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Guest blog

From paralysis to a half marathon – my story

Whiteley location for NATS

Brian Wheeler is Deputy General Manager for Operations at NATS (formerly known as National Air Traffic Services) at Swanwick air traffic control centre, co-chair of NATS’s Disability Network and a motivational speaker. He is also trustee of Aerobility, a charity that changes lives by providing anyone – with any disability – with access to the magic and wonder of flight. NATS is a Member of Business Disability Forum. Here is his story:

May the fourth

For me, 4 May 2018 was a day that I will always remember. May the fourth is ‘Star Wars’ day for some but for me it was the day that I became paralysed overnight and told that it was unlikely I would ever walk again. The cause? A rare condition called Cauda Equina Syndrome. There was no trauma, no accident, just bad luck. On 3 May I was fit and healthy, 4 May I was facing a very uncertain future. The disc that had exploded into my spinal cord had damaged many of the motor functions in my lower body. I was numb from the waist down and had lost the ability to walk, along with bowel and bladder function. Emergency surgery was performed on the morning of 5 May and it was post that surgery when I asked the surgeon if everything had gone well that he told me ‘there is a good chance you will never walk again.’ I saw that as a challenge!

I was fortunate enough to be transferred to the specialist spinal unit at Odstock, near Salisbury, which was to be my home for the next three months. I was determined that I would walk out from that unit and would spend the first few days willing my toes to flicker – as if there was a connection to them, then I believed that would be the first step in getting back on my feet. After 5 days I got the flicker I was looking for and the next 3 months I worked harder than I have ever worked before to prove the experts wrong. Certainly, learning to crawl again at the age of 47 was not on my list of things to achieve before my 50th birthday! 86 days later I walked out of the unit on crutches, but the hard work had only just begun.

Making adjustments

I was nowhere near ‘fixed’ and was unable to get around without the use of walking aids – I started to wonder whether my obstinate refusal to choose a wheelchair in the hospital when it was offered was to come back and haunt me. I spent time with a specialist neurological physiotherapy company, as an inpatient for a total of seven weeks, split into three blocks between September 2018 and Jan 2019. Without that, I would not be anywhere near where I am today. I returned to work on a phased return in October 2018 and resumed full-time work in March 2019. However, the effects of a spinal cord injury made it difficult. I still had numb legs and feet and suffered massively with fatigue. My employer was brilliant, making adjustments, understanding my issues and ensuring I could continue in my role and for that I am hugely grateful.

Further surgeries were needed in March 2020 and August 2020 to insert titanium cages into my spine and add some rods and screws to secure everything into place. It was whilst recovering from the August surgery that I had an idea. The perfect antithesis to being told you might never walk again would be to run a half marathon, right? Well, I thought so, so I signed up there and then. The target date was 5 September 2021, and Southampton was the location. I had always been a runner and I thought this would be easy; I couldn’t have been more wrong. The pain running left me in was terrible and was caused by the fact that there was a lot of neurological deficit, especially on my left side, but with the help of a brilliant running coach, we got there. I completed that race in two hours and 22 minutes and raised over £9,000 for Aerobility. I did it with a lot of pain and in October 2021 was back for yet more back surgery.

“Quite a journey”

January 2022 saw me diagnosed with another rare condition, this time in my knees and it was apparent that I had completed the half marathon with fractures in both of my knees. I had to spend the next three months doing no exercise or face the prospect of double full knee replacement surgery. Fortunately, they made a miraculous recovery but it may be a while before I can run again.

It has been quite a journey since that fateful day and I, like many disabled people, still have my daily challenges. I am lucky to have an extremely supportive employer and I take great pride in being able to give something back, be that through the disability network at NATS or by going into schools and universities as a motivational speaker. One of the biggest things that my injury has taught me is that you decide the outcome – the experts will advise you and give their professional opinion, but they don’t always get it right.


Business Disability Forum has a host of relevant resources for people managers as well as tailored adjustment plans. If you’d like to learn how you can become a Member, you can find out more.

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