Keagan Girdlestone speaks about his long road to recovery

Back in June, the 19-year-old New Zealand promising cyclist Keagan Girdlestone crashed during a race in Italy and was rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries. The youngster had severed his carotid artery, jugular vein, and nerves and muscles in his neck. Major blood loss at the scene saw the right side of his brain starved of blood and oxygen. 

Now, more than two months later, Keagan is still in hospital in Italy. His recovery has been slow and it’s not clear exactly what the future might hold in terms of his mobility. A career in pro cycling has slipped well down his list of priorities.

“I have been in the San Giorgio rehabilitation hospital in Ferrara, Italy since June 27, 2016. I have improved my gross motor skills which involve sitting, standing and walking. I’ve gone from collapsing after a mere five seconds of sitting, to being able to walk. My fine motor skills are improving but at a much slower rate.

The latest test results show that I still have no nerve or muscle activity in my right bicep, which means I can’t bend my right arm. This is the result of damage to my brachial plexus – a network of nerves located near the clavicle. The deltoid muscle in my right shoulder is only just showing activity and is exceptionally weak. The supraspinatus tendon in my shoulder is also not working.

If these nerves and muscles do not show activity within three months, surgery would be an option. The damage is not too close to my spine so the risks associated surgery are relatively low. Of course, surgery is the worst-case scenario but at this stage it’s looking probable.

When I say my right arm doesn’t work, people assume it’s just weaker than it used to be. But no, I mean it actually doesn’t work. This is a long road to recovery.

There are many activities I used to take for granted that I now struggle with on a daily basis. Getting out of bed, showering, washing my hair, drying myself, getting dressed, spraying deodorant … feeding myself. Just being able to turn onto my side while lying in bed is difficult.

Each of these activities is an exercise in itself for me at the moment. Two weeks ago I fell over in the gym and couldn’t get up without assistance. That sucks — talk about a sitting duck!

My day starts at 8:30am. I eat breakfast and get dressed and then go to physio from 9:30am to 11:30am. I have vocal therapy from 11:30am to 12:30pm — my right vocal chord was damaged in the crash — and then it’s time for lunch! At 1:30pm I have “robots”, a machine workout for my arms, a second physio session goes from 2:30pm to 4:30pm and only after that can I have a break.

My days are pretty hard out. Heck, I’m training harder now than I ever did for cycling: five to seven hours a day, five days a week!

The fine motor skills on the left-hand side of my body were affected by a lack of blood and oxygen to the right side of my brain, in particular to the basal ganglia. Essentially I had a stroke.

I have movement but not without a lot of shaking. I spend more time chasing food around the plate than getting into in mouth. Further EMG (electromyography) tests are still being done.

My right vocal cord is paralysed and has not shown any improvement in the past month. However, my left vocal cord can compensate for this loss through continued vocal therapy. I still sound like Batman. I guess my audition on X-Factor is a long shot now.

Every day I have to work on everything; every part of my body. Hands, feet, fingers, voice, you name it — as a result I am tired all the time.

I am clinically stable enough to be repatriated to New Zealand, but flights and dates are still to be confirmed. I need to be escorted by a medical doctor and transferred to a hospital in Christchurch. So, even when I do get home, I actually don’t get to go home per se. But being in a familiar environment and being able to see my friends will be awesome for my morale and further recovery.

Thanks to everyone that’s offered messages of support in the past few months. I and my family appreciate it greatly.”, wrote Keagan Girdlestone.

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