Health

Scot overcomes paralysis to row again for Britain

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Media captionDavid Smith talks about how he was diagnosed and how he recovered from life-threatening surgery to row again

David Smith was born with a club foot, but went on to represent Britain in bobsleigh, karate and rowing.

Then, last year, doctors discovered a large tumour embedded in his spine and emergency surgery resulted in temporary paralysis.

The 33-year-old has not only taught himself to walk again, but has just been selected to represent Britain in the upcoming World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia.

Chance discovery

The tumour first came to light when Smith's physiotherapist Patrick Dunleavy was manipulating his spine, and the 33-year-old felt electric shocks in his fingers. An MRI scan uncovered a tumour embedded in his upper spine, behind his throat.

"The tumour had been in there for so long it was literally embedded inside the nerves and all the nerves were all wrapped around it, so it was quite an aggressive tumour which made the surgery even more complex," he told BBC News.

Smith, from the Highland town of Newtonmore, faced life-threatening surgery to remove the growth, with surgeons opting to go through the front of his neck, and around his windpipe and vocal chords to access the spine.

The operation appeared to go well, although damage to some nerves did result in some loss of movement in his left arm. But then days after the operation, he started losing more function.

"I started to develop real problems talking, my legs started to drag as I was trying to walk. Then I woke up one morning completely paralysed from the neck down, bar my right arm. It was a real panic and I was just rushed into hospital."

Image caption Smith (centre) with the 2009 World Championship-winning LTA mixed coxed four

A blood clot was deemed to be causing the problem, and Smith underwent another operation. Feeling did return quickly, but the athlete now faced a lengthy process of rehabilitation. Rowing was a distant prospect.

"My first goal of rehabilitation was just to be able to walk again. I had to walk again completely from scratch.

"I had access to the best physios, the best strength coaches, the best psychologists, so it just put the ball in my court to give it a 110%, which I did."

Even those who knew him best, and were familiar with his mental resolve, were impressed with the speed of his recovery.

"His focus was there all the time," says his physiotherapist Dunleavy. "Whether it was going to take six months or a year and half, he knew he was going to do it, and to be honest he turned it around within a year. Incredible."

Sporting pedigree

After being born with a club foot, Smith spent the first three years of his life having his bones broken and reset to correct his foot alignment. By the age of 15, he was competing internationally as a British karate junior. By 2002, he was the brakeman in a British World Cup bobsleigh team.

When injury ended his bobsleigh career, he turned to rowing and was soon competing internationally as part of an "adaptive" mixed coxed four crew.

The boat combines athletes with visual impairments, and those with minor physical disabilities (Smith qualified because of a fused ankle which resulted from the resetting of his club foot). In 2009, they were crowned world champions in Poznan, Poland. He can now look forward to another World Championships, and then to the London 2012 Paralympics.

Getting back in the water after his life-saving surgery was an emotional moment.

"Even though getting back in the boat was in the middle of winter, it was just an amazing feeling. I certainly didn't think I would ever be back in a boat during that six-month rehabilitation."

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