When the frisbee Alex Collins and his fiancée Sophie Howse were playing with ended up in the River Cam, he dived in to get it.
But the 21-year-old dancer didn’t realise how shallow the water was, and he broke his neck, causing him to be paralysed from the chest down.
With a long recovery period ahead of him, he has been told there is no guarantee his mobility will improve.
But Alex, from Cambridge, has vowed not to give up on his dream of walking down the aisle to marry fellow dancer Sophie.
Alex, who hopes his story will serve as a cautionary tale to Brits wanting to cool off by wild swimming said: ‘I hope I can highlight the importance of thinking before swimming.
‘I’m not going to tell everybody to stop wild swimming – it’s a marvellous way to calm down in the warmer months – but please think before diving right in, especially if you don’t know the depth.
‘Right now, I can only move my head, neck and part of my arms. Doctors have told me it will be two years before we know how well my body will recover.
‘Sophie and I have made a pact that we won’t get married until we can both stand at the altar, so right now that’s the ultimate goal for both of us.’
Alex and Sophie met in September 2016, when they enrolled on the same three-year diploma course in professional dance at Bodywork Company, Cambridge.
In December 2017, she agreed to be his partner for a pas de deux – a ballet duet – and the couple began rehearsing together for three to six hours per week.
By January 2018, they were officially a couple and they went on to get engaged the following year.
The pair were thinking about their wedding when everything changed in June this year.
For Sophie’s birthday on 15 June, Alex made a makeshift cinema in their back garden using a projector and some fabric.
With her birthday falling during the pandemic, the following day, they had a socially-distanced barbecue in a meadow next to the River Cam with some friends.
Alex recalled: ‘We had some takeaway beer and someone suggested playing frisbee.
‘Not long into the game, the frisbee landed in the water. I thought to myself, “What’s the best way to get it? A heroic dive of course.”
‘So, I ran up to the river and dived right in. The next thing I knew I was face down in the water and unable to move. My head was full of white noise.
‘I manage to flap my head up and down and my friend realised something wasn’t right but had no idea I’d broken my neck.’
Alex’s friend and a passer-by raced to the river and pulled him out of the water.
He added: ‘It all gets hazy from there. I remember being surrounded by paramedics and Sophie being by my side in the ambulance.’
Alex was taken to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where a CT and MRI scan revealed that he had broken the C5 vertebra in his neck, which supports the skull, enables head movements and protects the spinal cord.
Less than 12 hours later, he had an operation where the damaged vertebra replaced were replaced with part of his right hip bone, which was then fused to three other vertebrae with a metal plate.
‘After I came round, doctors told me that they had done their best to stabilise my spine and take pressure off my spinal cord,’ he explained.
‘They could see how much damage had been done from the break and said it would be a waiting game to see how much I recover.
‘I didn’t know how to deal with it, so instead focused on making sure Sophie was better.
‘She was utterly devastated and just couldn’t understand how it happened.
‘For the first couple of days she could hardly speak.
‘From the very first conversation I told her if she wanted to move on, I would understand, but she said, “Don’t be ridiculous, I’m in this for the long run.”‘
It the beginning of August, after 18 days at Addenbrooke’s recovering from surgery, Alex was transferred to Buckinghamshire’s Stoke Mandeville Hospital – one of the largest specialist spinal injury units in the world – where he remains today.
‘I have every type of therapy you could hope for here,’ he said. ‘Intensive therapy, physiotherapy and hydrotherapy – you name it.
‘Sophie’s allowed to see me for three hours, once a week – that’s always the highlight of the week that I look forward to.’
Since then, Alex has been relearning basic tasks such as brushing his teeth, shaving and manoeuvring his wheelchair.
‘Basically, I can groom myself, which I’m sure Sophie is very pleased about,” he continued.
‘I can feel sensation in my feet, the back of my legs and chest – I just can’t move them.
‘I like to think of the rest of my body as dormant, rather than paralysed.’
Alex will remain at Stoke Mandeville until December at the earliest, and Sophie has set up a GoFundMe page, which aims to raise £50,000 to cover the costs of his post-hospital care, including adaptations to their home, private physiotherapy sessions and specialist equipment.
Raising £5,000 so far, Alex said: ‘We’d love to be able to get a FES bike. They help people with little or no leg function to exercise their muscles, stimulate circulation and strengthen their bones.
‘That’s the biggest cost at the moment, at roughly £11,000, but there’s so much other stuff we have to consider down the line, too.’
Alex is focusing on his wedding, which they hope to have in 2022 in either France or Italy.
He also remains hopeful that he will one day be able to dance on stage with Sophie again.
He concluded: ‘Never say never. I don’t want to dampen any belief in myself at this point.
‘I have to keep going, there’s no other choice. Performing is my one true passion.’
Sophie said: ‘The GoFundMe is so important to me because Alex deserves every opportunity to gain as much of his life back as possible.
‘It’s so important to me that we don’t let money be an influencing factor in how much of a recovery Alex makes.
‘To him this is his whole life, but to others it’s missing a couple of their weekly coffees to help out someone incredible.’
You can donate to his GoFundMe here.
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