Always looking on the Bright side

onjo Bright, with his physiotherapist Sandy Laping, on a visit to Racing Academy and Centre of Education in Kildare to test out the Esko Bionic Suit. Picture: Photocall Ireland

It really is something to watch a miracle unfolding right in front of you.

It might not be a miracle in the biblical sense but when a paralysed man walks, it blows your mind. Science, technology and willpower have got Jonjo Bright here.

The Antrim youngster has lived up to his name when he could be forgiven for seeing only gloom. Irish Examiner columnist, Ruby Walsh referred to the only two times he had real fear from falls when speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 last weekend. They both involved landing on his head. The first time, he had the sensation of suffocating. The second, it was like being plugged into a socket.

Jonjo felt neither of these things when he was catapulted into the dirt at Tyrella last March. He felt nothing at all and knew immediately what was wrong. One can only imagine what a pulverising blow such a realisation is to anyone. Imagine a 19-year-old, with his whole life in front of him? Yet Bright has always been upbeat.

“You have to look at things with a positive attitude,” said Bright at the RACE academy in Kildare last Monday. “I’m not sure what the other option is really. It helps to look at things that way. Even in the future, looking positively at what’s around the corner. That’s why I’m trying to stay in shape.”

Five days ago, he walked 37 steps, concentrating, working really hard. But there was a hint of a smile too, as each stride represented a sliver of Heaven. He finds it difficult to articulate the emotion, although “unbelievable” covers it fairly well.

“It’s good because usually when I stand, my blood pressure would be low so I’d feel wrong, with a sore head and dizzy. Because my muscles were moving and firing up, it pumps the blood around your body. To be upright and taking steps and not feel dizzy, was incredible. It’s the future. It’s a big step for me now.

“I do plenty of standing up to keep everything right but there’s nothing compares to that, taking proper steps. It’s a lot more natural than what I thought. I thought it was going to be very robotic. It’s an incredible piece of kit.”

The “kit” in question is the Ekso bionic suit, used predominantly in America in rehabilitation to enable people with any lower extremity paralysis caused by stroke or spinal cord injuries, to walk over ground with a full weight-bearing reciprocal gait. It isn’t a false process in that the person wearing the suit — which can be hung up in a wardrobe — is doing the work.

It is not a device to make people walk again. It is rehabilitation tool, enabling paralysed people to use and strengthen muscles in a way that had never been possible before. Right now, Jonjo goes to Watford every five weeks to have intensive physio. It is a vital process, to prevent him from literally growing into his chair. This would be a whole new ball game.

Rolling Ball was founded by Jane Evans to introduce robotic and automated therapy devices to Ireland. The company’s programme coordinator, Wendy Vard, reveals they are campaigning to get 17 Ekso suits in various gyms around the country.

What she would like the new Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar to know is that 17 suits at strategic locations around the country would cover everyone that needs this. It would be a life-changer and would cost less than €2m.

“Jonjo was keeping the physio up but he wants to be able to exercise,” says Evans. “He goes away at the moment to the UK to get his rehab and what Rolling Ball and what Ekso is about is bringing rehabilitation home. Why should they have to go away? Life is shit enough for them.

“It’s so easy to put this into gyms or gym-like facilities, not into rehabilitation centres. These kids don’t want to go to a rehab centre. They want to walk into a gym and work out like everybody else, to be pushed and get the same exhilaration that any one of us would get from exercise.”

It is typical of Bright that while he didn’t expect to be able to use the kit at the first time of asking due to the severity of his injury — he considered it a fact-finding mission to find out what he would need to improve to do so — his concern was that Evans would be upset, because he saw how badly she wanted it for him. Little wonder she calls him “extraordinary”.

Mark Pollock, the renowned motivational speaker who suffered a fall from a second-storey window that left him paralysed, is the only person in Ireland to own an Ekso suit privately. Unsurprisingly, Pollock is an inspirational figure for Bright. So too, is Jamie Kavanagh, the young wind surfer who broke his neck in an accident and tried out the Ekso suit with him on Monday.

And, of course, John Thomas McNamara, who returned home recently for the first time in 15 months, having had a fall at Cheltenham that left him paralysed, just a matter of weeks after Bright’s Tyrella tragedy.

“We can’t change our health system but it’s time we went into advanced rehabilitation,” insists Evans.

“Rehabilitation leaves a lot to be desired here. Once you leave hospital you’re on your own and that’s why we need devices like this.

“This prepares him for whatever is around the corner. Mark Pollock is not fighting to walk for no reason. He genuinely believes there is a cure and there will be. There has to be, the way science is going.”

Bright considers himself fortunate to have such a support system, be it family, friends and racing. He goes to the point-to-points and spends time out on the family farm, contributing to the planning. He has had many huge successes in improving his movement, confounding the medics in doing so.

This is a different level though, offering him a glimpse of an opportunity of a better life.

“Although today was brilliant, it has to be regular,” he says earnestly. “The medical benefits of it, it has to be good for you.”

“Getting people to these is the issue. I know enough people nearly to keep one going in the north. It’s not much money. Obviously that’s my dream, and an awful lot of other peoples’ as well. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Meanwhile, he will keep striving and amazing people with his attitude.

“You just need that ‘never quit’, no matter how hard it gets,” he says in that soft Ulster lilt, “just never quit.”


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