In his first interview since sustaining a life-changing neck injury, Jonjo Bright is inspirational and determined. He talks to Jessica Lamb matter-of-factly and positively – and all of it is genuine.
LET’S get real here. Jonjo Bright’s future is not in tipping.
Ireland’s best Cheltenham Festival on record and not a winner backed between the injured amateur rider and father John as they followed the action in the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast.
“The WiFi went down right when we made up our minds to back Solwhit at Aintree,”John insists. “At least we got to watch it,” says Bright.
Watch it he did, gladly following the sport that could have killed him when he dislocated two vertebrae in his neck at Tyrella point-to-point on March 2. The 19-year-old holds no animosity towards this game which may mean he will not be able to hold his own tea cup again.
He smiled when fellow Northern Ireland man Tony McCoy lifted his 19th champion jockey title, knowing he may never stand up to shake his hand. And he quizzed a visiting colleague eagerly about his former gallops partners at trainer Colin McKeever’s yard. How were they going? When were they running?
This is not a boy wallowing in self-pity about what will not happen. Not today. This is a man who has already surpassed professionals’ expectations and can see, with a clear head, that now is not forever.
“My arms are going well, but my fingers just don’t have the movement yet,” he says, strapped up in a neck brace in his wheelchair. “Down my left arm there are parts, on the inside, where the feeling is nearly normal again.
“I feel a few twinges around my knee and sort of around my ankle too. There are a lot of changes now and after getting my arms back I couldn’t really ask for much more.”
That progress has come after an initial diagnosis of permanent paralysis and with the considerable assistance of the physiotherapists, doctors and nurses at the Musgrave Park Hospital spinal unit in Belfast.
The impact bent his neck back, dislocating vertebrae, which bounced back in with the next movement crushing discs and traumatising his spinal cord.
He was moved here from the Royal Victoria last month and is already deep into the rehabilitation process with access to the latest technology and the freedom to welcome regular visitors and visit his own home, a farm in nearby Templepatrick – “We got the chair stuck in the silage last time,” father John jokes.
“I like it here,” says Bright. “It’s very different to the Royal, you have to be stable to come here so it’s a lot more relaxed.”
“We had a Chinese meal here with all the family and David’s [another patient in the ward] the other Saturday night,” says John. “It was really great to sit down together like that. I don’t like leaving him; he can’t scratch his nose.”
“I can,” Jonjo rebuts. “I scratched my face the other day.”
John watched the fall live, saw his “mate”, as he calls him, catapulted into the ground by the nine-year-old maiden Cally Bridge in the novice riders’ race, the last on the card at the East Down point-to-point.
The impact bent his neck back, dislocating vertebrae, which bounced back in with the next movement crushing discs and traumatising his spinal cord. But it was not severed.
“If it was severed I wouldn’t be moving these fingers, I might not be here,” he says. “It felt like my body was concreted to the ground and my head was free. Then after surgery it just started progressing. I got some feeling quite quickly.
“I remember the first night I felt something in my legs. It was just me and my girlfriend Reah [Magee]. I said to her, ‘did you see that in that leg?’, I wanted to be sure as sometimes you just get a wee twitch. But I thought this time it was because I had asked it to move. I tried it again and was able to create some movement three or four times.”
He peers down, hoping for a demonstration, raises his eyebrows and continues: “I can only do it sometimes, but the physio has seen it and writes it all down. It’s good they can see it too as it shows I’m not imagining it.”
A scar runs diagonally upwards across the left side of his neck, the entry point for the surgeons who fixed the damage the dislocation caused to the bones. They will make a full recovery, but the bashed, stretched and twisted spinal cord will not be the same again.
There’s no real evidence that it definitely stops concussion. A lot of the top lads do wear them though and I’m glad I did.
“I wasn’t knocked out and have no head injuries and I put that down to the mouth guard,” he adds. “It’s the only thing I can think of that stopped it as the ground was like that.” He points to the floor. It’s not made of feathers.
“They are thinking of making them compulsory, but Dr McGoldrick [Turf Club chief medical officer] says there’s no real evidence that it definitely stops concussion. A lot of the top lads do wear them though and I’m glad I did.
“I was able to be operated on straight away because I wasn’t knocked out. I could have been left for a couple of days on for that.” He smiles. “The surgeon said I was the first boy he had to cut tights off.”
“I tell you what,” John adds. “He wouldn’t let them cut the boots off him. They didn’t need to when they’ve perfectly good zips down the back of them.”
His physiotherapy involves several kinds of cycling machines, for arms, legs and arms and legs, and there are high-tech sleeves for his arms, which use shockwaves to work his hands and fingers.
“Most of the time I feel well,” says Jonjo. “When I started I couldn’t believe how little wiped me out. I thought I was coming here to work my arse off but it’s not like that.
“First thing we had to do was get my breathing under control. I’m still on the ventilator at night. At the moment my diaphragm is doing all the work with no help from my other muscles and it can’t sustain that so the machine gives it a rest at night. When I actually fall asleep the machine takes over my breathing. That’s why I get out of breathe when I’m talking.”
John adds: “We had to stay with him until he went to sleep when he first starting using it because its scary. It’s like sticking your head out of a car window doing 70 mph.”
“You wouldn’t keep that mask on for five minutes if I brought it over here now. But I couldn’t take it off,” Jonjo laughs.
“When you actually relax it breathes for you and now I fall asleep first and the nurses turn it on afterwards and It doesn’t wake me up anymore.”
This injury has changed John’s life too. He has given up smoking and sent away his thoroughbreds, keeping just cattle and sheep.
This happened just as we had 100 ewes to lamb. Even the wee one, Gracie was out. After she lambed the first one she put her hand back in. Unbelievable. She was five then.
He says: “I don’t have time for them. Jonjo is the horseman and he was such a good showjumper. He could have gone all the way if he hadn’t switched, but I remember the day he decided to.
“I was taking horses to school at a point-to-point course and asked him to come along and ride the open horse Mr Moneyspinner. Well, three miles around there over fences and he was hooked. He loves working on the farm too, and building things.”
The mouthguard that Jonjo believes saved his brain stays with John always and this ordeal has brought a close-knit family even closer together.
“This happened just as we had 100 ewes to lamb,” says John, “so my daughter Anne-Mare moved into our house with her husband to lamb them. Even the wee one, Gracie was out, and she lambed one from start to finish.
“We’ve a video of it. After she lambed the first one she put her hand back in and said ‘yeah, I think there’s another one, but I’ll give it a minute’. Unbelievable. She was five then. It was her birthday two weeks ago.”
There is elevated respect between these two men for how each is responding to their own hardships and Jonjo’s sisters, mother Jayne and girlfriend Reah have stepped up just as stoically as he.
“We wanted to keep everything from him,” says John, “but the first time the doctor came to the bed and we all moved away from him he shouted over ‘what are yous talking about’. From then on no more secrets.”
Jonjo adds: “To be honest, I had a good idea as soon as it happened. Any time I’ve had a fall the first thing I did was try to flex my toes. I’ve had worse falls, this wasn’t horrific, I was just unlucky.”
What now? “Personally, I’m very positive,” says Jonjo. “I think I can go the whole way and I will always think that.”
“You have to think that,” says John, softly and Jonjo, his blue eyes crystal clear, nods.