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We Are Middlesbrough: Stockton student speaks about brain injury

By Duncan Leatherdale
BBC News online

image captionJoseph Shovlin is hoping to forge a career in the comic industry

Joseph Shovlin almost died three years ago when his skull was crushed in an industrial accident. Now he is piecing his life back together through his love of comics.

Joseph really doesn't like to waste time - after nine months in hospital, the 20-year-old feels he has already lost too much of it.

"What happened has mortalised me," he says, adding: "I do consider myself to be a dead person reborn."

His life changed in July 2016 when he was a 17-year-old trainee engineer working at a factory in Washington.

A large metal plate weighing a quarter of a tonne slipped from the machine he was working on and rolled over his head, crushing his skull against the floor and leaving him with shocking injuries.

Had he been in even a slightly different position, it would have killed him outright.

In hospital, Joseph underwent a double craniectomy, an operation where part of the skull is removed to ease brain swelling, and a tracheotomy, as well as receiving treatment for a collapsed lung.

He also contracted and was treated for MRSA.

image copyrightJoseph Shovlin
image captionJoseph underwent multiple procedures and was in a vegetative state for five months

He did not regain consciousness again until shortly before Christmas of that year, the emotional moment he moved his thumb indicating his waking caught on camera by his father.

His first memory of that time was watching the inauguration of Donald Trump as US President.

"That made me feel really weird, like I was in an alternate dimension," Joseph says.

The first time he could eat again - a Rolo yoghurt was his first meal after 368 days being fed by a tube - was like a "neon explosion" of pleasure.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionJoseph's first memory after the accident is watching Donald Trump's inauguration

In May 2017 he was moved to Walkergate Park neurological hospital to continue his recovery.

He was deaf in one ear, blind in one eye and his vocal chords had withered.

But he also felt "absurdly lucky".

"In Walkergate I met loads of interesting people and realised how incredibly fortunate I had been - many of them could not walk or talk," he said.

"I was on a different tier of luck."

In November 2017 Joseph moved back to his family home in Stockton and has been starting his life again with the help of his great passion - comic books.

He has completed a foundation course in comics and graphic novels at Teesside University and is now preparing to start his bachelor's degree.

image copyrightStan Sakai
image captionUzagi Yojimbo is one of Joseph's favourite comics

Joseph also writes stories, some based in part on his own experiences.

One tale follows a man who time travels and finds himself out of step with the world he had known.

"I can relate to that, " he says. "All of my friends have moved on, I've missed a lot."

He will move into halls of residence when he returns to the university in Middlesbrough, and is looking forward to mixing with other people again.

"I love having conversations with people, I was starved of it for so long," he said.

Joseph's ultimate dream is to win an Eisner award, one of the most sought-after prizes for comic creators.

"It was when I was in hospital that I really got into comics," he says, adding: "I found it difficult to read but I could read them.

"In terms of pure artistic creation, nothing is like a comic."

Winning an Eisner is a long-shot perhaps, but he now has time on his side.

This story was created as part of We Are Middlesbrough - a BBC project with people of the town to tell the stories that matter to them.

Related Topics

  • Middlesbrough
  • Comics
  • Stockton-on-Tees
  • Teesside University

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