James Hourigan remembers feeling the weight of the world striking the driver’s side of his car.
On his way home from the gym, he had just entered the highway when he was struck by a large vehicle that, according to eyewitnesses, had lost control and skidded from the outer lane of the highway.
The car somersaulted and left the highway, coming to rest in a field some 13 metres below the highway. The airbags deployed and Hourigan mistook the powder for smoke. He had to get out or he would burn to death. His door was jammed, so he climbed out the window, using all the strength he had to lift his body up on his elbows and managed to get out. At that stage, he didn’t realise both his feet were still inside the car.
“One minute I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s My Home Town, the next I was lying in a field, flipping like a pancake from the pain. I knew I was dying and prayed for my life,” says Hourigan. “Had it not been for the intervention of an off-duty paramedic who arrived on the scene within minutes of the accident, it is highly likely I would have died in that field.” Hourigan was rushed to the Milpark Hospital in Gauteng where it was touch-and-go as to whether he would survive his injuries. He underwent five surgeries in the space of two weeks and lost both his legs from the knees down. After six weeks in hospital, he underwent rehab at the Netcare Rehabilitation Centre in Auckland Park for a further seven weeks.
“I believe one of the biggest reasons I managed to get back to doing everything I used to do effectively before the accident so quickly was because I had private healthcare,” says Hourigan. “Not everyone has that luxury. During my stay at the Netcare Rehabilitation Centre, I was an in-patient and I had my own room. It reminded me how lucky I was and, in some respects, I had a relatively easy journey. Others could only stay in the rehabilitation centre for a short period and not necessarily be given the time they really needed to achieve a speedy recovery.
“I told my work colleagues I would be back in my office as quickly as possible and told my friends I’d be on the golf course within six months,” adds Hourigan, also attributing his faith in God, support by friends and family, and peak physical fitness prior to the accident to his speedy recovery. A keen sports enthusiast, Hourigan was unsure how his disability would affect his ability to play golf, or gym again but he quickly returned to both with the help of prosthetic legs.
“One of the initial challenges for me was not knowing how people were going to react towards me,” he says. “I just wanted people to treat me ‘normally’. However, my colleagues, friends and people in general have been great to me in that respect. I returned to work full time three months after the accident. This was followed by a return to the gym four days a week and to the golf course. I joined Wanderers Golf Club just over a year ago and have not looked back since. The members have been very supportive and with the assistance of the Wanderers Golf Club professional, I have got back down to an eight handicap with the aim to reduce it further this year,” he adds, pulling his favourite club from his bag.
“It is hard enough to play golf with both legs so initially it was a challenge playing with no legs! Fortunately for me, golf is as much a ‘mind game’, and the brain is still sharp! Not only do I enjoy the social side of golf, but the game pushes me and my body to do things I never thought I’d be able to do without legs. On the golf course, your biggest competitor is yourself.”
Hourigan first took part in the Nedbank SA Disabled Open last year and finished second in his category. “I went this year with high expectations of competing for the overall title but over the three days of the competition I didn’t perform to my ability,” he says, lining up the ball and taking a swing. “However, while there, I did get the chance to spend some quality time with the kids participating in the South African Disabled Golf Association’s First Swing Project. I got great joy out of watching these kids play without a care in the world – just having fun playing the game. It reminded me why I first took up the game.”
Hourigan has already set his sights on a good performance at the British Open in August. “It’s going to be a big tournament, especially given it is Olympic year. I’m also playing in the European Championships in Denmark in late September. Hopefully, golf will become a paralympic sport and I will get the chance to represent Ireland in the 2020 Olympics.” In addition to setting himself his own challenges, Hourigan was touched by the challenges faced by amputees who were not as lucky as he was – having had extensive financial support by his private medical aid and being able to live as normal life as possible with the help of prosthetics.
“The Breaking Barriers Charitable Trust is a concept I thought about once I had reintegrated myself into the workplace,” he says. “I guess it was something that was meant to happen. God told me: ‘This is what you’re going to do’. And I did it. The Trust aims to raise funds exclusively for amputees that would not otherwise receive private healthcare.” The first golf day held in September 2011 raised over R150 000 and two amputees have already been selected by the trustees to benefit from the funds raised. Hourigan hopes the fund will support up to two amputees each year, with either extended rehabilitation time or better quality prosthetics.
“What I’m wearing today is the Rolls Royce version of prosthetics,” he jokes. “If you can’t walk with what I’ve got there’s no point in standing up. So it’s about giving other people that opportunity.” In September 2012, Breaking Barriers will host its second golf day at the Wanderers Golf Club and all the funds raised will go towards the trust. If you would like to support Breaking Barriers through sponsorship, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
James Hourigan, golf, highway, Bruce Springsteen, Netcare