Claire Danson on being paralysed, avoiding bitterness and finding purpose
February 12, 2021. Series 3. Episode 20
This week’s guest is the remarkable former GB triathlete, Claire Danson. Claire’s life was torn apart on August 28th 2019 when she collided with a tractor whilst out training on her bike. Her injuries included the fracture of every bone in her neck, every one of her ribs, both wrists and shoulders and a puncture to both lungs. Tragically she also completely severed her spinal cord, leaving her paralysed from the chest down. Claire, who underwent multiple surgeries, which she was warned she might not survive, was forced to adapt her life drastically – in her words to “learn everything again.” With almost unbelievable willpower and strength of character, Claire immediately focused on becoming a para-athlete. This is a story of a life transformed but also of the most astonishing positivity, optimism and resilience. It is an episode packed with the lessons of perspective and a testimony to the power of an individual’s spirit.
Claire’s Crisis Cures:
1. Doing something you love. For me that’s sport. But whether it’s reading books, listening to music – whatever makes you smile will definitely carry you through the darker times.
2. Remembering it’s a moment in time. It’s valid and it’s awful but it can and will get better – so don’t give up. Because 99 times out of 100, if you don’t give up – you’ll get there in the end.
3. Talking to someone. If you’re in a crisis – talk. It just makes such a difference. With so many things, people will be able to relate and it makes you feel less alone. And that, will see you through.
Wings For Life: https://www.wingsforlife.com/en/
Claire’s ability to find perspective in what was an unimaginable, life changing accident was truly humbling. Perhaps it’s the elite athlete’s attitude which allows her to focus on the goals she has set herself, goals which she uses as a coping strategy to push herself towards and beyond what she calls, ‘learning her new life.’ From the start of our conversation, Claire showed acute ability to get to the bigger picture and achieve clarity – crucial in any crisis. She immediately focused on what she could do – and not what she couldn’t. This drove her decision to reject any feelings of bitterness. That she uses the words ‘luck’ and ‘lucky’ so frequently is a demonstration of her indefatigable resilience and determination to stay away from corrosive negativity. Claire knows the importance of surrounding yourself with the right people – her friends and family have all played crucial crisis roles during the days of drama and probably more importantly since normal life has resumed. A truly remarkable and inspiring woman.
Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: https://ampl.ink/qp6bm
Some Velvet Morning Website: www.somevelvetmorning.co.uk
Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Series three of Crisis What Crisis? A podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and continue to come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is, without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last five years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking, as the first lockdown began, that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experiences of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:05.15 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I talk to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, our guests share their experiences though, with honesty, often with humour but always in the hope that they might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis conversations worth sharing. Stay tuned at the end of the episode when I’ll give my thoughts and takeaways, the lessons, if you like, for when life unravels. And if you enjoy the podcast please do subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps make sure these stories reach an even wider audience of people who may find them useful and that in the end is what it’s all about.
00:01:51.24 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried, it works and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.
00:02:26.03 Andy Coulson:
Joining me today is the remarkable Claire Danson, the former European age group triathlon champion. Claire’s life changed forever on August 28th 2019 when a cycling accident left her with catastrophic injuries. Most seriously, Claire’s spinal cord was severed, leaving her permanently paralysed from the chest down. The story that I think we will hear today is one of crisis, of course, but it’s also a story of astonishing resilience, character and even optimism. The approach that Claire, who also works as a science tutor, has taken to her recovery provides lessons for us all. Lessons in perspective but also in the real meaning of purpose. Claire Danson, thank you for joining us today, how are you?
00:03:15.00 Claire Danson:
Hi, yeah, really great thank you very much, yeah, good.
00:03:18.00 Andy Coulson:
Good, well we’re just delighted to have you on the podcast. Claire, if I may, I’d like to start by reading something that you wrote about eight weeks, I think, after your accident. This is you telling the world, for the first time, what has happened to you. And as a piece of what was essentially crisis communication I’m really not sure I’ve ever read anything more impressive. So if you’ll allow me I’ll just read it.
00:03:51.21 Andy Coulson:
“On the 28th August, I had a collision with a tractor whilst riding my bike. I suffered two punctured lungs, broke a finger, both wrists, the head of my humerus and both shoulders. I also fractured all the bones in my neck including a break to one and multiple fractures and breaks to every one of my ribs. I have had quite a few surgeries to sort all this and now have a large amount of metal in me. All of this will heal fully. Unfortunately I also suffered a complete sever to my spinal cord at T9. This means that I am paralysed from my belly button downwards. This is of course not something that will heal. Whilst I still have hard moments I have accepted the situation I am now in and won’t be letting it stop me do anything that I want to (including triathlon!) Now you have this info all I ask is for you to remember that I am still exactly the same person. I still have crazy hair and a mad laugh; I am still the clumsiest person you have met and I will still tell the most long winded yet entertaining stories. So please treat me as the same old Claire. Nothing has changed there.”
00:04:59.24 Andy Coulson:
Astonishing Claire but words that do beg a question, how were you able to get to that level of clarity? To be so present in a crisis that was still so raw?
00:05:16.23 Claire Danson:
That’s a big question, I think although it was obviously so fresh still I’d been so much in that first eight weeks that I had had some time to process and I’ve never been one to give up on anything. So it was a case of well this has happened and I’m still going to be the same person, I’m still going to get my life back on track and that’s what I need people to know. My family being around me made a huge difference as well. They didn’t leave, there was always someone with me, I was never on my own through that whole time I was in hospital actually. And I was in rehab until March so that’s like seven months of being in hospital. Obviously they left at night but…
00:06:11.11 Claire Danson:
So I think that that helped me to get to that point. And I think I’d just got to that point where I needed to let people know that there were… obviously my close friends knew what had happened to me but it was something that needed to be told and there needed to be a way to let people know, look this has happened but I’m no different. And when you see me again, yes, I’ll be in a wheelchair but that’s just a physical side to me. There’s a lot more to me than what I can do with my body.
00:06:45.22 Andy Coulson:
It’s the speed that’s one of the incredible elements of that sort of state of mind that you got yourself in. We’ll talk about this in a little bit more detail because there are other, actually frankly, more visceral examples of your ability to think practically and to see what was ahead of you but we’ll get to that. But at this stage it’s just, it’s eight weeks and I can see, of course, that that eight weeks must in a way have felt like a lifetime because so much was happening to you. But it’s less the kind of understanding of the physical, it’s the unbelievable ability to get into the right place mentally. When you hear those words read back to you there are you surprised that you were saying those things so quickly?
00:07:45.09 Claire Danson:
I think it made me laugh when I said the words, ‘I’ll still tell really good stories….’ I mean, anyone that knows me knows my stories are not necessarily good. Long yes, make people laugh because sometimes they have no point. So actually my first thought was god, was I trying to be funny? But at the same time it does, I think, bring back to me the seriousness of the situation that I was in and there’s almost a part of me that feels for that person in that hospital bed. I can remember writing it remembering how unable I was at that point, because I still had so far to go, so much ahead of me, and I suppose there is a part of me that looks back and thinks, well I was brave, there was so much going on and so much uncertainty still at that point.
00:08:42.13 Claire Danson:
There’s an element of, as well, at that point, naivety I suppose, in that still only eight weeks in you don’t quite comprehend quite the situation and quite how life will be different at that point. You’re still very much at… the way I would describe it to someone is that the first few weeks was literally about staying alive and then from that moment on it’s about well at first everyone doing everything for you. And then as time goes on you kind of almost get a bit drip fed as to, well actually this is going to be different now as well and well now you can try and do this for yourself but you’re going to have to do it differently. And those kind of realisations didn’t all come at once. It wasn’t like a split second of well now you’re in a wheelchair, this is everything you’re going to be faced with. It kind of came bit by bit which actually was good because I don’t know how you could possibly, if someone said to you, and like listed everything, I don’t know how anyone would deal with that.
00:09:56.03 Andy Coulson:
Claire, can I just ask, in terms of the nature of your injury, I described it in the intro I think as being from the chest down and yet the message that you sent out you said it’s from the belly button down. And as I understand it at that stage that’s what you thought. But in fact the nature of the injury changed.
00:10:19.04 Claire Danson:
Yeah, so obviously in the early days it was all so new to us that we sort of just listened to what the doctors said and tried to take everything in. So when I wrote that message we believed I was T9 which is where my back was broken and that would be belly button down. However, they have like a testing system in hospital and actually it became apparent that I’m actually, in terms of where my sensation finishes and function and things, I’m actually T5 which is more chest down. So it’s a little bit higher.
00:10:51.22 Andy Coulson:
But that message though, was just one, as I say, just one demonstration of your elite level resilience, if I can describe it that way. But Claire, before we talk about your accident in more detail, can we talk a little bit about life before? As a triathlete you were flying, the European win was just one of your successes. As I understand it the target of becoming professional was ahead of you. Tell us a bit about where you were, what your plan was at that time.
00:11:22.20 Claire Danson:
So the goal was to get my professional race licence at 70.3, so kind of half iron man distance. And I was actually just on my last easy ride out before I was supposed to be flying off the next day to [Antalya] to race there and that would have been a place where I would have tried to have got my professional licence. So it was literally a case of I would have got home, packed my bike off and flown off the next day. So yeah, that was really where I was with my sporting career.
00:12:00.19 Andy Coulson:
So leaving the house that day, that’s where your mind is, I mean, you’re flying off the following day, you’re fully focused on that?
00:12:10.20 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I guess I just, well, it was sort of just like an every other ride really, in terms of it was just a case of going out to turn my legs over and then that was that. I didn’t, you know, you just go out thinking you’re doing what you always do. It just wasn’t quite the same as always that day.
00:12:33.06 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. But your levels of determination at that point and focus and ‘this is where I’m heading’ if you like, were pretty heightened, given that you were about to go into what could be a very significant moment in your career?
00:12:52.14 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, I mean, I think sport’s always been such a part of my life and I’ve always been driven and that kind of thing. So I guess yeah, I would agree, it would have been something that I was thinking about and kind of prepared for as it were.
00:13:16.08 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, you’ve talked about how you’ve been able to fill in the blanks, if you like, about what happened with the accident itself if you don’t mind me asking. What’s your memory of it now, has more of it come back to you? Or one assumes that it’s pretty limited and as I say, you’ve been able to kind of fill in the gaps from other people’s accounts.
00:13:41.07 Claire Danson:
Yeah, so a lot of it is kind of filled in. So in terms of my conciseness as it were I was actually awake for the whole time. I don’t remember big parts of it and I think that’s just an amazing capacity that your brain has to switch off, obviously, things that it doesn’t want you to remember. I remember seeing the tractor. I remember pulling to the side of the tractor to avoid it and then I don’t remember the actual collision itself. So I collided with the trailer of the tractor and then I don’t remember much else.
00:14:23.04 Claire Danson:
So I would say to people that it was the most lucky unlucky accident anyone could have because the first person on the scene, other than the tractor driver himself, was a family friend of ours who was a retired anaesthetist. So not only did I have someone I knew there, which I think makes a difference, but also somebody who was able to get the air ambulance out and make sure that I wasn’t moved and all that sort of thing. So I do remember saying his name a lot and I remember him holding my hand. And I remember wanting him to be there.
00:14:57.06 Andy Coulson:
And your parents were there quickly because you weren’t that far from home, right?
00:15:01.05 Claire Danson:
No, I was about five, ten minutes from home. So I, again I don’t remember this, but I gave my parents phone number to the tractor driver. So he called them and they were actually there before the ambulance was. And again, it think it helped but I can’t know obviously, but I’m sure it must have helped just knowing they were there.
00:15:26.10 Andy Coulson:
This word lucky that you’ve applied to this situation also speaks volumes, of course, that you just look at it that way, you know, instinctively. But, even from this distance, how you do you use a word like lucky for such an appalling moment?
00:15:53.18 Claire Danson:
Well, yeah, I mean, I think obviously the accident itself was just so unfortunate and obviously I would have never wanted anything like that to happen. But I just think that there was so much around it, it could have gone so differently. I do genuinely believe that there were so many fortunate things that happened. The break in my neck was actually pretty much exactly the same as the one that was in my back but the difference was that it wasn’t displaced. So in terms of my luck, to me, I feel incredibly fortunate that my injury wasn’t higher.
00:16:35.08 Claire Danson:
So obviously the higher up your injury the less function you have and if I’d had the same injury on my back that was in my neck then potentially I would be on a… I have a tracheostomy in and so breathing through my neck. I wouldn’t have any hand function. So in terms of lucky unlucky, again, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate because I do have use of my hands and that enables me to be fully independent.
00:17:12.17 Andy Coulson:
So this is a hard to grasp demonstration of the power of perspective?
00:17:22.12 Claire Danson:
Yes I think so.
00:17:23.07 Andy Coulson:
And that has obviously been something that you kind of were able to identify and grab hold of very quickly. That presumably is with you now continually. That sort of importance of perspective.
00:17:38.10 Claire Danson:
Yes and I think that in most situations in life there are ways of viewing things and ways to look for the positives. Obviously there are more difficult situations to do that in. You know, if I was sitting here and I had had an injury to my neck then I might be finding it very difficult to speak to you how I am now. So obviously there are more difficult circumstances to think that way in. But I do think it’s important to try and find that way around if you can. How is it positive or how can I think of this that makes it not feel quite so terrible or that I can be able to move on with it? And kind of not let it hold me down or be something that makes me unhappy all the time.
00:18:37.09 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. You’re taken to interstice care at Southampton Hospital initially, it think. Your parents are told that you may not make it. But it becomes clear in the hours and days that follow that you will, thankfully, survive. It also becomes clear to your doctors that they’re dealing with an extraordinary human being. Not just your levels of fitness Claire, which I think you’ve said certainly contributed to your survival, the fact that you were so physically fit, but this mental toughness that we’re talking about.
00:19:14.21 Andy Coulson:
You’re on a ventilator when you start to communicate, with the help of your sister Alex and an alphabet board. You squeeze her hand, as I understand it, when she points to the letter that you want to use. We should explain that this is in the immediate aftermath. This is when you’re now conscious but this is the very, very early stages of your recovery. And through this painstaking process you spell out the word para-athlete.
00:19:46.24 Claire Danson:
00:19:48.11 Andy Coulson:
And you make clear that you want the very best surgeon to give you the very best chance of becoming that athlete. What do you remember about those moments now?
00:20:02.09 Claire Danson:
It’s a part of being in intensive care that I remember really vividly. One of the things at the forefront of my mind while I was there and when it became clear to me, particularly that my right arm was in a very bad way and I knew I was paralysed, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to use my legs, it became a very important part of my thought process that I needed to make sure that whoever was going to operate on my arm understood that I needed my arm to work really well. And I needed it so that I could carry on doing what I loved and so that I could carry on doing sport.
00:20:46.02 Claire Danson:
And it was really one of the things that when I was awake I was thinking about, and I remember thinking about it a lot. I remember using the board to spell it out. And I remember the kind of surprise that when my sister realised what I was saying. The kind of ‘you want me to make sure that you’ve got the best surgeon, I mean, Claire, I don’t think we get a choice’ kind of thing. Although, she did do it, bless her.
00:21:15.00 Andy Coulson:
You had a family friend who’s an orthopaedic surgeon, is that right? And you wanted her to be contacted to make sure that she… can we just remind ourselves of the situation here for a moment. You are in the first days of your recovery after the accident that we’ve described and you’ve got this kind of presence of mind and also this kind of determination because that is not an easy process, right, in the way that you’ve just described, this communication with your sister. This is not just you saying something, it is in itself a trial and a test.
00:21:52.17 Claire Danson:
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
00:21:53.07 Andy Coulson:
I mean it’s just… Sorry I’m going to be doing this a lot I expect during the course of our conversation, but it’s just astonishing.
00:22:02.04 Claire Danson:
Well yeah, yeah I did and the feedback came back to us that he was very good and actually just an amazing man. And again, something that I, again, I would say lucky in my story. He spoke to my parents and he said, ‘Don’t worry I’m going to get her going fast again, not a problem.’ I think my parents were like, ‘…please don’t’. But he could have taken offence at it, the fact I’d been like, you know, ‘I want someone…’ and he didn’t at all and he’s become such a close friend. He is just a remarkable man and did the best job of my arm, clearly.
00:22:49.09 Andy Coulson:
Yeah and he could have taken offence but he could also as well have said, well look I’m the doctor here and the first thing I’m going to do is make sure that the arm is working carrying out the procedure on the basis of a potential future career as a para-athlete, I think that probably is the second priority. But he got what it meant to you and was, I suspect, also completely blown away in the way that I think anyone listening to this now from this distance would be. I mean what a clarity that you had at that stage. You were also clear that you wanted those early days of recovery documented and you asked Alex to take pictures of you in ICU. You wanted it to be sort of logged in a way. What was the thinking there?
00:23:49.20 Claire Danson:
I think it was just that I knew that one day it would be important in being able to really remember what had happened to me. And two-fold to help myself when I look back and think and oh you know, where have I come from and look where I am now. And also in a certain respect to hopefully help others to show that you can, you know it can be this bad but then you can get it to be this good again.
00:24:21.20 Claire Danson:
And something, the whole way through, that has been very important to me is using what’s happened to me to help other people. I think it’s a complete waste if I just crack on with my life and don’t help, don’t use what’s happened to help others in some way no matter what that might be. And I do think the kind of battles and things are, although people have different battles, I think there’s a lot of parallels that you can take. So I think if I can’t use what I’ve been through to help others, then to me it’s a bit like, well what’s the point. So again, I think that was part of it in the back of my mind.
00:25:07.03 Andy Coulson:
These are normally things that take months for people to work out, possibly years, possibly never and yet you’re getting there with that sort of speed of thought. When I try and work out… or as we’re talking perhaps people listening are trying to work out how did you get there that quickly? What is it do you think in your life, what is it in your character? Have you been able to sort of trace it back a bit? Have you been able to kind of go before the accident and find the reasons why you were behaving in such an unbelievable way?
00:25:43.12 Claire Danson:
I think that’s a really interesting question partly because it’s something that I have actually had a little think about recently and I was speaking to somebody about this a couple of weeks ago. And in my mind, partly I think it’s my life has followed a sort of a journey if you like, of very much highs and then other moments of my life that have been very low. And I think throughout, you know, whenever things have got bad I’ve found a way to come back and then something will have happened again and I’ve come back from it.
00:26:23.07 Claire Danson:
And I think that sort of… I’ve been able to carry that through, I think. And almost to me, it’s like it’s prepared me for this massive event that’s then happened. And I think just maybe I’ve been, again, lucky enough that I’ve built that resilience over time so that when something so big does happen, I’ve already developed a lot of those skills and that mindset that okay, well I’ll just get through this as well.
00:26:52.01 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I’m really interested in that. You’ve talked a little bit about some of those other difficulties before the accident with incredible honesty. About you battle with anorexia as a teenager and a young woman. A battle that saw you admitted to hospital for lengthy periods. At one stage your family, again, were not sure you would make it through as I understand it. You survive what must have been a terrifying and utterly wretched experience. But your view is that it in some way prepared you for what was to come. You hold to this idea that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, that you’re building a resilience.
00:27:37.08 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I think so. And I think it’s also important to remember that although I had those times that, as you say, as you describe, were absolutely wretched and again something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, there were also in amongst that incredibly happy times. So it’s almost like despite those horrible things happening I was able to get back to school, I was able to do my GCSEs and I remember that as a very happy period of time. And it’s important not to forget. But it’s almost because I had those very positive experiences it’s easy to almost forget the bad times because yes, they were a part of it but a much more important part of my life was coming out of hospital again and re-being with my friends and getting my GCSEs and getting my A ‘levels and all that kind of thing.
00:28:34.21 Andy Coulson:
And you knew, didn’t you, you knew how tough you are. You knew how resilient you are because of all that. You probably didn’t say it much to yourself but deep down you knew?
00:28:47.08 Claire Danson:
I guess it was something that I never really thought of before and I also feel like it’s something… and I think I have genuinely always thought that it’s… although yes, I’ve dealt with these things, in my mind I think well… and when people say to me, ‘oh I don’t know how you do it’, in my view I think well if you were faced with the same situation you probably would because the option is to do what I’m doing or potentially to be unhappy and to give up. And I think most people probably would say, ‘well, do you know what I am going to crack on and I’m going to do what I can and I’m going to find things that I can do’ because otherwise, well, I don’t know, I don’t see that there’s much of another option.
00:29:32.07 Andy Coulson:
I think most people would though, on occasion, ask themselves why me?
00:29:38.18 Claire Danson:
I did, I think and I think to be fair at first I thought, I did… you know obviously we haven’t mentioned obviously the times where I have cried and I have been upset. But generally… I was just thinking have I said, why me? I don’t think I ever actually particularly thought why me? I think I thought I wish this hadn’t happened. And actually I don’t think that very often at all now. Not to say that obviously if someone said to me, ‘we’ll wave a wand and we’ll take it away’ I’d let them but purely because it would be easier. But I don’t wake up int he morning anymore and think, oh I wish this wasn’t my life. Partly because I like my life. It’s not what I would have chosen but it’s still very happy.
00:30:44.09 Andy Coulson:
You don’t strike me as someone who has ever carried much bitterness.
00:30:50.15 Claire Danson:
No, I don’t think that the emotion in itself would be one that I’d feel very comfortable with. I think it’d be one that would actually make me feel worse if I felt it. And again, it’s a case of building your life up so there’s not really time to feel better anyway because there’s too many good things going on.
00:31:19.08 Andy Coulson:
Are there practical things you do to kind of steer yourself in the right way? I mean are there sort of triggers for you that you try to avoid? Or are there techniques that you use?
00:31:32.08 Claire Danson:
I think inadvertently probably being really super-busy is something that probably helps me because there’s not time to necessarily time to think about the situation I’m in. And also I’ve rebuilt my life in such a way that actually, other than the way that I do things obviously is a bit different now, it’s actually not different to what my life was before. In that I work, I train, I see my friends, I do everything very much as I did before I was sick, except for now when I train I have a hand bike or I go out in my wheelchair. Or I… well I don’t swim at the moment because we’re not allowed.
00:32:28.01 Claire Danson:
So I think I’m steering away from the question, so I think in terms of things that I do I think it’s just that I have brought my life back to being exactly what it would have been and that helps me because I did have, and do have, a life that I have built up so that I’m doing things I love and that I’m happy with. So I think for me it’s probably, the thing that I have done to help me to cope with things, is just to get my life back. Which again, is something that I am very fortunate that I could do because the things that I did before were things that I could do again.
00:33:05.14 Andy Coulson:
That must have been, it’s frustrating for everybody I suppose, but for you of a slightly different order with the situation that we’ve gone through that’s kind of stopped you from being able to plan as much as you want to do, do as much as you want to do. For you that’s even more, from the sound of it, even more difficult. How have you coped with this extraordinary situation we’re all in?
00:33:30.06 Claire Danson:
To be honest with you I’ve found it okay and I think the reason being it’s just another situation to adapt to. So obviously in the last fifteen months I’ve had to adapt hugely and I’ve had to think of ways around the box. And if I want to do things that I can’t quite do it’s like well what do I need to do so that I can do…. Okay I can’t get in the swimming pool by myself so what do I need to do so that I can get in the swimming pool to be able to swim. Or actually the swimming pool is generally not so bad because they generally have things that help you in. But say the lakes, open water swimming lake, I can’t get into it by myself so what do I need to do to be able to get in.
00:34:11.24 Claire Danson:
And very much I feel that way with the situation that we’re in at the moment. Yes, there are things that we can’t do, well then it’s looking at what can we do? Or for example getting my hand bike and then it needs some adjusting but I can’t get that adjusted right now. So it’s like well okay well what can I do myself, I’ve got a towel in it, like shoving the back forward so that it’s at the ring angle for my back and that kind of thing. It’s just about adapting to the situation that we’re in. And that is something that I have really learnt to do, is be a little bit more relaxed and then if something doesn’t seem perfect, well, nothing’s really perfect. So you kind of work your way around it and find a way to make it work.
00:35:00.16 Andy Coulson:
00:35:01.08 Claire Danson:
Which I think it’s like the situation that we’re in. You know, no one’s able to do things they’re used to doing so it’s about finding what you can do and how you can adapt what you do so that it’s like an acceptable way of doing things.
00:35:17.01 Andy Coulson:
I get it. And it’s perspective again, I suppose, for you because after Southampton Hospital you’re moved to the Duke of Cornwall Hospital in Salisbury where you stay for five or six months, I think in rehab. And as you put it you have to learn to do everything again. And that, I suppose, is the start of the process that you’ve just described really in a way but in such an unbelievably difficult way. The goal of becoming a para-athlete though, as we’ve touched on, was immediately clear to you. I mean, immediately clear to you. In rehab I assume that was of course front of mind. Did you start to build the road towards that which of course you’re still on, did you start to think about that immediately?
00:36:14.07 Claire Danson:
I suppose yes would be the honest answer but I knew that to begin with that although that was still kind of in my mind, initially it was very much about building strength, just generally learning how to live and the particular focus was on just getting my right arm moving. I couldn’t move my right arm for such a long time and then I couldn’t then… so get my hand to my face. Like the first time I got my hand…
00:36:49.11 Claire Danson:
In fact we’ve got a brilliant, I think it’s a video of me trying to eat some chocolate cake, and so for a long time I had to use my left hadn’t because I couldn’t get my right hand to my mouth. And I had this spoon and I was like sticking my chin out to try and get to the spoon and desperately trying to get to this chocolate cake using my right hand. It’s a brilliant video.
00:37:08.09 Claire Danson:
But so it was very much about… so although it wasn’t like training focused or anything it was about well I know that I’m going to need my right arm so everything is focused on getting that right arm moving properly so that when I’m at a point where I can train it’s not going to hold me back and it’s not going to stop me doing anything.
00:37:27.05 Andy Coulson:
So small targets is what you sort of set yourself?
00:37:31.07 Claire Danson:
Yeah, very much so. So when I was first paralysed I literally I couldn’t hold myself up, I couldn’t sit without a massive chair around me. So anything that you’re doing just to learn how to be able to sit again and that sort of thing, ultimately you will need to go through all those steps first before you can do anything that I might have regarded as training as such.
00:38:02.03 Andy Coulson:
The other important element, I imagine, is the people that you have around you. And you’ve got an incredible family as you explained. Mum and dad have been there the whole time, your brother and also of course you sister Alex. Alex, for anyone who is listening and doesn’t realise, is an Olympic gold medallist, captain of the GB hockey team formerly. And she was recovering from a serious injury herself when she got the call about your accident having had a head injury on holiday. She had banged her head against a wall whilst laughing, tragically, with a very serious injury. It’s clear that there’s a bond between the two of you is incredibly strong and she played a very important part in, as we’ve already described, in those early days of your recovery and beyond. How important is it to be around the right people when you are in crisis? Yours being incredibly acute.
00:39:12.22 Claire Danson:
I think it’s absolutely imperative to come through a crisis to being around, having the right people around you. As you’ve said my family being there and then my friends as well. So I was part of and still am, part of Precision Race Team which is a triathlon team. And they were and are still just incredible. They again, they would visit all the time. The two coaches came regularly as did other friends in the team. And whilst I was still in rehab I did a 10K push around Dorney Lake and a 5K push around there. And then when I came out and once I’d got hold of my hand bike we’ve been cycling round Goodwood Race Track quite a few times.
00:40:01.01 Claire Danson:
So yeah, so just being back with them and training with them again, has been another, just something that’s made me so happy. But it’s, going back to what you said about having the right people around you, I just don’t know how you would manage it without. And of course some people wouldn’t have had the same support network that I had. But most of the people that I have spoken to that have been through what I have been through say the same. They just don’t know what they would do without their family, without their friends.
00:40:35.06 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, your friends clearly ran towards the crisis and not away from it.
00:40:41.01 Claire Danson:
00:40:42.10 Andy Coulson:
But how have you found the reactions of others day to day? When you’re in a situation like that, particularly once the adrenaline’s gone and the drama’s gone and you now know it’s your life. How have you found the kind of reactions of others? Have you had to adjust? How do you handle that?
00:41:04.14 Claire Danson:
I don’t know if I really think about it that often because I don’t know if it is really something that I feel is important. So I’m not explaining this very well. In terms of the reaction of others I don’t see myself as any different so perhaps I don’t perceive the reactions of others that often. So obviously the first time when I came home and I saw like my parents’ friends and things and obviously there was a lot of ‘oh how are you doing?’ And all that kind of thing. You know, I’m very polite and I’d say, ‘oh yeah, I’m fine thank you, I’m doing this…’ but now, like I’ll see them out and they’ll be like, ‘oh hi Claire’ so I think it’s very normal when you first see someone to be a bit unsure of how to be and that’s fine.
00:41:58.06 Claire Danson:
And like when I’ve been at events, so I have done a couple of races, the ones that were on, generally people are just great. And actually that’s what I love about events anyway and about sport, people tend to support each other. So you know, when I used to go to races and be at the front, I’d get people shouting and cheering and things. Well now I’m at the back but because I’m in my chair I get support and cheering. So I quite like that. You’ll always get the odd person that will say something that you’ll think, oh I don’t know if I’d say that. Or I got the classic, I was somewhere with my parents and for me, it was when I went to get my car actually, and the person came out and started talking to my parents. And I was like, ‘Hello, it’s for me, I can talk.’ But that’s fine, I mean, people don’t realise and that’s part of the thing.
00:42:56.09 Andy Coulson:
But for some people that would be utterly maddening.
00:42:59.20 Claire Danson:
Yeah, and I can understand…
00:43:02.03 Andy Coulson:
It would be utterly maddening and a source of kind of you could say, I think a lot of people listening to this may think well if that was me I’d be absolutely livid and you’d end up in difficult place, maybe for an hour, maybe for a bit longer, I don’t know. But you’re clearly adept just in the way that you described that story, ‘that’s fine, you know, that’s alright’. And you just move on. And that’s clearly an unbelievably positive attitude of yours that’s kept you away from that extra layer of difficulty.
00:43:41.24 Claire Danson:
Yeah, and I think with that it’s important just to remember that actually if people don’t know then you can’t really expect them to realise or to understand. So actually alongside that again, it’s something that is important to me to, in some respects, educate people. Sometimes I think people can get a bit cross about things when actually really what might be more helpful would be to just say to someone ‘…well actually you know I’d rather you didn’t do this, did you understand X, Y or Z’ and just explain. And then people might be like, ‘Oh okay, I didn’t realise.’
00:44:20.15 Claire Danson:
Sometimes we expect people just to know things and before I was in a chair I think I only ever knew one other person in a wheelchair and that was one of my friend’s dads. And actually to be honest with you I was quite young at the time so I hadn’t really taken much on board. So how can I expect people to know if I don’t tell them? Or if, and actually it’s an opportunity to help people to learn and understand.
00:44:54.11 Andy Coulson:
Well, you know, there’s another demonstration of your instinctive positivity. Let’s talk about purpose Claire, again with that characteristic positivity. You said that you believe the accident has given you a, these are my words not yours, a higher purpose, right? As an athlete but also in terms of what you can do for others in your situation. A better understanding, you’ve touched on it here, a better understanding of what it is to be paralysed, first and foremost and in the way that you communicate, you know I read out that message at the start of this conversation but there are countless examples on your social media, on Instagram and elsewhere, where you are giving a very open, honest, very frank account of the challenges that you face as someone who’s paralysed. And that’s what you mean as well as obviously the success that we all hope you’ll have as a para-athlete will be one demonstration but you want to be able to be part of that discussion don’t you? You want to be able to make that part of your purpose, well it is part of your purpose.
00:46:04.08 Claire Danson:
Yes, absolutely one hundred percent I would like that. And I think as well as introducing people to, as you say, what it’s like to be paralysed and what it’s like to have a disability, I also think there are just what it’s like to be human in a way. A lot of what I have written about is I like to try and find parallels. So I don’t like it just to be about well this is what’s happening to me and that’s sort of that. Usually if I’m feeling a certain way I can think well actually it’s not just me that would feel like this. It might be my reasoning for feeling this way is different to someone else’s but actually I’m not the first person to feel sad. I’m not the first person to feel a loss of identity. And so if I can actually hit a chord with anybody it might be, as I say, using my experiences that may be different to someone else’s, I like to think that I may actually help on a kind of wider level if that makes sense?
00:47:15.21 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, and one imagines that that’s the case, right? I mean, you’re getting incredible feedback. I think people are recognising that your response to this awful situation is that you’re trying to turn it into something valuable.
00:47:32.02 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I think so.
00:47:33.21 Andy Coulson:
And that’s important for those people but it’s important for you too, right?
00:47:36.22 Claire Danson:
Yeah, definitely, absolutely.
00:47:39.10 Andy Coulson:
And would you say that recognising that and doing something about it has been a key part of the recovery for you?
00:47:47.07 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I do and actually again, it gives you that, like you say, that sense of purpose and that on those days when you’re feeling like, ‘oh I really wish this hadn’t happened’, it gives you something to kind of drive forwards for. And say ‘well you know it has happened’ but look at all the good you can do now. and almost like it’s cathartic almost isn’t it? It enables me to really identify how I’m feeling and how I’m coping with things but then also share that with people. So it is, as you say, it’s also a very helpful process for me to go through.
00:48:26.15 Andy Coulson:
I mean, just reflecting on what you just said, there’s an example and I’m sat here using the word recovery which is probably the wrong word, right, because there’s obviously and element of what’s happened to you that is beyond repair, if I can put it that way. What word do you use? How do you sort of describe… what word would you use in place of recovery? Or that the word you use?
00:48:58.22 Claire Danson:
Do you mean sort of in terms of the process of what I’m going through at the moment?
00:49:02.08 Andy Coulson:
In terms of the journey, yeah, and where it…
00:49:05.18 Claire Danson:
Yeah, I think I would have used the term recovery although you’re right, because I’m not ever going to recover fully. I don’t know if I would use recovery as such now, possibly a better word would just be living. I kind of feel like there’s still bits that I can improve on but I don’t know if it’s recovering. Because in terms of my arm is all better and things, there’s always things that can be better, but that’s life. So I can still get a little bit more movement from my arm, so I still work on that but that’s getting sporty for you, you’re always working on something. And there’s still, you know I still can’t get, if I fall out of my chair I still can’t get back in it by myself. Which I will be able to do but I’m still working on that. I’m very fortunate I still have an hour of rehab each week. So I suppose in some respects you could see it as recovery but I suppose I just see it as learning my new life.
00:50:16.08 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, well there’s adapting and there’s evolving right?
00:50:20.21 Claire Danson:
00:50:23.10 Andy Coulson:
Paris 2024 is the target I think I’m right in saying? You’re already clocking up thousands of training miles. What does the year ahead look like?
00:50:35.08 Claire Danson:
Well, that’s a question isn’t it? So ideally the year ahead will involve some racing over the summer. But obviously that’s fully dependant on the situation that we’re in at the moment. I suspect that there will be some races within England because there were some sort of the other side of Christmas, there were duathlons that I did. And actually they can do them in quite a safe way you just don’t have all the mass starts and things. So I suspect that once vaccines have rolled out and things I should think at some point in the summer there’ll be some. And I suppose the main aim is to just see where I’m at. I’m under no illusions, I’ve got a long way to go to get to where I want to be. And you know, there’s always that possibility that it won’t happen because I don’t know, I’ve not tried to do this before. However, obviously there is that’s the hope and I will do everything I possibly can to try and get there. And if I don’t then I will have the best time trying.
00:51:51.06 Andy Coulson:
Well I think you can be sure that there are going to be a tremendous amount of people right behind you.
00:51:54.23 Claire Danson:
00:51:55.01 Andy Coulson:
Hoping that you get there. Claire, thanks so much for your time today. Thanks for talking to us in such an amazing kind of, never mind your positivity, but just your kind of openness and the way that you’ve dealt with this, such a terrible situation, I think is utterly inspirational and I really do appreciate your time. We ask all our guests at the end of our conversations to give us their crisis cures, three things that you kind of rely on. It can’t be another person so I’m afraid you can’t mention Alex. But they’ve got to be three things that you tend to turn to in the darker moments. What would yours be?
00:52:44.16 Claire Danson:
I would say do something that you love. For me that’s sport but if you’re having a really dark moment or things are really difficult find something you love. It doesn’t matter what it is, it could be reading a book, it could be listening to some music, something that you love and that makes you smile will help carry you through, without a shadow of a doubt. So that’s definitely my first one.
00:53:10.21 Andy Coulson:
Is there something else other than sport for you?
00:53:14.23 Claire Danson:
What else do I love doing? Yeah, being with people would be another thing for me, just being around people. I just love it. So that would probably be my other thing that I would do, I try and surround myself with people. That’s almost another point really but yeah, sport being the main thing and then just being around people are the things that I love doing. The other thing is, I would always say remember that it’s just a… it’s not potentially just a moment but the way I see it is it’s a moment in time. And although what you’re going through is very valid and awful it can get better and it will get better. So it’s about not giving up. So if you can remember that it is just now and so long as you keep going, obviously there are exceptions to it but 99 times out of 100 if you just don’t give up you will get there in the end.
00:54:32.21 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. And is that linked to the small targets bit as well? Set yourself, you believe in goals, right?
00:54:43.03 Claire Danson:
Yeah, definitely, I definitely….
00:54:44.17 Andy Coulson:
And their power, yeah.
00:54:46.08 Claire Danson:
Yeah, so I would say so, definitely. And then my third thing was going to be but I don’t know if this allowed because I didn’t know it wasn’t allowed to be people… Actually no, it’s not people, my third thing was going to be talk to someone. If you are, again, in crisis and you don’t know what to do, talk. And it just makes such a difference and actually you’ll probably find with a lot of things, obviously I’m not likely to find someone else that’s been hit by a tractor but with a lot of things people will be able to relate and might just make you feel less alone and that will help you through.
00:55:29.11 Andy Coulson:
Find connections, yeah, amazing. Claire, thank you so much for your time today, we really appreciate it.
00:55:36.10 Claire Danson:
Thank you for having me.
00:55:38.03 Andy Coulson:
What Claire demonstrates, in a way that is both encouraging and humbling, is that even in life changing situations like hers there’s room for perspective. You would have expected Claire, certainly in those early days after her accident, to retreat as she struggled to come to terms with what had happened. But instead, perhaps because of that inbuilt elite athlete attitude of hers, she immediately began to plan, to set goals. That was her coping strategy, her route to survival and ultimately to what she calls learning a new life.
00:56:10.17 Andy Coulson:
From the very start of our conversation Claire showed her ability to get above the crisis, to see the bigger picture, gain clarity so crucial in any crisis situation. And to look at immediately at what she can do as opposed to what she can’t. Her early decision to document the journey from accident to present day has brought together an online community which as she said, not only helps her on the days she might not be coping so well but also gives her that deep sense of purpose, of being able to help others on a wider level. Something which is clearly very important to her. As she said, if I just cracked on with my life and didn’t use what had happened to me to help others what would be the point? Just extraordinary to have that level of selflessness and yet such a broad sense of the importance of what it is to make everything in your life count for something, good or bad.
00:57:02.14 Andy Coulson:
Probably the most surprising thing for me throughout the conversation was Claire’s use of the words luck and lucky – not a trace of bitterness there. As she said, building her life up to a point where there was no room for bitterness was a better use of her energies. To one degree or another she’s bought her life back to how it was before, seeing friends, working, training. The simple fact that she’s made this her focus means that she doesn’t see herself any differently, which of course in turn helps those around her do the same.
00:57:32.04 Andy Coulson:
Claire knows that crisis can’t be conquered alone. To surround yourself with the right people, in her case her friends and family, including her sister, Alex, all clearly play crucial crisis roles during the days of drama and as importantly, perhaps more importantly since real life has resumed. It’s Claire’s second crisis cure though that, for me, is nothing short of remarkable: ‘Remember that it’s a moment in time’, she says. ‘It’s valid and it’s awful but it can and it will get better. So don’t give up because 99 times out of 100 if you don’t give up you’ll get there in the end.’ Amazing.
00:58:11.10 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Feel free to send us your feedback. You’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatciris.com there are also links to our newsletter, Facebook page and Instagram. There are more useful conversations on the way soon and if you enjoy this podcast please do give us a rating and a review. Thanks again.
00:58:44.22 End of transcription