30 Jun 2022

'Everybody needs a new challenge at 40'

Big interview: Mark Nugent

'Everybody needs a new challenge at 40'

Mark Nugent and his finacée Jacqueline Healy

Alan and Jacqui and Laura and my Mam and Dad and my auntie Mary, Norman Birchall, Doreen, Dave Hickey, Ken Murray, Kishan, Colette, Hughie Nevin and his dad Pat, Mark Leamy, Jerome, Ruth and Ger, Ruth’s little fella, Nicola coming home from Australia, Daithi, Ruairi Nolan, Philip Nolan, Declan from Brady’s, Neil Farragher, the unknown woman who held his head after the crash, Conor Dempsey, Paddy McGovern, my uncle Seamus, Dr Synnott, Patrick Monaghan, Declan Buckley, Ted Robinson, Ronan my physio, Derek Byrne……”

We are, in many ways, the sum of our associations and attachments to other people — something that Mark Nugent has cause to realise more than most.

He would say that in that respect, he is lucky to have the people around him that he does.

For an hour I interviewed him last Tuesday, and for an hour he told me stories, had the pair of us in stitches, talked about adjusting to a new life with a spinal injury, about all the things that he’s had to learn and the things that don’t occur to you, until it’s you.

But everywhere we went in that hour there were countless names and people, visiting him, shaking his hand, being there when he woke up, wishing him the best, waiting in the wings to reach out to help him, driving him places, looking after him, looking after his friends, torturing him in a physio session, setting up a bed downstairs for him, getting excited to see him.

This is the story of Mark Nugent, who is currently at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dun Laoghaire and who, four months ago had an accident that changed his life. But really, this is the story of what happened afterwards, and how lots and lots of people have reached out to him.

“All the support, it’s been tremendous,” he says, like he doesn’t really know how to explain it or put in words what it means to him.

On April 18, the 39 year old Maynooth man, footballer, hurler, golfer, cyclist, runner, brother of Alan, brother in law to Laura, fiance to Jacqui, son of Dominic and Ann, cousin of Hughie, friend to many, was heading off on his bike at about 4.30 in the afternoon.

From his parent’s home in Barrogstown (near Connolly’s Folly obelisk) he descended into Maynooth. From there he headed out out past the college on the Kilcock Road. He says he wasn’t going too fast, hadn’t warmed up yet. His aim was to get around to Kilcock, Clane and then to make it over to the kayaking club on the canal near Lyons estate for 5.30.

“There was a guy due to meet me to do 12kms. We had done eight the previous Saturday.”

He was in training for Coast to Coast which was due to take place in early May and involved cycling, running and kayaking 340 kms non-stop from Enniscrone in Sligo to Newcastle in Co Down. Alan and Jacqui were due to do support for him.

A few hundred metres past North Kildare Club he was involved in a collision, and lying on the ground in that instant, he knew he’d never walk again.

“I could feel no pain. I could feel nothing,” he says. “I could see the bike frame between my legs.”

A woman who was passing in her car held his head, and as she did, he says, feeling returned to his arms .

“She saved my life - well, that and my helmet.”

He doesn’t know her name, and has a memory that she was either a nurse or a doctor. He’d like to meet her. He remembers an ambulance arriving and a body board being placed under him and being brought to Blanchardstown where an initial assessment was done. From there he was moved to the Mater Hospital and arrived at 1.20am.

“My first x-ray was at 1.30. We knew straight away.

“I asked the doctor what my possibility of walking was, and he said there was none. Well, he said ‘you’ve a 99% chance of not walking again’, so that means none.”

He was operated on at 7am the following morning where his C2 vertebrae was stabilised and pins were inserted into his back to immobilise T2 to T8.

“They will stay there forever. I don’t remember a huge amount. I woke later and Alan and Jacqui, Mam and Dad, Hughie and Laura (Alan’s wife) were there.

At that stage Jacqui’s sister Nicola was on a plane home from Australia, and her sister Ruth was on her way up from Cork as well.

“They were all up very quickly. It seemed very quickly anyway.”

Before he went into surgery that morning, a little more than 12 hours after the accident, the surgeon had asked him what his goals were. “I said I’ve done four marathons on foot and I’ll do the next one in a wheelchair.”

“You’d already decided, this is it, what’s next,” I asked incredulously. “There was no: “Ah b****ks?”

“Well, it just all seemed so clear. There’s been a lot of “ah b****ks” since then!” he laughs.

“They do this psychology stuff up in the Mater and they talk about talking to people on the scene and stuff like that. Alan says I was remarkably calm.

“I was a bit away with myself at the start, but remarkably calm when I was asking questions and stuff.”

“I’ve set other goals since then, but that’s still my main target. They always say that when you hit 40 you should find a new challenge. Well, I’ve found mine!”

The positivity isn’t for show. “I’ve always been the kind of guy that has a positive outlook. Don’t get me wrong, there are bad days and you don’t want to see anybody. You say, feck that now. I just want a day off, let the world go away. But 95% of the time I have good days.

“I’ve got great support, you know what I mean? Mam and Dad, Jacqui, Alan, Laura, the support’s been fantastic. And there’s not a day goes by I don’t get a text from one person in the Galway Cycle, asking how I am?

(The Galway Cycle is an event run by the cycling club we are both members of).

“I mean, the phone is hopping. Jacqui’s phone is hopping!

“One day I had 22 visitors in. 22!” he says like he still can’t believe it. “There were 13 or 14 sitting outside there.I can’t talk to them all! People just turn up. It’s been unbelievable.”

In the days immediately afterwards his breathing was poor. There was fluid on the lungs and his voice wasn’t strong.

“It all seems like a lifetime ago. Sometimes you forget that you could walk,” he says. Then he pauses to reflect.


Another pause.

“When you sit in the chair for so long, you forget, you know, how to use your legs. It’s a bit of a weird one. It’s only four months ago. I lay on the flat of my back for six weeks. I didn’t see sunlight for six weeks until one day Jacqui and I went outside into a garden area in the Mater.

“I counted 20 people in 10 minutes cycling past with no helmets on. That is the weirdest thing ever! They were zig zagging in and out through traffic. I know it was a Sunday afternoon, but still!”

When he first got into a wheelchair he could only do 40 minutes in it. Now he can happily stay in it most of the day.

“The first one was really heavy. It that had a tilt on it because my blood pressure kept collapsing.”

It weighed 40kgs. His current one is 17kgs. He has still to get fitted for his own chair.

“The one that I get will be custom made. Then I’ve to go sourcing a wheelchair for racing and a hand bike as well,” he said with a bit of a mischievous grin. He’s done handcycling and he really enjoys it. That grin returns when he speaks about wheelchair basketball.

“I’m not very good at it at the moment. I can barely hit the rim of the basket because the power in my arms wouldn’t be quite what they need to be — and you’re so far down.

“I started it last Tuesday. Declan Buckley from Maynooth came in and he played wheelchair basketball with me. It was four aside. It was brilliant!

“They’re very good in here at pushing you to do stuff. They don’t want you sitting on your arse.”

“But let's be honest, you were never one for sitting on your arse,” I say to him.

Which is good, because he needs to be careful with his weight.

“ I’m trying to cut back. When I came in here. I was 67 kgs, and now I’m up to 76 or 77. I was 80 on the morning of the accident. I was trying to get down to 78 for the race. Because that’s what I was for the Race Around Ireland (a race the pair of us won in 2014.)

“I can’t ever let the midriff get too heavy.”

He’s lost a lot of the weight was in his legs. It was further complicated when he contracted Miller Fisher Syndrome, a type of palsy. Amongst other effects, he lost his sense of taste and smell and his ability to swallow.

“It closed my eyes, I couldn't breathe properly. I was in a bad way. It’s quite rare.”

That necessitated two weeks in the High Dependency Unit and being fed through his nose.

“I’ll tell you, puréed chicken is one of those things you’ll never forget!” he says, and giggles about it now.

“One day, I asked the lady, ‘what’s for dinner today? Is it cod or chicken?’

“And she looked at it and said, ‘I dunno what that is’.

“And I was thinking, oh my God, you don’t know what it is and you’re bringing it in to feed me! Then, you know what, we’re all in trouble!”

Eventually the taste returned to him slowly. At one point he drank Fanta and could taste the bubbles but not the orange.

“And then the first thing I could taste, which I hate, was Airwaves chewing gum. It’s very strong - so strong that if you can’t taste this, you’re f****d! But once I could taste that, we knew I’d be fine.

“Pepperoni pizza was what I was longing for. Jacqui brought that into me on the Friday. That was absolute heaven. I ate it outside the Mater. Myself, Mam, Dad, my uncle Seamus, Jacqui and my aunty Mary. We all helped ourselves.

“I’ve an awful longing for trashy food. I wouldn’t normally have eaten a lot of McDonalds or anything like that, but here I was eating it, Pizza Hut, Chinese….. No offence to the Mater, but the food was fairly basic!”

Temperature control is also a major issue for him. It’s all over the place. His brain decides what his temperature is based on what it can feel, and when the brain can’t feel how warm the vast majority of your body is, it can’t regulate the temperature.

“If you have a spinal injury higher than T12 it affects your ability to regulate the temperature. I still get sweats. I’m on an anti-sweat tablet which has calmed it down, but I still get sweats and the shivers.

“It’s one of those things you just never think of. You see somebody in a wheelchair and you just think, it’s just somebody in a wheelchair. But there’s things like bladder, bowel, temperature control. You don’t think of them trying to get in and out of a bed, or a car, trying to drive or trying to dress themselves. You don’t think of any of it. That was one of the rude awakenings for me.”

Another one is how his hamstrings must be stretched regularly - and in fact quite violently.

“Otherwise my arse would stay in the bed! My back muscles would stretch and my arse would stay put.”

“In school I could run and run and run and run, up and down the hall in my fitness test, press ups, sit ups and all that sort of thing, except stretching. And now I can touch my toes without bending my knees,” he says with no small pride.

It’s an important advancement in allowing him to dress himself and be independent. He told me once “everybody needs a new challenge when they turn 40” and independence is a big one. But he’s also focused on marathons. He’s considering the Longford, Dublin and Berlin marathons. For his first one, he’d like a flat one, which is why Longford might get the nod. He also says he’d love to do the one in Berlin again. He also wants to hand cycle to Galway in advance of the Galway Cycle next March. “I can do 40 or 50kms a day, so I’ll give myself a few days to do that.”

He’s not sure about the Paralympics, being a bit older than normal athletes. That being said he was speaking to Caragh man Patrick Monaghan, who told him there were guys in their 50s doing wheelchair sports, so he’s not against the idea. At the moment, there are more pressing concerns, like adapting his home and getting a wheelchair accessible car.

“When you come in here, the aim is that you’re going to get out of here as independently as possible.

“The marathons and the hand cycles and all that sort of stuff will come afterwards. You start on it in here, your power training and your physio work, but if you’re not independent when you get out of here, you won’t be able to do anything.”

When the idea of establishing a fund was mentioned to him initially, he wasn’t keen.

“I don’t like looking for stuff like that. People have their own hard times. It’s not as if.....there’s plenty of me in here (rehab). You don’t like going, putting the hand out.

“I don’t see it like that now, but at the time I did,” he’s keen to add.

Even at that, he thought the fund would raise a few thousand, but in a matter of days it had topped €10,000, and the online fund is now over €50,000.

“People who I’d never met were donating, putting up unbelievable messages, wishing me the best of good luck with the recovery. My mind was blown away to be honest. It really was.”

When he heard about a cycle being organised in his name, he used it as a date to aim for, to be able to get out of Dun Laoghaire for a night. He stayed in Alan’s house.

“Declan Buckley and Conor Dempsey picked me up the evening before, and going down in the car we were chatting about how many cyclists would show."

If it was lashing, it could be 10 he believed. If not, maybe 100, maybe 150.

“And Conor said to me it may be a bit bigger than that.”

In the end, there were over 750.

“When I drove into the yard that morning, it was just….it was mindblowing. It really was. I couldn’t get out of the car quick enough, just to start shaking a few hands and thanking people for coming. People were just coming up to me and saying ‘hi, I’m so and so, you don’t know me but I’m here, I’ve heard about your story, we’re here to support you’.

“At least 20 from all the major cycling clubs. Thirty came up from Coachford (in Cork where Jacqui is from). Ted Robinson was exceptionally good to them in the Glenroyal. They were blown away by that. And then in Brady’s after the cycle, Declan couldn’t do enough for them. As Jacqui’s dad said, he never bought a pint the whole night.”

“I was thinking that it was hard on you,” I said.

“It was,” he says, his voice catching a little.

“It was hard going down and seeing the people and their generosity and what they were doing for me.

"The lads have been exceptional. Everybody has been exceptional. And I hate to pick out anybody - but the ladies and the lads who organised that cycle were just….just blew me away. I never before heard people coming back from a cycle to say that it was really well marshaled, the food was great, the route was excellent.

“Nobody was rushing away afterwards. Everybody dying to get back and sit out on the grass and have the chats.

“At one point there was a queue of 20 people waiting to shake my hand and (Maynooth University President) Philip Nolan in the middle of it. Only one person out of that queue that I knew! There were people from Kanturk, Athlone, Mayo, lads from work came down. One of my bosses at work, Neil Farragher sent out an email and he couldn’t believe the response - there were 40 lads from work there.

“It was unbelievable.”

Now he’s counting down the days to leaving rehab. And he’s getting out more. Two weekends ago he went to Cork, he says, proud as punch.

“It was Ruth’s little fella’s birthday. I didn’t know if I’d make it, but after the trip out to Alan’s I had the confidence to do it. We left here at about 2pm, stopped a few times, got there at quarter to six. Ruth was absolutely over the moon. She nearly dropped the little fella!

“And I went to Croke Park on Sunday! The amount of people who came over to me and tapped me on the shoulder, shaking my hand. I was wheeling out of the lift at one point and somebody said, ‘Go on ahead there young lad, aren’t you doing very well for yourself?’

“Hold on a second, all this is, is a wheelchair! But that’s the Irish mentality.”

There’s a fine line between being a bit condescending and congratulatory, I suggest to him.

“A very fine line!” he laughs, seeing the good in it. “I was pushing myself across a carpet, whoo hoo! Go me! Next stop the Olympics!

“But the amount of people who came over and said “you’re doing well for yourself". A fella came over, shook my hand and said ‘great to see you here’. I don’t know who he was! You know, it’s not as if I was the only fella sitting there in a wheelchair.”

Next on the agenda is adapting his home. There’ll be widened doors and a lift installed. That’ll be a job done by his cousin Hughie Nevin, who is a builder.

“Pat Nevin and Sons, Building Contractors! In any job I’ve ever got done, I trust him. I know I’m biased because they’re family.

“The amount of people who’ve come forward to say, we’ll do this for you, we’ll do this for you. I think I’m more overwhelmed by the outpouring of support than anything else.

“I think that keeps you in a good light too and keeps you positive.You want to try to do the best that you can for people. 

"Like, I don’t want to let anybody down when I leave here. I wanna do what I can do. I want to make people more aware of spinal injuries, of wheelchair users. I would have been blind to wheelchair users — I never would have parked in a car parking space that’s for wheelchairs, never, never, never. But if somebody went by me in a wheelchair I would have been blind to them, to what they needed.”

He’s aiming to be back in work in the New Year — he says his employers, Mondelez (Cadbury’s to you and me) have gone above and beyond what could be expected of an employer.

They have been in regular contact, including visiting him regularly and taking part in the cycle.

“They’ve been exceptional. I expected it, but nothing close to what they’ve done for me.”

The one thing he’d like to do is to speak to people in the Mater who are where he was four months ago. “I was terrified of 101 things. I wish somebody had spoken to me to explain how it was going to be.”

And so, at the age of 39, the curtains open on the next act in the life of Mark Nugent.

It has a cast of hundreds.

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