'They strapped me...I stood up and moved by legs for the first time in 11 years' - Father gets Ekso bionic suit after fundraiser
Friends and neighbours raised €112k in just three months to give the precious gift of mobility, writes Claire McCormack
On a sunny May evening in 2004, Dolores McCabe was collecting a jacket and trousers for her husband, Gerry, to wear to a family Confirmation, when she got the call.
"Daddy is after falling off a roof and can't feel his legs," said her teenage son.
Gerry had been roofing a turf shed with his two boys, Kevin and Stephen, when he slipped.
Dolores didn't panic, the ambulance men said it was "probably a broken pelvis" so she calmly made her way to Tullamore Hospital. But, within a few hours, the McCabes' world was ripped apart.
Twelve years later she remembers every vivid detail.
"He went for x-rays and I toddled down to the ward thinking he might be out. Eventually a doctor emerged and told me Gerry had severed his spinal chord, it didn't look good and he may never walk again. It was fairly final, it was a complete spinal injury and when they say complete, they mean complete," she said.
A week later Gerry, a keen hunter and shooter from Cloghan, Co Offaly, woke up in the Mater Hospital in Dublin. He was paralysed from the waist down.
"A consultant implied that nothing short of a miracle would enable me to walk again," he said. "I was broken. I was devastated for myself and my family because we were doing fairly okay. I just thought how are we going to keep the whole thing going?" Gerry said.
After major surgery the then 44-year-old was transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire where he stayed for four months.
"It was a very difficult time. There are people doing things for you that you thought they'd never have to do, showering you, washing you and everything else that went along with it," he said.
Every day, his "special wife" Dolores travelled to be with her husband. "It was hard, you didn't know what you'd face and leaving Gerry behind was even harder because he was so upset," she said.
However, the support and kindness of good neighbours and friends eased the pressure.
"Every night when I came back, exhausted, there were stews and dinners on the table, a fully-stocked fridge. If there were any clothes in the basket they'd be out on the line or ironed and put away," she said.
Towards the end of his stay in Dun Laoghaire, Gerry was allowed to go home at the weekend. "The first time was very hard. No one knew how to handle someone with a spinal injury at that stage. I was wheeled in the back door and down to bed," he said.
"Leaving on the Sunday night, it was outrageous to see the ambulance pulling up, there was tears all around," he said.
In 2011, the McCabes were invited back to Dun Laoghaire, to view a new bionic suit that claimed to help the paralysed walk again.
"There was a man in front of me, he's paralysed, but he was walking. It was very impressive, he made it look easy. I came home and I was raving about it," he said.
Gerry latched on to the dream of getting back on his feet. As soon as locals heard such technology existed they formed a committee to raise enough money to buy Gerry his own bionic suit. Tickets were sold throughout local parishes of Cloghan, Birr, Banagher and Shannonbridge, neighbouring counties and as far afield as Australia, Canada and Britain. They raised €112,000 in just three months.
However, finding the right suit to fit Gerry's 6ft 2 inch frame proved more difficult. After a trip to Hull in the UK where he'd planned to purchase a robotic suit, Gerry thought the game was up. "They broke our bloody hearts when it didn't fit, it put us back seven years to when I'd fallen. I didn't want to let everyone down," he said.
Jane Evans, distributor for a new 'Ekso bionic suit' in Ireland heard his story and invited him to demonstrations. He was advised to lose 20 kilos in weight.
"I went up and down the road in the wheelchair day in, day out pushing myself really hard and changed my diet," he said. His prayers were answered in November in Cork.
"They strapped me in and gave the command. I stood up and moved by legs for the first time in 11 years. I was ecstatic, I took 180 steps on the first day," he said. "I can walk about a kilometre in it at this stage".
A few months later, Gerry's very own suit, named 'Hughie' arrived. "I'm so proud of him for achieving his dream. It's just wonderful to see. We're eternally grateful to all those along the way, we'll never forget what they've done for us," said Dolores.