Back in class against odds

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
He's got more pieces of metal in his head than anyone else in Europe, but Gavin Rees has defied medical opinion, reports Adi Bloom

Three years ago Gavin Rees was told by doctors he would never teach again.

The primary teacher was left with horrific facial injuries after a skiing accident which he was lucky to survive. He now has 130 metal pins and 21 plates in his head - more than anyone else in Europe.

But, against all the odds, and defying medical opinion, Mr Rees, 29, has returned to the classroom. "The consultant told me I'd never teach again,"

he said. "But teaching was what I wanted to do. When something's taken away from you, you realise how much you want it."

The accident happened in Switzerland, where Mr Rees was checking out ski slopes in preparation for a school trip with Reigate primary, in Surrey.

While negotiating a sharp bend he collided with a colleague, who suffered minor injuries.

"After the final bend, everything went blank," he said. "Then a friend wrapped me in a blanket, and kept me singing kids' songs so I wouldn't lose consciousness.

"On the way to hospital, I remember vomiting, but I was actually coughing up blood. I don't remember any pain. I was high as a kite on morphine."

Doctors would not let him look in a mirror for days. The first indication of the extent of his injuries came when his girlfriend visited him. Her face, Mr Rees says, "just dissolved".

"My head looked like a football," he said. "It was big and round and swollen."

Using only his passport photo as a guide, the surgeons patched him up. "I asked for a George Clooney nose," he said. "That may have been a side-effect of the morphine."

A scar across his forehead is mainly disguised by his eyebrows. But surgeons also inserted large numbers of screws and plates into his head and pins into his legs.

"I panicked that this would set off metal-detectors," he said. "But they are titanium, so it is not picked up."

He was then transferred to Swansea, near his parents' home. There, doctors gently told him that he would be unlikely ever to return to the classroom.

"In an office, you can be as quiet or as busy as you like," he said. "But in teaching you have to give 95 or 100 per cent all the time.

"I didn't argue. I looked at jobs in web design and accountancy. But I was always pulled back to teaching. I knew in my heart that I would be back."

He was helped by an unexpected symptom of his accident. After suffering from bleeding and air on the brain, he underwent a subtle shift in character. Where he was previously laid-back, he now experiences intense determination and enthusiasm.

"If I set my mind on something, I won't stop. And I'd set my mind on teaching."

Last September, two-and-a-half years after the accident, Mr Rees went back to work as a supply teacher. In January, he began a full-time job at Bryn Cethin primary, in Bridgend.

"I'm a better teacher now," he said. "I've realised what's important. I've learnt to change the priorities in my life, and that means I've learnt to prioritise in the classroom."

Mr Rees is now planning a 1,000-mile sponsored cycling trip across Britain, France and Switzerland this summer, to raise money for the Swansea hospital that treated him. And he is more focused on his career ambitions, and hopes to move swiftly up the leadership ladder.

"All teachers could do with time out of the classroom every three years,"

he said.

"You refocus, and really think about where you're going. But they don't necessarily need to have a major accident first."


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