There was almost complete silence as Richard Alcorn approached the stage in front 1,000 school children assembled in Letterkenny’s Aura Leisure Centre.
The students were so quiet that the footsteps of Garda Mark Treanor could be heard as he pushed the 24-year-old’s wheelchair down the centre aisle and then up a specially erected ramp.
The silence was almost chilling as he spoke. His address was the last at this year’s Road Safety Road Show run by the Donegal Road Safety Working Group. The students were among 3,000 from schools all over the county and across the border that sat through the three sessions of the event on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Richard told them had he had once been like many of them before he had been paralysed after a single vehicle collision on February 16th 2006 when he was driving home from work. He lost the power of his legs and had to under-go several operations including a double heart bypass. Following that operation a blood clot moved down his right arm causing it to turn “black and leathery”. It had to be amputated.
After not getting out of his bed at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Dun Loaghaire for months he told the gathered students of the first day he left the bed. He was “lifted like a piece of meat” by a hoist into a wheelchair.
The pain he experienced at times was “ridiculous” and he had to take 21 different tablets three times a day.
Richard’s life had been touched by the tragedy of a road accident before his own crash. His best friend had been killed in 2005. He was asked to go to the hospital to collect his friend’s belongings including a packed lunch that had been made by his mother and his watch which had stopped at the time of the fatal collision.
He has lost other friends in accidents and “it does not get any easier”.
Mary McGlanaghy lost her 19-year-old daughter Caroline in a car accident on June 28th 2005. Her mother told the students how the speeding driver had ignored the pleas of his passengers to slow down. She asked the young people to show respect for their friends when driving and not to show off - “If you don’t want your mum and dad visiting a graveyard and a gravestone with your name on it.”
The gathered students also heard from emergency service workers who have had to deal with the aftermath of countless accidents. One of the most powerful was from Garda Treanor who has 25 years experience of police work. Those years have left him with images of more road accidents “than I care to remember”.
Among the worst is that of the hand of a small child visible from a smashed vehicle following an accident. He had to help remove the body of the two-year-old child from the car to the ambulance and then accompany it to the morgue. When he got home he went to the room of his two-year-old daughter and held her hand. “I held her hand and cried tears of joy that my daughter was alive and with me. Then I cried tears of sorrow for the little boy and his family.”
He warned the students never to get into a car with a driver who had taken drink or drugs.
Paramedic Paddy Doherty said people often say to him that he must get used to the scenes he has to deal with after 30 years in the job. “You get used to it in a way that it does not stop you from doing your job, but you never get over the waste of life.”
He recalled removing a young man from a car involved in a single vehicle collision near Letterkenny. Another man died in the car and Paddy helped remove the survivor to hospital. Eighteen months later he took a wheelchair bound man home from the hospital. It was the same young man - strapped to a wheelchair by his forehead, chest, waist and feet. “He was literally trapped in his own body. He had a massive spinal injury.” This was his first visit home since the accident. A young girl came running into the room to seen him. “His daughter was put on his knee. That guy could not lift a finger to touch his daughter.”
Liam Carr of the Donegal Fire Service spoke of how the crews mentally prepare themselves on the way to the scene of an accident. The crews are offered counselling after attending difficult scenes. Some of them will suffer from flashbacks but talking among themselves helps, he said.
The impact of spinal injuries was a theme emergency department consultant Gerry Lane returned to.
Telling people their child is dead is what many people think is the worst thing you can tell them, he said. “There are things which are almost as bad as being dead. If you have a spinal injury you may not die but the grieving process for the man and the boy that you knew, goes on for the rest of his life.”