Don't take risks

23 July 2019

Taking risks at work can have a life changing outcome, as Jason Anker reveals after being left in a wheelchair for life after falling from a ladder. Here, he tells his story.

MY NAME is Jason Anker. I was paralysed from the waist down after a fall from height on a construction site on January 3  1993. I was 24 years old.

My life leading up to my accident had been quite ordinary, I’d left school at 16 and went straight into employment on a government YTS – but luckily for me it was my dream job, the possibility to learn the skills to become a sign writer. A girlfriend, a child and before I know it, I’m married with a second child on the way, not the greatest plan but I was happy with my lot and still had dreams of running my own sign writing business.

Then the recession struck, and I was made redundant, being a young family man now with a wife and two children. I had to find work. I had friends who worked on the power stations on the outages that happened throughout the summer months and one of my close friends was able to secure me a contract. The money was great – 4/5 times more money than I earned as a sign writer, but the downside of it was 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week and mostly away from home. This put pressure on my young marriage but also the job was very demanding and it very unfulfilling working as a labourer when I was a skilled craftsman, although the money was needed and made the circumstances that was hard for both of us just about bearable.

However, as the contract came to an end by the beginning of September, I again found myself out work, being young and not disciplined enough to save properly, we were broke, desperately unhappy but trying the best we could for our young family. At the beginning of December, I was offered some labouring work for my father in law's roofing company, out of desperation to earn money for Christmas I reluctantly accepted the offer. The work was hard, it was freezing cold, but it was only for a few weeks to pay for Christmas. At the beginning of January, I was still there.

January 3 1993. I remember the banging on the door, it was my supervisor coming to pick me up, I had been out late at a party till the early hours and had decided I’d had enough, and I wouldn’t be going back. However, the next thing I'm hurriedly putting on clothes and before I really can think straight I'm half asleep in the back of a car on my way to the work site, a former RAF Officers' mess that was being converted into a private school. The job we had been contracted to do was the repair of a large flat roof and although it was 1993 the job itself was safe, one open edge with full scaffold edge protection and a secured ladder for access but then at around 3pm things changed.

The work's supervisor informed us of a leak on a building that we had not been working on and seeing as we were on site could we please investigate, eager to please the client and with the prospect of more work, my boss agreed. The leak was quickly found and so began the stereotypical chain of events that would lead up to my accident. Firstly, the unplanned work and secondly time restraints. The job would take two hours to complete but the works supervisor informed us it would be dark in one hour and he asked if it was possible to get it done, although we wasn’t asked to work unsafely, there was again the feeling of pressure and the prospect of continuous work, so we agreed to give it a go.

With light now failing, my boss climbed the ladder onto the roof but I was stood at the bottom, something wasn’t right. The ground conditions were terrible and the ladder wasn’t secured but I didn’t speak up – maybe out of embarrassment or fear – but was then shouted down at by my boss, ‘hurry up’, so I climbed the ladder. We actually got the repair done in the hour and I was now the first to descend the ladder that was now being footed by my supervisor and on reaching the bottom rung he moved away, unfortunately I was called back up the ladder to retrieve a bucket of tools. As I got halfway up the ladder slipped and I fell, landing on the cold, hard concrete floor.

I initially thought ‘my God, I'm ok’, although winded and finding it hard to catch my breath. But this was quickly replaced by absolute horror as by trying to sit up, I became aware I couldn’t feel my legs. As the workers came to my aid and rang an ambulance, I was just laid there, freezing cold, with my thoughts of what was going to happen to me and my young family.

Spinal shock

Finally, the ambulance arrived, I was put on a spinal board and rushed to the local hospital in Nottingham. The diagnostic from the subsequent x-ray was encouraging as there was no obvious sign of a break and I was experiencing the symptoms of a condition known as ‘spinal shock’ and these would wear off in time, 2 hours, 2 weeks or even a few months but it put my mind at rest and I should make a full recovery. I did smile to myself and remember that these things only happen to other people. However, it was decided to send me for a CT scan, just to make sure. Then the words, we have found a small fracture in your back, you have suffered massive spinal injuries, then he simply said, ‘you will never walk again’ and that was it. A major operation followed with 2 titanium rods inserted to support my spine and I was then transferred to a special Spinal Rehabilitation Hospital in Sheffield, Lodge Moor.

Again, I still believed I had gone there to learn how to walk. But I was there to learn how to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair, how to manage your now paralysed bowel and bladder. The regime was hard, twice a day in the gym, the work with the occupational therapy team - the dedicated staff made sure you were fit enough physically at least, to leave hospital. After 4 1/2 months, I was discharged, in a wheelchair. My young marriage faced with all these obstacles didn’t really have a chance and she walked out with my children the day after I was released.

I had just turned 25, trying to deal with the fact I was going to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair and now the breakdown of my marriage and losing my two children, my life had really fallen apart. Anti-depressants had been prescribed by my GP, along with sleeping pills and feeling unable to share with anybody how I was feeling I found solace in alcohol. My family and friends were all struggling, what to say, what to do for the best. My moods were unpredictable and I take it out mostly on my mum, who was just trying to help, would do things that didn’t help really, that would make me feel worse or angry, the small simple things that I was no longer able to do. My only source of happiness was the time spent when I could see my children, Abbi was now three years old and Sam who had just turned one. My life was all over the place, deep lows then drunken outburst because I was desperately unhappy but with no one to share how I was really feeling.

With great personal shame my life became more chaotic and I was soon abusing the anti-depressants and then, illegal drugs too. My drug taking was never to get high, but more of finding a way to cope however misguided this was but after two years of this rollercoaster I suffered an unintentional overdose at the beginning of 1995 after taking two Ecstasy tablets resulting in me nearly dying, I was put in an induced coma for 17 days and given little chance of surviving, family and friends were advised to pay their respects and my parents advised after 15 days to switch the life support machine off. Luckily for me my dad refused and after 17 days I woke up, but I was suffering from symptoms similar to having a stroke. I faced five months in rehab to get me to a place I could be discharged.

Further complications

After discharge I had to find a way to cope, I had my daughter Abbi now living with me, I saw my son Sam as much as possible and I had discovered disabled water-skiing so now had a focus. In 1998 I was offered some compensation which although for only half the amount of my claim I was advised to accept as my case was only 50/50 if we went to court. Unfortunately, there were further complications and it took 14 years to receive my compensation of £408,000.

After buying the council flat I lived in and then several holidays I was thinking about what I was going to do with the rest of my life and then a chance encounter that changed it completely. Dan Terry a safety Consultant encouraged me to share my story, not so much of the actual accident but more the consequences of that decision to work unsafely and not just about me but the cost on my family and friends.

10 years and 2,500 presentations later, I am now a grandad, a director in two respected companies, I have received an MBE and have travelled the world sharing my story with the hope I can help prevent it happening to somebody else.

Jason has released a book Paralysis to Success which covers his childhood, more about the accident and rehab and about reaching the bottom and bouncing back. Available from Amazon and kindle.