How Mr H is planning his future

31st October 2008 at 00:00
Jean McLeish catches up with the progress of young maths teacher who broke his neck trampolining last October

Last October, a young maths teacher hit the headlines when he broke his neck trampolining. Today, he is home and hoping to return to work next year. Jean McLeish discovers how the accident affected the man and his pupils.

It was a cruel irony that just after pupils at an Aberdeenshire school chose Spinal Injuries Scotland as their charity last year, a teacher was seriously hurt in an accident.

"Three weeks after we'd signed up, David Henderson was injured in a trampolining accident in an after-school activity," says Joan Bruce, principal teacher of guidance at The Gordon Schools, Huntly. "He's paralysed from the chest down but hopeful of getting back into teaching. He is currently exploring means of teaching in a classroom while being restricted to a chair."

Ms Bruce is accompanying the school's team to the public-speaking event Devil's Cauldron, which inspired the students' original fund-raising decision a year ago. At the event this year, sixth-year pupil Jessica Norrie begins the presentation to announce they will raise funds for the charity again. "There is no doubt that the dreadful consequences of this teacher's very serious injury impacted on the school and the community at large," the team tells an audience of several hundred pupils, teachers and business people.

Maths teacher David spent months of the last year in a spinal unit. The school is part of a close-knit community and after the young father of four was injured, the team soared past their target and raised Pounds 6,700. Earlier this year, they were presented with Fund Raiser of the Year Award by Spinal Injuries Scotland, whose vice-chairman Trevor Eakin joined their table for this year's Devil's Cauldron in Aberdeen.

"When I went to the main fund-raising day at the school, you could tell that there was so much involvement emotionally, because of their teacher," says Mr Eakin, who sustained spinal injuries in a motor-cycle accident seven years ago.

He paid tribute to the Grampian Police Diced Cap Appeal, which organises the event for secondary schools to encourage enterprise in education and good citizenship. "It's not just what they're doing, it's the way they are going about it," he says.

Once they enter The Devil's Cauldron, students pitch their fundraising ideas in a Dragon's Den-style scenario. Members of the business community are the devils, who quiz them on their plans and can offer sponsorship. The scheme raises Pounds 30,000 to Pounds 50,000 a year for a range of charities which often have emotional resonance for the schools because of personal experience.

The event focuses on public speaking and creativity and acts as a showcase for individual talent as well as team work. The devils offer work placements to impressive pupils, with the prospect of full-time employment for some, and there are satellite events held throughout the academic session.

Retired Grampian police officer Gordon Townson is chairman of the Diced Cap Appeal and is keen to see the concept adopted by authorities and other forces across Scotland.

Lying paralysed for months in the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow, Dave Henderson prayed - "God, if I could just push my specs up or scratch my face."

It's been one of the apparently trivial but more frustrating aspects of his injury: "You get more itches and you can't scratch yourself - as if being paralysed wasn't enough," the 34-year-old maths teacher jokes at his home in Aberdeenshire.

In the last few weeks, though, there's been a breakthrough with the return of movement to his arms: "Only recently I have been able to scratch my face when I am itchy and push my specs up," says Dave, greatly encouraged by this new development.

He still can't move his hands or fingers and has no feeling from the chest down - but the young father of four is set on making progress.

"I am getting to the point when I will be able to feed myself, I think. I think I will get that back," he says, with characteristic determination.

It's a year since Dave, a qualified trampoline coach, was injured at an after-school trampoline club in the gym at The Gordon Schools in Huntly while demonstrating a move to pupils. He's now home with his music teacher wife Mairi and their children Rebecca, 10, Sam, 7, Kirsten, 6, and Eilidh, 4 - after eight months in hospital.

"I landed on the back of my neck on the trampoline and I knew immediately I had broken it, everything went in slow motion," Dave explains, lying back in his armchair at the computer.

"Again the bounce from that landing rolled me off the trampoline and I landed inside where the crash mats were and I couldn't move my legs straight away."

"I just focused on making sure the kids were all right, got them to go and get somebody. I was conscious the whole time, which was fortunate for the children. They called the PE staff and there were about five teachers around in two minutes. Ten minutes later, the ambulance came.

"I was still moving my arms properly for a couple of days after the accident and then everything seized up. I knew my legs weren't working, but everything else was, kind of.

"The pain hit me once I got into the ambulance and was pretty severe for the next wee while."

Dave was taken to hospital in Elgin, then flown to the Spinal Injuries Unit at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow. "The first three months was just really making sure I lived through it. I'd say about three times I thought I was going to die throughout the experience. I got quite ill with infections and complications," he recalls.

He had two operations and was put onto a ventilator after the second bout of surgery. He also had a tracheostomy, which meant he couldn't speak for seven weeks and had to be drip-fed through his nose.

His wife Mairi, who is a supply teacher at Alford Academy, is away today, leaving Dave with his sister Ruth helping with the two younger children and a small army of nurses and carers who troop in and out during the day.

"Mairi has been so great, she is absolutely brilliant. She has coped amazingly well and she just gets stuck into everything. She's very, very capable and has really kept the family together," he says.

His family got him home at the start of the summer holidays: "If you are having a foul day and feeling sorry for yourself, the kids will knock it out of you in no time."

Among the helpers today is one of the fifth-year pupils from Gordon Schools, Huntly - 16-year-old Emily Phillips, the family's baby-sitter, who is bringing in cups of coffee and helps Dave's sister get him in and out of his chair.

"We were all pretty devastated. My friend and I went down to see him twice in hospital and we looked forward to it. We'd write letters and try to keep him involved with everything that was going on here," she says. "We let him know everyone was missing him, because he had made such an impact on the school since he hadd been there. Everybody thought the world of him and still does. They are always asking `How's Mr H?' she smiles.

Back home, Mr H is planning his future. He has an infrared mouse built into his spectacles and is able to do research and keep in touch with friends at the computer. He is still being paid and is keen to get back to work, hopefully by this time next year.

"That will give me time to get a bit stronger. To do a day's work, I just need to be a bit stronger," says Dave, who has been the adventurous, sporty type since he was a wee boy.

"Over the years, I've done just about everything. Lots of adrenaline sports, as well as the more normal. I've done parachute jumps and rock climbing and all that kind of stuff - trampolining was part of the whole picture. I've been trampolining for years and coached for years as well."

He spent the first four years of his life in Africa where his parents were missionaries, until the family returned to Scotland in the late 1970s. "I have always had a strong faith - the principles that I live by, being positive and the way I approached life before have helped fight the circumstances."

In hospital, some health professionals warned how his life would be limited by his injury - but Mr H has no time for negative thinking and still travels into Aberdeen and Huntly to run church youth clubs with Mairi and to Glasgow for church meetings.

There's never a trace of self-pity or bitterness in his tone, Dave is more interested in keeping other people happy. His good humour is infectious and draws people to him.

"I believe miracles do happen, but at the same time I am not unrealistic, I am looking practically to put things in place," he says.

"There's a Project Walk, which is an American rehabilitation system for spinal injuries - much more intensive exercise - so I am looking to get onto that. They reckon they can get anybody walking."

The year ahead is going to be busy. The family is having a purpose-built steading conversion erected a few minutes from their current home and four boisterous children demand attention.

Whatever the future holds, Dave Henderson has an army of supporters behind him. He taught in Huntly for just seven months before he was injured.

But as fifth-year student Emily Phillips says, he made a big impression, "because he's such a great guy and everyone gets on really well with him. He's not miserable - we just love him."

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