The Quadriplegic Who Reached For The Sky
An Interview with Dave Jacka
Breaking his neck at 19 was never going to stop Dave Jacka live life to the full. With just 6% physical function he’s a master of engineering his adventures and environment to suit his disability.
I guess the best place to start is just before the accident you had when you were 19. Were you were a positive teenager, or did that positivity and strength of the mind come later on in your life?
I think I always had an element of positivity. Before my accident I was a builder – I spent time building houses, and I was like most normal 19-year olds. I spent time going out, having a good time. Life was cruising along, and at that age you’re not thinking too much. But then I came off my motorbike and went head first into a tree and broke my neck. And that’s when my life really started, the life that I know today anyway.
Do you remember the accident? When was the first time you realised what had happened?
I remember waking up beside the motorbike and when I woke up, I knew I had a really big problem. I couldn’t breathe, I actually felt like I was suffocating. So I am laying there and couldn’t feel anything, at all. I knew I’d done something serious but I didn’t know what. It transpired I had broken my neck which is why my body felt like it had totally shut down. So I was laying on the ground unable to move, unable to breathe and the next thing I knew someone luckily found me. I remember saying to him that I can’t breathe.
So, he took the helmet off and got my phone number where I live and the ambulance came and took me away. But I knew I was in a lot of trouble.
Just how scared were you?
I was terrified. Absolutely terrified. I didn’t know what was going on and especially when I couldn’t move, and not do anything, it was just incredibly scary. Plus I was struggling to breathe. I didn’t know what was going on. The fear of the unknown was terrifying.
Going to the hospital, I was going in and out of consciousness. There are moments that I remember and there are times that are completely blank. I do remember waking up at the hospital and remember them cutting my clothes off and I was like “woah, don’t cut my leather jacket off it cost me $300!” Then the next thing I knew, I was at the Austin Spiral Unit, which is another hospital, and I remember saying to my Dad “Ah, I want to go home” and he replied “No, no. You will be here for a while.”
So, when you were told that you’d broken your neck and that you weren’t going to walk again, how did you come to terms with that? Or is that something you’re still trying to do even today?
It’s funny I actually don’t remember them telling me that I’d broken my neck. They told me I was a quadriplegic but I had no idea what that meant really. As in I knew vaguely what it entailed but you can’t begin to imagine day to day what that means, and the change from that point on. It’s funny because a couple weeks before the accident, I remember going to a bar and seeing a guy in this wheelchair and thinking “oh it must be terrible being confined to a wheelchair.”
Two weeks later, it was me in the wheelchair.
Have I come to terms with it? Well, I think I have. At that point of time you have no idea what being a quadriplegic means and you have no idea what your life is going to be like. In my mind, I had my life planned out. I was going to start a business, travel, learn to fly, and do lots of things. I was like any other 19 year old – I had loads of dreams.
But suddenly, you have this accident and the dreams and the plans are gone. You don’t know what your future is now going to look like. At that point in time, especially when I found out I was quadriplegic I didn’t know the struggles I was going to face. It’s funny because lying in hospital I was seeing other patients in wheelchairs and they were moving pretty well so I figured I was just going to be like them. But when I got in that wheelchair for the first time reality hit and for the first time I think I began to understand what my true situation was like.
“When I got in that wheelchair for the first time reality hit and for the first time I think I began to understand what my true situation was like.”
Wow, okay. Obviously, as a teenager you’re independent and not relying on anyone. When you then have to rely on other people to do things, especially in those early months, how difficult was that? Was that a big adjustment or was it something you just have to accept?
Oh that’s a very big adjustment. It’s the one thing I still struggle getting used to. When I had my accident, I was in bed for three months and attached to me were these things called headthongs which are basically like a clamp screwed into the side of your head that attempt to straighten and pull your neck so that the bone can heal. I was there for three months waiting for my neck to heal so you have a lot of time to think. 3 months of doing nothing but lying there is a long time. People are doing things for you then. And then when you go to rehab, they’re still doing everything for you. You can’t do anything. When I first got out of bed, I couldn’t move in my wheelchair. It was like trying to push a tank.
Because I lost so much function I had to relearn how to do basically everything, including how to feed myself. Having people help you all the time wasn’t so bad in the hospital but it’s when you get home and you realise that those things that you need to do, you can’t do anymore. And that was a huge challenge. Because even in your own mind it feels as though you can still do the things that you used to do but your body just isn’t allowing it. That’s a real challenge – not only physically but also emotionally.
Even now, I have people who have to be my hands to do things. It’s very, very frustrating because I know how to do these things and I want them done my way but I have to get someone to do them for me and explain to them how to do it, and what I want done.
But you get used to it. You learn to live with it. But it’s a frustration you can’t change so you have to let it go.
Absolutely. I recently interviewed a professor called Jeff Raisman who was involved in a pioneering treatment that enable a paralysed person called Derek Fidyaka to walk again. I have always wondered, if you are paralysed and you hear a story like that, do you hope to one day walk again? Or actually, by having that type of hope – does that almost prevent you from actually dealing with the fact you won’t walk again?
Do I hope? No.
I don’t – look, if a cure came around one day, fantastic. But I certainly don’t live in hope. To me it’s about doing as much as you can with what you have. I suppose early on, I had that hope because it is very tough. But once you realise you can still do lots of things and lead the fulfilling life you dreamt of then it’s just all about getting on with things, and doing as much as you can.
I think when you lose so much, you appreciate what you do have. I try to do as much as I can just so I can have the experiences in life that I want.
Would that be your advice to someone who’s going through something similar? I.e. to focus not on what they’ve lost but what they can still do, and in fact, what they may have gained?
For sure. That’s what, in my view, life is all about. Everyone has challenges. Everyone, even able bodied people, have great challenges. Everyone deals with these challenges in their lives in their own way, but for me it’s about utilising what you’ve got and doing the best with that. The thing is most people have no idea what they are capable of. Look at me, a high level quadriplegic, people would automatically presume I can’t do anything. But in actual fact I’ve done a hell of a lot and I have had a fantastic life. I certainly don’t look back and think ‘if only I had what I used to have.’ It’s about moving on and leading the life with the cards you’ve been dealt.
Awesome, exactly. So if we move past the accident and talk about your progress – you mentioned you learnt how to feed yourself again and then I believe it was 6-7 years later you were competing in the Paralympics playing wheelchair rugby. Are you proud of how you dealt with it, and the progress you have made?
Yeah. I certainly feel proud of how I got on with things. Between the accident and the Games it was eight years. Relearning to feed myself, and doing basic things like that, took a lot of time. But yes I achieved a lot in that time between my accident and the Games. I certainly had no idea I would be going to the Paralympics and doing anything like that. At that point in time, I started working again and I even went back to study.
But early on, you don’t know what the future is going to be like. It’s just about taking one small step at a time, learning to feed yourself, learning to pick things up, learning how to get dressed, and then learning to drive. It’s one very small goal at a time. It’s very, very slow at times but if you persist at it and don’t give up, then you’ll get there in the end, and I did, and I am proud of that.
That’s the key then – to break it down to smaller manageable goals rather than trying to take on too much too soon?
It is. If you have a goal and it’s a massive goal, you think ‘Am I going to achieve this?’ – it is just so overwhelming. To me going from nothing to going back to work, it was just too big – I couldn’t visualise it. You have to break it down to little tiny goals, little baby steps; one thing at a time, one day at a time. It’s the only way to deal with it – that’s how I dealt with it.
Plenty of times you’ll think it’s going so slow and you plug away at it day after day. Then after a year, you look back and you can’t believe what you’ve achieved.
Amazing. And the Paralympic games, talk me through that. Was that a really proud moment for you to compete for your country?
For sure. I had no idea I would be at the Games one day, it was a fantastic experience. Competing against the best in the world, whether you win or lose, in the end it didn’t really matter. It’s about being there, participating and doing something that very few people have the opportunity to do – I feel very privileged to have competed for my country. It’s so rewarding and the overall experience is something that you’ll never forget.
Brilliant. And so after the games you’ve gone onto flying solo around Australia. I’ve got a couple of questions. First off, what was the motivation for that? And secondly, practically speaking – how does it work?
One of the things you come up against when you are a quadriplegic is people’s perceptions of you, and people’s attitudes of those guys who are confined to a chair. The main goal of the flight was to open up the public’s perception of what people with disabilities can achieve. I was trying to change people’s attitudes I guess. I was trying to show people that people with disabilities can still achieve so much and just because I am stuck in this chair doesn’t mean I can’t do anything. That in fact myself and others in a chair can do so much.
And I also hoped to inspire anyone to get out and have a go attheir own goals. I think we ended up succeeding as well as showing people that those with disabilities can still do so much.
How do I actually do it? Well, basically I converted an aircraft so I can fly with a disability. I have a tube in my mouth that I suck and blow to control the speed of the engine. In my left hand, I have the rudder – I push or pull on that to keep the plane straight. And I control the roll and pitch of the plane using my right hand. It’s kind of like tapping your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time!
It sounds complicated and it takes a little bit of practice but it soon becomes second nature. The difficulty wasn’t flying, it was trying to persuade people to let me fly and to change people’s preconceptions. I still have to get help getting into the plane but once I am in, I am all set. To fly around Australia, I had a support crew who would help me get in and out of the plane.
Brilliant. Can you describe the feeling you have when you’re up in the air seeing Australia below you?
It is amazing. That’s when I realised how big the country is! The feeling of flying is a sense of freedom. I’m not defined by my disability – I can go anywhere.
It gives you a very different perspective on the world. When you look down and you can see these poor buggers driving to work and you’re up in the air having the time of your life, it makes you realise that despite what has happened you are very lucky. Flying for me is an adventure, it’s a lot of fun and it’s an experience most people don’t get to have so I am very lucky.
“It gives you a very different perspective on the world. When you look down and you can see these poor buggers driving to work and you’re up in the air having the time of your life, it makes you realise that despite what has happened you are very lucky.”
Amazing. So you’ve flown around Australia, what’s next? What’s the next big challenge?
I bought a kayak around a year ago so modifying that and doing lots of training and am trying to get fit! Ultimately, and we’ll see how it goes, but I hope to paddle the longest river in Australia next year.
Wow. That’s amazing.
That’s the next goal. We’ll see how go!
That’s amazing. And you’re married, aren’t you Dave?
I am. Three years now.
And when you tell your wife “I’m thinking of flying around Australia or I’m thinking of kayaking down a river,” is she someone who’s really supportive of that or does she live in a bit of fear?
No, she’s really supportive. She actually came on the Australia flight. She was part of the support team. So she knows what’s involved! She’s fantastic. She recognises that doing these things is part of who I am. She fully supports it and because of that it makes it a lot easier to do.
As well as your wife supporting you I know you’ve had a lot of support from your parents. Obviously, when the accident happened to you it must have been very difficult to come to terms with it and deal with it. But for your parents and your family and your loved ones, to see you in those very early stages must have been hugely distressing. Was it almost more difficult for them than for you?
For sure. I was in my own little world when I had my accident. I was thinking about myself but then you think ‘what are they going through?’ It would have been huge, and totally traumatic for my family. It’s not just your life that is affected, it’s their life too. They have their own dreams and goals in their life and when their son has a major accident, they don’t know what their life is going to be like either. Are they still able to do the things that they wanted to do? So it’s very, very hard but my family is without a doubt the key reason my life has ended up being so positive, and why I have achieved the things I have achieved.
That’s great. The last question I have, and I’m not sure if it’s a controversial one or not, but you obviously said about how close you are with your family and how that bond has strengthened since the accident. We’ve spoken about the Paralympic games, we’ve spoken about you flying solo around Australia – all these amazing things that have actually happened as a result of your accident. Are you able to look back in any way to that day, not positively, because I know it can’t be a positive, but look at it without regret and say “actually amazing things have ended up happening to me because of what happened that day?”
I don’t regret my accident. One thing I know is that I have no idea what my life was going to be like had I not had my accident – it could have been wonderful, or it could have been crap. I don’t have any regrets. It is what it is. It’s one of those things. I certainly learnt from it and it has certainly made me appreciate more about life and what I’m able to do. It’s also made me appreciate people more and the experience certainly gives you another perspective.
And it’s made me push myself a lot more too. We can all go through life just cruising along. For me, for anyone who has the challenge of disability, then it makes you feel like you’ve got to push yourself a lot more. It certainly made me push myself further than what I would have done. As I said before, no one understands what their true potential is, and I actually may have found mine – who knows?
“No one understands what their true potential is”
And just one last thing for our readers – how can they get involved with what you’re doing or support what you’re doing?
They can go to my site Davejacka.com. Check it out – I’m looking for more sponsors for the kayak challenge, and if anyone’s interested then I’d love to talk.
Amazing. Thank you so much Dave for talking to me today. I really appreciate it. Have you got any questions at all for me?
No. I love the site, and you’ve got great people on there – I feel very privileged to be part of the team!