STEVE Brookes had always wanted to be in the Navy. He joined when he was just 17 and loved it.
It took him all over the world and into some potentially hostile situations, taking part in anti-drugs and anti-piracy patrols. But the accident that changed his life happened when he was commuting from his base in Poole to his Hampshire home.
His wife, Nicola, didn’t like him riding his motorbike, and to help allay her fears he phoned her to let her know when he was leaving, and when to expect him. But Steve didn’t make it back home to her and their two little girls, Grace and Emily, that night in October 2008. In fact, it was almost a year before he could go home again. And by that time, his life had been turned upside down.
Steve was flung from his motorbike when it was hit by a car. He quickly realised something was wrong as he couldn’t get up, but even when he was told, the severity didn’t sink in.
“The doctor said: ‘It’s serious Steve – you’ve broken your neck’. I was like ‘Oh, right, can you fix us then?’ and he said: ‘No, it’s more serious than that. It’s permanent. You’re not going to be able to move again.”
“Nicola was by my side holding my hand and I realised I couldn’t feel it. The first thing I said was ‘I’m not going to be able to hold the girls again’ and I bawled my eyes out.”
Steve was transferred from hospital in Poole to a specialist spine trauma unit at Southampton General Hospital. He had suffered irreparable damage to the fifth vertebrae in his neck.
The team worked to minimise the damage. Steve, who was initially on a respirator, is ever grateful to his physiotherapist, who focused on improving his breathing, meaning he didn’t have to have a tracheotomy.
Steve was then transferred to a specialist unit at Salisbury District Hospital where they began to work on making the most of the little movement.
At first he could only move his head but he became able to shrug his shoulders and has gained some movement in his arms, although he cannot use his hands. He also has no feeling in his hands or below his chest.
Six months later he was transferred to Headley Court.
He spent a year at the military rehabilitation unit and became so depressed he stopped eating, dropping from a muscular 13 stone to just eight stone.
But with the support and love of his family, he managed to pull through.
“Nicola has been amazing,”he says fondly.
Steve and Nicola on their wedding day
“I wouldn’t have got through it without her. It’s been hard for her – she’s the one who had to sort out us moving to a new house and having it adapted for me, looked after the kids, liaised with my family while I was in hospital. She was brilliant and she’s had no recognition, really.”
Steve, who now lives with his family in a speciallyadapted house in Fareham, says that despite the accident and the huge change it has made in their lives, his relationship hasn’t fundamentally changed – Nicola is still his best friend.
He credits that with his decision not to have Nicola take care of him.
“When I was in Salisbury, I saw a lot of wives taking on the role of carer to their husband and I think it changed their relationships. I was determined not to do that. I wanted to keep Nicola as my wife. That’s why I have a care team to look after me. She doesn’t do those things for me. I think that’s important.”
Steve and his family
But this arrangement did mean getting used to having members of the care team sharing their home 24 hours a day.
“It was hard, initially, having to share the house, but the carers are great,”he says. “They have their own room and they are there when we need them and then sink into the background when we don’t.”
Another big adjustment was moving to the new home out of hospital and rebuilding a family bond with his girls who he had only seen for about an hour at a time for almost a year.
“It was hard coming home because I’d come to rely on the hospital staff – it was a big change, not having that safety net,”he says.
He said his older daughter Grace, who was then three, still finds it difficult to adjust.
“Every time I go to hospital for an appointment she says ‘will you be out of your wheelchair when you come back?’ I have to say, ‘No, Daddy’s always going to be in a wheelchair.’”
However a turning point in Steve’s recovery came when he got a Canine Partners dog – giving him independence and helping to bond the family.
He had applied for a dog after he fell out of his wheelchair in the grounds at Headley Court and had to wait for 45 minutes for help.
The charity matched him with Kizzie, a Labradorretriever cross who he has had for three years.
Steve and Kizzie
“She was perfect,”he says fondly, looking down at her where she lays at his feet.
“She had these big brown eyes and was immediately responsive to me – I was made up!
“She does everything for me – opening doors, pushing lift buttons, giving my wallet to cashiers when we’re out and about. She even occasionally empties the washing machine for me.
“If I am out and about and drop my phone, she gives it back to me.
“That’s my lifeline, so she gives me independence to go out on my own. Without her, I couldn’t leave the house without someone else.
“A really important thing has also been that she has been a way of interacting with my kids,” he adds.
“When I came home initially, I’d go to the park and watch them play but if I tried to push them on the swings by driving into them, they’d just swing back and smash into me.
“Now I play games with them as part of Kizzie’s training; they have races with her to get back to me and we take her for a walk together, which is Daddy time. It’s been important for bonding with them again, after all that time away.”
Steve says inevitably he has his down days, but the accident has made him value those precious family moments and for him nothing is better.
“When I was in the Navy, I was away a lot. I was there when they were born, but then I was away again. I get time with them now. I get to see them every day. My life is a lot better now than I thought it was going to be.
“I didn’t think I had any sort of future.
“My attitude is that it’s rubbish that it happened but I count my blessings that I’m still alive. One vertebrae higher and I could be breathing through a tube. One higher than that and I wouldn’t be here.
“We just went to Disney World in Florida. I had Grace on my knee, Emily on the back of the chair and Nicola by my side. It was fantastic.
“I’m thankful that I’m alive and here with my family.
It could have been so much worse.”
Canine Partners’ assist people with disabilities to enjoy more independence, a better quality of life and where possible help them into education and employment, by providing specially trained dogs. The charity relies solely on donations. For more information visit caninepartners.org.uk or call 0845 658 0480.