A former Serviceman who survived breaking his neck playing rugby and was then struck by cancer leaving him unable to walk, is on a mission to become a scuba diving instructor for fellow wounded soldiers.
Graham Hudspith, from Wyken, Coventry, said scuba diving had given him his life back, after joining a diving expedition to Malta run by the Army Sub-Aqua Diving Association (ASADA) – a branch of the British Sub-Aqua Club (BSAC) – funded by Help for Heroes.
The 45-year-old, who served as a caterer in the Royal Navy for 15 years including the two Gulf Wars, saw his naval career unexpectedly cut short when he broke his neck while playing rugby in Santander, Spain, against members of the Spanish Navy.
Miraculously, his mobility was unaffected and following a two-week stint in Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, he was allowed to continue his recovery at home.
But 15 years later, after he was discharged as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) from the Royal Navy, tragedy struck for a second time and the father-of-three was diagnosed with stage three advanced bowel cancer.
During six months of gruelling chemotherapy, he suffered peripheral neuropathy – damage to the nerves that carry messages between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body which can be a side effect of cancer or cancer treatment itself.
He was left unable to walk unaided and needing to use a wheelchair to get around, after suffering permanent damage to the nerves in his legs.
Graham is now a qualified Ocean Diver after completing a training programme on the island of Gozo in Malta alongside other ex-servicemen and women.
“Scuba diving and Help for Heroes has given me my life back,” said Graham, who is married to Carla, 40, his full-time carer.
“I’d never dived before the trip and it was absolutely fantastic. I’m definitely hooked.
“I was able to move wherever I wanted to without the aid of someone else. The feeling of independence was amazing.
“You forget everything when you’re underwater; all you care about is what’s in front of you, seeing the sea life and swimming.
“It was the best experience of my life and I can’t wait to get back in the water.”
Graham, who has a daughter aged 22 and two sons aged 18 and 20, joined the Royal Navy straight from school at the age of 17. He completed his initial training at HMS Raleigh in Cornwall. After travelling the globe as a caterer on various Royal Naval ships, he was recruited to HMS Brazen, serving on the Armilla Patrol which became a taskforce during the first Gulf War.
It was while serving with HMS Scylla 15 years ago that Graham suffered a broken neck and slipped disc in his lower back during a game of rugby against Spanish naval officers in Santander.
“Remarkably, I wasn’t paralysed but I suffered a few mobility problems as a result,” he said.
“I was discharged from the Navy six months later and I got on with my life. At that time there was no Help for Heroes and I felt totally lost but I had a young family to support.”
At the age of 42, Graham began to suffer back pain. Doctors discovered he had an extremely low blood count. He was admitted to University Hospital Coventry for further tests.
“They originally thought I had appendicitis. I had no energy and had to have a blood transfusion. They did lots of scans and discovered a tumour three centimetres wide in the bowel,” he said.
“It was removed the week before Christmas and was quite advanced.”
Graham embarked on a gruelling course of chemotherapy at two weekly intervals. The drugs left him depleted and he began suffering restricted movement in his legs as a result of nerve damage.
“At the time I had a decent job and so I was devastated. My main concern was for my family.”
It was a long road to recovery and for the first 12 months after his cancer was treated, Graham was unable to walk at all. He lost his confidence and self-esteem and became housebound.
Finding himself in a dark place without hope, Help for Heroes organised for him to attend Tedworth House.
“They provided physical and emotional support and encouraged me to participate in sport again,” he said.
“From that moment my life started to change for the better. I discovered handcycling as a hobby and the following year I completed a London to Windsor Castle challenge in aid of Help for Heroes.
“Prior to their involvement, I wouldn’t even go out of the house. They gave me my life back.”
John Gibbon, Vice Chairman of BSAC special branch ASADA, responsible for the veterans’ training, said: “It continues to surprise me just how tenacious and courageous the Help for Heroes veterans are.
“Their achievements mean so much for everybody involved and it’s a true honour to watch them enjoy being part of the military environment once again and the camaraderie that this brings. For many of these individuals, losing their military career and the sense of isolation this has brought has been a greater hurdle to overcome than their injuries.
He added: “Graham is a remarkable role model, coming back from two major life blows to show that nothing is insurmountable if you’re determined and have grit.”