Running: One step at a time ends in a miracle

By Peter Thornton

Gavin Bisset had to learn to walk again after having titanium rods inserted to support his back. Photo / Supplied
Gavin Bisset had to learn to walk again after having titanium rods inserted to support his back. Photo / Supplied

Of all the runners at the start line of the Whangamata run/walk festival today, Gavin Bisset has little to prove.

At 7.30am on a clear blue-sky day on June 30, 2006 Bisset was rear-ended by a truck as he was cycling to work on the Coatesville Riverhead Highway northwest of Auckland.

The impact sent the 27-year-old flying - he remembered thinking in midair: "What the ... was that?"

He ended lying in a ditch with no feeling in his legs, his back broken in three places and a broken left pelvis and nose. Later he would find his bladder and bowels had shut down as a result of the damage to his spinal cord during the impact.

Bisset was lucky to be alive.

He was in surgery for eight hours, where his orthopaedic surgeon at North Shore Hospital, Dr Edward Yee, cut his back muscles to remove the loose bits of bone.

Dr Yee grafted bone from his hip to fuse his spine and screwed two titanium rods using eight screws.

When Bisset came to he was in hospital with his mum and his wife, Antoinette, with the news that he had a one in 10 chance of walking again.

He would be able to transfer himself from a wheelchair to a bed independently in time.

"I remembered thinking that wasn't right and we'd be fine," said Bisset, who now works with ACC as a support co-ordinator in the national serious injury service.

"Even when they told me one out of 10 I still thought that was a reasonable chance."

Dr Yee described Bisset's injury as a "chance fracture" where the impact of the truck on his spine was compounded because his back was in flexion while riding his bike.

Bisset had suffered incomplete paraplegia and Dr Yee explained the injury was moderate to severe.

Bisset returned to the hospital a year after the accident to thank Dr Yee for his reparative surgery.

"I remember Gavin well," said Dr Yee, who has been an orthopaedic surgeon for nine years.

"He was in a mess when he arrived and we stabilised his spine ... to hear what he has achieved is incredible.

"When he came in a year later he showed some signs of weakness in his left leg but it was amazing to see him walking around with his wife and his young daughter," said Yee. "You never know what is going to happen with damage to the spinal chord as you are dealing with nerves."

Dr Yee was impressed by Bisset's commitment to his rehabilitation.

"Gavin was very fit before the accident, which helps, but his mental strength was his greatest asset.

"He never accepted that he had lost the ability to walk. He worked incredibly hard to get back on his feet and his belief has made anything possible."

The recovery has been a long and winding road for Bisset and one that has given him perspective about life.

"I do think differently now," said Bisset. "I try to maximise my leisure time and really enjoy it because you realise how important it is when it is taken from you."

During his rehabilitation at the Otara Spinal Unit he shared a room with Graham, a high-level tetraplegic from a trail-bike accident, and Guy, a tetraplegic after getting dumped on his head by a wave body surfing. "Their lives had completely changed within the space of a few seconds - just like mine - but seeing both these guys and hearing their stories made me even more determined to walk out of that place," said Bisset.

And he did walk out, three months after his accident and ahead of schedule, focused on returning to his sport-mad lifestyle.

In 2008 he completed the Auckland Half Marathon in 1h 20m 30s, finishing a 10km run in Auckland's North Shore in 34 minutes during his preparation.

"Wow!" said the 41-year-old Dr Yee about the half-marathon effort.

"That is an unbelievable time - I can't do anything like that and I haven't overcome a serious back injury."

Bisset hopes to complete the 10km run in Whangamata in about 36 minutes today.

"It is very satisfying being able to run again but it is also frustrating because I can't go as fast as I used to," said the 31-year-old. "I am training so much more than I used to but I am not getting the same results - but I do need to keep perspective and be happy with what I can do."

The first steps in the rehabilitation were being able to contract and relax muscles while lying in bed, gradually building up to bending his leg when lying in bed.

He had to learn how to walk again by visually activating the muscle.

"You know what you want to do but you don't have the sensation - initially you look at the muscle to try to make it move," explained Bisset.

"Walking around in the dark can still be hard sometimes because I don't have full awareness of where my legs are."

He laughed at the memory of falling flat on his face many times in the front yard of his then-home in Kumeu as he taught himself how to run again.

"It took about a year before I could run two days in a row as tendons behind my knee would flick over each other and get inflamed.

"I am getting better all the time. It is a use it or lose it situation where I want to be as mobile and as injury- and pain-free as possible" said Bisset.

"My leg muscles shake after working hard and I still have lots of spasms. I don't feel lactic acid in my left leg which is a lot weaker than my right.

"Lifting in the gym I am stronger for the second and third set as I get more muscle activation, it is like the opposite of fatigue."

It is an inspirational story and one that makes you want to get off the couch and go for a run.

It is also made his surgeon very proud. "You want all of your patients to recover fully and go on to live normal lives," said Yee.

"I am proud of Gavin but I am equally proud of all of the patients I have worked on who have overcome their own challenges after severe injuries."

Bisset's comeback has proved a stepping stone into his current work at ACC. "I love working with clients who are motivated and committed to their improvement but I get really frustrated with people who don't help themselves."

His blessings have continued as he and Antoinette have two daughters - Sophie, 3, and Kate, 1.

"We didn't know if it was going to be possible to have kids after the accident but it has all worked out perfectly and I am a very happy dad."

Bisset is a fine role model for people looking to overcome challenges in their lives.

"You can only change things that are within your control. Once you learn that it is easy and you focus on the stuff you can change."

Bisset has proved that his mental strength has changed his life for the better. "Attitude is everything," he said. "Never say never."

He has nothing to prove in Whangamata today but admits that a sub-36-minute run would be a bonus to the blessing that he can run again.

Gavin Bisset
* Bisset fractured his back in three places (T12, T6 and T4) in 2006 and damaged his spinal chord when a truck rear-ended him on his road bike. He was given a one in 10 chance of walking again.

* He completed the Auckland half marathon in 2008

- NZ Herald

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