Nearly four years ago Darren Edwards’s life was completely turned upside down and he was left unable to walk. The keen climber, who had conquered Mont Blanc and Monte Rosa after taking up the sport aged 17, experienced a profound change in his life on August 6, 2016 after a fall from a cliff face at World’s End in Llangollen.
But thanks to the generosity of a terminally-ill businessman and the technology of American company ReWalk Robotics Darren is finally able to stand tall again.
He is walking with the support of a robotic exoskeleton, and it was all thanks to an entry on his blog.
It marks a remarkable stage in Darren’s recovery after his devastating fall.
“It was lovely and hot and I was due to be going away to Iceland on a climbing trip a couple of weeks later,” says the 28-year-old, recalling that fateful afternoon almost three years ago.
“It was a bit of a routine Saturday and myself and my friend Matt thought ‘why not go for a climb?’, so we headed to World’s End in Llangollen.”
It was all going well. Darren had reached the summit and looked behind him.
“Matt couldn’t make it, so I had to try and get back down so we could walk off together on the middle tier of the cliff,” Darren recalls.
“I was chatting to him about a date he was going on that night, I was giving him a bit of banter and looking down at him while I was rigging up a point to abseil off.
“Then just as I was ready to commit something took my feet away from under me and gave me a lurching feeling.”
Darren froze for a millisecond, which was enough for him to start dropping.
He hit the bottom, tumbling through a thorn bush which left his arm heavily scarred.
“Through the whole fall I remember everything,” he continues.
“What I didn’t know was there was another drop of about 30ft coming up.
“Had I have gone off that I would have been dead.”
His friend Matt Luxton saved his life. He dived on top of Darren to prevent him from falling further, keeping him away from the final cliff edge.
But it was at this point he began to feel the pain, and realise the severity of his accident.
“I had landed on a piece of my climbing gear which was like a metal nut sticking out,” he says.
“The fall and the impact of the metal object straight into the spine just did the damage.”
Darren had broken his back.
He was flown to hospital, where metal rods were inserted into his spine to help support his back, and he was taken into intensive care.
Then began the long road to recovery.
Darren was moved to the Midland Centre for Spinal Injuries in Oswestry where he would have to learn from scratch things he had known all his life.
“You have to learn to do basic things again like getting onto a toilet, getting into a car, getting yourself off the floor and building your strength back up,” he says.
But his determination, complete with intense and difficult rehab saw him get to the point where he was ready to move into the home of his nan Christine, with whom he still lives in Bayston Hill near Shrewsbury.
He was discharged on December 21, 2016, five months after that fateful moment when his fingers just wouldn’t grasp that rope, when he tumbled over the cliff edge.
While all this was going on Darren, a business manager at Shropshire Council, also launched Strength for Adversity, a blog to document his recovery.
One of the things he was given to try during his rehabilitation was a ReWalk – a wearable robotic exoskeleton.
“I remember trying them and thinking this would be life changing,” says Darren.
“But these things were £80,000 so I was really just teasing myself with a carrot at that point that I could never afford.”
Four months ago, though, Darren received a phone call from Cumbrian businessman Paul Adorian which left him speechless.
Adorian, from Windermere, has played an active role in the Association for the Independence of Disabled People, and had read about Darren’s experience with interest.
“I got a call from him and he had read my blog,” continues Darren.
“He was coming to the end of his life and was in the position where he wanted to help people in some way with a pot of money he had.
“He had read that I had tried ReWalk and asked what I would say if I could get some and he offered to buy them. ‘I have the money and would like to help’ he told me.
“I didn’t know what to say. He said he’d be in touch and hung up. I admit I thought it was a bit of a wind up.”
But it was when he got a call directly from the company that Darren realised this was no joke and that standing again for him could again become a reality.
Three weeks later he took delivery of the exoskeleton that has given him a new source of mobility, three years after his own ability to walk was snatched away in an instant.
Learning to walk again
“In the space of a month he had changed my life,” says Darren.
“There were three other ladies in similar positions to me so he spent something like £240,000 on us all.
“I know I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to walk again.”
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I never did quite give up hope that someday, somehow, I'd walk again. This video (my first full training session) goes to show that it pays to never give up on your dreams. Thank you to @rewalk_robotics for making this a reality. #strengththroughadversity #rewalk #rehab #sci #spinalcordinjury #wheelchair #wheelchairlife #overcome #adapt #dream #nevergiveup #challenge #adversity
But getting the exoskeleton was only part of the battle, and now, after years in a wheelchair, Darren was going to have to learn to walk again.
The robotic exoskeleton provides powered hip and knee motion to enable individuals with spinal cord injury to stand upright, walk, turn, and climb and descend stairs. But it still requires work by the wearer.
“You job is to keep your balance and shift your weight as if you are walking,” said Darren.
“It’s difficult learning to walk again and it is perhaps the toughest challenge of the recovery.
“My heart isn’t as strong as it was as it hasn’t been pumping my blood in the same way as when you use your legs so it’s tiring.
“The heart doesn’t really know what’s happening.
“Also because I can’t feel my feet I was constantly looking at them.
“I’ve had to work hard to just lift my head up and get that confidence back.”
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Making progress each day with @rewalk_robotics and @strength_to_train Still not quite used to being back at normal height again. Thank you to @apostle_tactical for the epic t-shirt. #strengththroughadversity #rewalk #walkingagain #progress #training #nevergiveup #apostle #spinalcordinjury #sci #miracle #challenge #vertigo #wheelchair #wheelchairlife #sayyesmore
He continues: “It’s been slow progress and I’m still in training but I can now stand up again without feeling like I’m going to pass out.
“I had forgotten what it was like to be my height and I was almost scared of being 6ft 6ins again.
“The first step I took I had a face of pure concentration. It was so surreal.
“To be honest it hadn’t sunk in that they were mine.”
Having been wheelchair-bound now for years, Darren says it is great to be able to speak to people at eye level again – although it came as a bit of a surprise to his girlfriend TJ.
“The first time I stood up with her she was like ‘you’re really tall’ and I was like ‘you’re really small’,” he laughs.
Darren says that because of practicalities, the reality is that he will only be able to use the exoskeleton a third of the time, and the rest of the time he will still be using his wheelchair.
But learning to walk again is not the only battle on Darren’s hands as he aims to compete in Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.
To participate in those games would represent the culmination of a quest he undertook almost immediately after his accident.
It was only three days after his discharge from hospital that Darren bought an £800 kayak and began testing it out in the pool at Oswestry Leisure Centre.
He had lost a lot of his core muscles, but when able he began kayaking with friends in rivers and lakes, before moving onto rowing.
Darren found out about a British Canoeing paracanoe talent spotting day in Nottingham almost a year to the day after the accident.
Darren got the call-up and is now a part-time athlete on the development program, and has his eyes firmly set on a Paralympic gold medal.
“The ambition is to keep going, we’ve got Tokyo 2020 coming up and my plan is to push my ability to be good enough for it,” he says.
Darren is not first in line for a call-up, and while he will push hard, he is determined that if he misses out on Tokyo then he will be able to go to Paris in 2024.
If you would like to see more about Darren’s journey then visit strengththroughadversity.co.uk