Life Health & Wellbeing

Monday 23 September 2019

'It dawned on me that I was never going to walk again'

A workplace accident left Dr Oliver Murphy paralysed at just 23. Inspired by his doctors, who used sport to combat depression in their patients, Oliver took part in the first Paralympics and became a founder member of the Irish Wheelchair Association. Now he's been honoured for his life's work

Oliver Murphy with his Person of the Year award. Photo: Mark Condren
Oliver Murphy with his Person of the Year award. Photo: Mark Condren

Celine Naughton

It's an uplifting story worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster ­- and had Dr Oliver Murphy been born in America, it would no doubt have hit our screens by now.

The sole surviving founder of the Irish Wheelchair Association (IWA), Oliver's life took a pivotal turn sixty years ago this July when, as a young electrician from Drogheda, he set out for work in the Carlow Sugar Factory. Shortly after he began the midnight shift, a problem arose with lime-making equipment involved in the sugar purification process.

"An iron-steel bucket had got stuck 50 feet in the air," he remembers. "I was on a platform trying to fix it when the bucket came crashing down and hit my back, severing my spinal cord.

"I was lifted on to a stretcher with doctors and ambulance men all around me. There was a priest too, Fr Waldron. I remember his face clearly. They took me to Waterford Hospital where doctors put a steel plate in my back."

Up to then he'd been an athletic man whose sporting prowess included gymnastics, running and GAA. Now, 11 days before his 24th birthday, he was paralysed from the waist down.

"It was very traumatic not knowing what was going to happen," he says. "For a long time I didn't realise that the damage was permanent. After three months in Waterford I was transferred to Kilkenny, and in early 1960 I went to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England. Then, as now, its spinal injuries unit is considered one of the finest specialist centres in the world. I thought they were going to help me walk again.

"One day a young chap who'd been there for months having damaged his spine playing football came to talk to me. He didn't know it, but by comparing notes about the exact location and nature of our injuries, it suddenly dawned on me that unlike him, I was never going to walk again."

To be faced with such a stark reality, it might be understandable if he had sunk into despair, but Oliver says the support he got kept his spirits up.

"I didn't go into a black hole of depression," he says. "My mother was not so fortunate, however. She had a nervous breakdown and was on medication for the rest of her life. It hit my Dad very hard too, but he was better able to cope. I'm the second eldest of six, and my family was wonderful, as were the people in Stoke Mandeville. They buoyed me up, and instilled in me a 'can do' spirit."

A Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, neurosurgeon Dr Ludwig Guttmann had transformed the way patients were treated in Stoke Mandeville Hospital. When he first arrived, he didn't like what he saw. Treatment was mostly palliative, and soldiers injured in WWll were dying from pressure sores.

Dr Guttmann hired an army personal trainer who came in and started throwing balls at people.

"He used sport as a way of engaging them in life again," says Oliver. "He was a charismatic, determined man who knew that sport was key to building strength and combating depression. He launched the first Stoke Mandeville Games for people with disabilities, which later became the Paralympics."

Oliver took part in the first Paralympics games in Rome that year, and says that he and his fellow Irish team members were struck by how much more advanced teams from other nations appeared in their rehab. Inspired by Dr Guttmann's belief in the power of sport, they decided to do something about it.

"When we came home, eight of us got together in the Pillar Room of the Mater Hospital and set up the Irish Wheelchair Association on November 10th 1960," he says. "We each put ten shillings into a hat, and from that initial fund of £4 has grown a €50 million organisation with 20,000 members and 2,000 staff."

Fifty years after founding the association, Oliver was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Limerick, one of several accolades he has won over the years. Most recently, he received the Healthcare Person of the Year award for his life's achievements and ongoing steadfastness in the provision of services and supports for people with disabilities in Ireland.

"I'm very proud to be a part of an association that has had such an immense impact on people's lives," he says. "We're breaking down barriers, and there's still a lot to be done in that regard. I'd like to see people with disabilities be able to travel freely without obstruction, the same as everybody else. We want to create a world where everyone can get on with their lives. We'll keep at it.

"However, my proudest personal moments are the day I got married on 30th August 1971, and having the most wonderful family life with my wife and children. I first met Joan in 1965 when the IWA was organising a holiday in Cork for people in wheelchairs. She was a student nurse and she and her sister Ciara were part of the team. Four years later, I met her again with a bunch of her friends in Dublin. She was nursing in Holles Street maternity hospital then.

"She was quiet, reserved, and very kind. She had dark hair and there was something lovely about her manner. I thought she was made in heaven. The minute I got back to Drogheda I phoned Holles Street and asked her out on a date. We've been together ever since, and married for 47 years.

"I ran an electrical retail business, selling and repairing television sets. Joan and I adopted two children, Mona who's now 41 and has a daughter studying English and film studies in Trinity, and Tom, 39, who has a 14-month-old daughter."

But there were further challenges to face. When the children were small, Oliver developed Guillaine-Barré syndrome, which temporarily paralysed him up to the mouth. He was on a ventilator for three months. And in 2009 he had triple bypass surgery.

"I've learned that none of us knows what's going to happen from day-to-day, but knowing you can cope is a big blessing," says Oliver. "We all have the capacity to overcome obstacles and find new ways of doing things. You have to dream big. Look at Joanne O'Riordan, one of the most inspiring people in the world with her 'No Limbs No Limits' philosophy. What a spirit!"

Oliver, now 83, and is not short of such indomitable spirit himself, and he needs to call on it to this day in dealing with one of the most difficult physical legacies of his accident - phantom pain. The way his spinal cord was severed, it still intermittently sends messages of extreme pain to his brain.

"That was hard to bear for the first year or more," he says. "The pain lasts only a minute or so at a time, but it is very severe. Doctors tried injecting my spine, but it had no effect, and painkillers made me feel like a zombie.

"I'm religious and I used to ask God to take the pain away. However, at the first Paralympics event in Rome in 1960, we had an audience with Pope John the 23rd and he urged us to offer up our pain and suffering. So that's what I do. It's my prayer. I don't let pain spoil my life.

"When you reach a stage after a life-changing injury where you accept, 'This is the way I am,' it gives you freedom to move on and live a good and full life. It enables you to stop looking at things you can't do, and focus on the things you can. You count your blessings, of which I have many. I'm a father, a grandfather, and a husband. My family life is fantastic, and in the Irish Wheelchair Association, the core value of what we started - to help improve the quality of life for people with disabilities - remains paramount.

"It's about helping people to help themselves, reaching out all across the country and empowering individuals to live their lives the way they want."

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