormous weight loss.

"I could close my left hand around my thigh - that was the state I was in. They knew that it couldn't go on like that. Something had to happen."

Paul was in an isolation unit bed when three consultants pulled up chairs around him and began telling him his options.

"They told me that the infection I had was killing me and my one chance was to amputate my legs. The nurses had softened me up for what was coming, so in a way it wasn't a shock."

In fact, the amputation came as a huge relief. "Once it happened, things improved. I felt better, the infection went, although of course there was the huge initial shock of looking down and seeing the space where your legs used to be. I was told that I would be able to walk on crutches with two new legs, and that seemed like heaven."

Paul had to wait until the skin where his legs had been was healed completely before he was able to be fitted for prosthetic legs, during which time he underwent extensive rehabilitation. When they arrived, his prosthetic legs were "light years" behind what is now available.

His then employer, Hamilton and Hamilton, later Hamilton Osborne King, supported and paid him throughout his rehabilitation. "They were incredible really," says Paul. "They spoke of when, not if, I would come back.

"Because I was spending no money, when I came out of hospital I was able to buy a new car, which was a huge thing. My family and friends were crucial to me. When you're reduced to nothing in a hospital bed, that support group is key. It's easy to go to visit someone who's sick for a little while but when they're out for months and months, that's a bigger commitment. One friend took two buses every single day to visit me."

Walking around on grafted skin, Paul became prone to infections, which medics fought with antibiotics, enabling him to continue walking on his prosthetic limbs.

Then, 18 years after the accident and as the new millennium dawned, Paul suddenly noticed that the drugs were no longer working. "Eventually I had to get re-grafted, which was a big deal. That was why I started reading about antibiotic resistance and taking notes; it had such a huge impact on me."

Writing came naturally to Paul. Growing up the eldest of three children in Bray, his late father had been an English teacher and young Paul "devoured" books.

He was a talented English student and had what he calls "a good sense of myself", which was to stand him in good stead through the accident and its gruelling aftermath. "I found after emerging from hospital that I really missed soccer, which I loved, but I could live with that.

"Worse was that I had all these doubts. Could I become successful in work? Would a girl ever go out with me again? There was far less general knowledge about amputees in the 1980s, so there was that to sort of deal with as well. Thinking about something as simple as how to park or how would clients deal with this guy arriving on crutches?"

During the years that followed the accident, he rose through the firm and eventually became managing director. He slowly got rid of the crutches and new technology brought him a different class of prosthetic.

"There was a sea change in the 1990s in terms of comfort, and the materials and design used," he says. "The legs I now have are controlled by a computer which senses at the knee what I am doing. If I am going downhill, the sensors tell the foot that it is on a slope and adjusts. It's like the ABS system in a car."

Girls turned out "not to be a problem". "Sometimes people would ask why you're limping and you might tell them, and some people would get a shock. Others would sort of panic and start telling you about their fallen arches or a rugby injury they had in school. And then, other people, including a few girls over the years, would just say nothing at all about it and you'd know there's something going on, but that's kind of cool as well."

He married in his late 20s, and had three children, one of whom, Meghan, works with Jamie Oliver, making videos.

Paul got divorced and three years ago married the RTE newscaster Kate Egan, who, coincidentally, is also from Bray.

"I'm so proud of her. She's a natural storyteller and so she was a great test reader for the book," he says.

In 1991 Paul acquired the 3Arena for developer Harry Crosbie and the deal led to journalists phoning him and, eventually, an appearance on The Late Late Show.

"They closed the show with my band, The Crew, playing so that didn't do my career any harm. I'd always been writing songs and some of them have been used in ad campaigns. RTE commissioned me to write a few songs too."

He entered the national competition to write the official song for the 1994 World Cup and won with Watch Your House, which held the number one spot for a number of weeks before being dethroned by the theme from Riverdance. "To be walking around New York and hearing fellas coming out of bars singing it was really incredible. I still jokingly call it my first number one."

Paul had always been a huge fan of U2's music and, among his family and friends it was known that he did a mean Bono impression.

When Savills bought Hamilton Osborne King (Paul continued as managing director) there were a series of meetings over months and one of the partners told Paul that a condition of the sale was that Paul would represent the firm at Party in the Park - a corporate music event in London - in his Bono alter ego.

The firm paid for him to be styled as the U2 frontman, complete with €600 Bulgari sunglasses, and the performance went down well.

Paul continued the impressions and, at one point, by coincidence, did a show at a school where the late Gerry Ryan was in the audience.

"He mentioned it on his radio programme the next day and after that I doubled my inquiries and doubled my rates." He also performed as Bono on Mario Rosenstock's programme but thinks that neither he nor Oliver Callan can do a perfect Bono impression. "I don't think anyone does his speaking voice well," he says.

He stopped doing his Bono impression when he became a noted motivational speaker, because he found the comedy was trivialising the serious message of his talks.

Paul continued to work in the property business all through the madness of the boom.

"The Celtic Tiger era was crazy. I was there through the whole white heat of that. I saw some insane stuff. I went to one launch and the developer was onstage in hologram form being interviewed by Grainne Ni Seoige. The technology had been used a few days before at the Madonna concert at Wembley Stadium and it cost about €50,000. I think the developer was actually down the back of the room as all of this was going on, but it was just pure Celtic Tiger excess and spectacle."

Paul retired from the property business in 2007, just as the first tremors of the crash were being felt, and now serves on the board of REHAB while writing full-time.

He's working on the follow up to The Manhattan Project and already has three chapters written. "The summer is going to be busy, plenty of writing," he says.

He says that when he looks back on the accident of his early 20s, there is a sense that out of this major tragedy he gleaned a better approach to life.

"It was so formative. There were all these questions; will I be able to stand up, will I ever walk again, will I be able to cope. But what came out of it was I really discovered how much potential I had. I was just an average 20-year-old, and I wouldn't have been the kind to put my hand up to be managing director and so on. But once you've been involved in something like what happened to me and survived it, there really is nothing left to fear."

'The Manhattan Project' is published by Black and White Publishing, €12.99

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