Tuesday 23 October 2018

Forty years of rising above disability

In August of 1977, Seán Connick's life changed when he was struck by a car while cycling. David Looby learned about his amazing journey since then

Seán with his wife Lourde in November 2017
Seán with his wife Lourde in November 2017
Seán on his first day home after the accident at Assumption Terrace with Dermot Kehoe and Brendan Lawlor and family members
The moment Séán was elected to the Dáil in 2007

It was ten days before his 13th birthday when Dunbrody Famine Ship CEO Seán Connick's life changed forever in a split second when his bike collided with a car near his Rosbercon home. Since that fateful day of August 16, 1977 - the day before Elvis Presley died - Seán has achieved more in his life than most.

Recalling the summer when the accident occurred, Seán said: 'I had just finished first year at New Ross CBS and we were on holidays.

'It was a hazy morning and at 2 p.m. my friends and I decided to head off on our bikes down Rosbercon Hill, over School House Lane, across Lover's Lane.

'My friend Ronnie Whelan was coming down the hill behind me. There is a really bad crossroads at Albatros. We were riding out there and unfortunately I rode out in front of a car that was coming from the Waterford road side.'

Seán was struck on his left-hand side. He broke his tibia and fibia below his knee, and his thigh femur, ending up on bonnet of the car. When he came off the car he ended up on the concrete fencing. 'That's what broke my back, ribs and punctured my lung so really it was a miracle that I survived.

I remember coming to and being lifted into a van. My father John had arrived at that stage.

'Then I could hear shouts of the ambulance had arrived so I remember all of that clearly. I remember people coming in and out all that night.'

The next morning he was taken to Dún Laoghaire in an Air Corps helicopter. 'It was touch and go for at least 10 to 14 days.'

Seán had mutiple injuries. He awoke each day to find several tubes attached to him. He became the first patient in Ireland to have Styman Splints fitted to him.

His family rushed to be by his side. 'My mum Peggy came from New Ross every single day which was phenomenal. I saw my siblings Anthony, Helen and Bernie and father too.'

Seán spent 12 weeks in bed without sitting up. His father bought him a portable colour TV to occupy his mind. 'I was in ICU for two months before being moved into the main ward, so I was isolated. I had physio every morning, occupational therapy. I listened a lot to radio and I had school books, but I was more focused on getting rid of all the tubes.'

Seán was aware there were complications and knew very quickly there was an issue as he couldn't feel his legs, 'but at no stage did someone sit down and have the conversation with me to say I was paralysed'.

'I was the youngest in the ward, but there were amazing guys there including some who were paralysed from the neck down. We were all on that one journey. You were dealing with people in much worse situations than yourself.'

Once he was allowed to get up out of the bed a sense of normality returned. 'I had to learn how to put a pair of socks on again, how to put my trousers on without standing up. so dressing myself would take 40 minutes. Now I get up and am dressed in five minutes. You had to re-train yourself with everything.'

The first journey out of hospital was on the first week in December 1977 to play guitar on TV on the SBB Christmas show. 'Then I came home for Christmas which was just brilliant. I was home for about a week. There was a huge crowd waiting for me at the house and I stopped in the YMCA Hall first to see my friends. After Christmas I went back to hospital and was there until April. One of the most important decisions of my life was made then. It involved whether or not to leave me in my year or to hold me back. With my class I was Seán Connick the whole way along. I had grown up with them and now I'm still Seán Connick but I'm just in a wheelchair, so they would have adjusted to me easier than if I had gone into a new class.'

Initially a little self conscious, Seán got great encouragement from his friends and was involved in everything that they did right up until the Leaving Cert.

He started going out with Lourde when he was only 16. 'We met through Tops and we were both part of that circle of friends. Lourde's encouragement has been amazing. No matter what scenario we end up in - and we have ended up in some very difficult ones - we have always been able to figure it out and just together we are a great team and she has helped form my whole outlook.

'I feel lucky to be alive. I have lived my life as best I can that is why I enjoy everything in life. It's been an amazing journey bit it's been a challenging one also. I have a very strong mental capacity in every situation. You are challeneged with demons of depression and think "I dont want to go to that" so I had to be made to do a lot of stuff - so without the support I've had I wouldn't have been able to do what I've done.'

He said there are things he would love to do if he could walk once again. 'I'd love to dance with Lourde. We would have loved to have family. We did go down that road for a huge part of our lives but just were unsuccessful which happens to a lot of people. I lost my Dad when he was only 54, I was 27 but still I needed him so that was a huge blow.'

Seán said he never thought of being a politician. 'I was always self employed. Politics came along as an aside. I had been Person of the Year and people saw me as a positive young person and Fianna Fáil approached me to run for the 1999 local elections and eventually I did and that began its own amazing journey.

'For me, one of the proudest achievements was to be elected to the Dáil. To think of where I came from and I am so passionate about the town. I was never motivated about being a TD - it was to do my best for the town.'

In 2004 he was elected to the town and county council and in 2007 to the Dáil. 'Maybe the lack of sport in my life I substitited with politics, as there were goals I could achieve. It was devastating to lose in 2011. Personally it was very disappointing, but for New Ross also.

'Here at the Dunbrody is another chapter in my life. I'm 53 now, and I love what I'm doing and I want to enjoy the challenges as they present.'

He is proud of the changes he made as the first TD in a wheelchair in the Dáil.

'We changed the whole access to the front of the Dáil because for the first three years I couldn't get out the front door. The plinth was changed and ramped. They are all done for future generations. Whenever I went the organisers of events were thinking and ramps were put up. What I was doing indirectly was raising the profile of people with disabilities for those that follow.'

His next mission is to improve the treatment of wheelchair uses on airplanes. 'I know the four years I was in the Dáil, the results of that transformed the town: the quayfront, the new schools. I hope I have been some sort of inspiration to people so people will say if he can do it, I can do it.'

He has not ruled out another tilt at a General Election. 'You never write it off. But I love what I am doing here. This is a project which is at a really critical time in its future development. I think tourism is our niche.'

He has many plans for the future. 'I would like to write a book or two. I would like to be involved more in influencing change in a positive sense for people with disabilities.

'Things are moving on with stand-up wheelchairs, exoskeleton systems, new robotics, technology; so it's about encouraging the newer generation of people with spinal cord injuries.

'For me 40 years sitting down, to get back up is more challenging as there is muscle wastage. Lots of people have made a difference, Always in the back of your head you are hoping for the cure. You are always hoping you'll wake up and can walk.

'But there is always quality of life: when you wake up, the sun is shining and music is playing, life is good.'

New Ross Standard