David Durston - like a phoenix from the flames

“Life ahead looked good, but in an instant that life was taken away.”

When we plan ahead, we tend to think about the typical, mundane events that define different stages of our lives. The mortgage, children’s education, perhaps a pension.

We may also consider life insurance to secure the financial future of loved ones – just in case the worst happens.

But we rarely think about the unexpected. An accident or injury can change lives in a moment. So how can Group Income Protection (GIP) help when a seemingly bright future is suddenly eclipsed?

The holiday accident

"If I'm paralysed, then I don't care if anybody turns me over."

David Durston was 31 in May 1999. A successful career in Marketing had recently resulted in his promotion to Director. Outside of work, David frequently played golf and tennis, and enjoyed skiing holidays. He had also just become a proud father. By his own confession, David felt ‘invincible’. Events would prove otherwise.

On a well-earned holiday with his family and close friends at a villa near Bergerac, France, David dived into the shallow end of the swimming pool. In that instant, his future was taken away. In a freak accident, he had broken his neck and as he floated face down in the pool, motionless and terrified, a chilling thought crossed his mind: “If I’m paralysed, don’t turn me over.”

David’s friends turned him over and lifted him out of the cold water, keeping him conscious for the 40 long minutes it took until the ambulance arrived. He immediately underwent an operation in Bordeaux, before being airlifted to the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Aylesbury’s Stoke Mandeville hospital – one of the largest specialist spinal units in the world. 

The road to recovery

"Lying paralysed in the unit, I was fearful for not only my own future, but my family's."

"After an agonising six-week wait, I received the devastating news that I wouldn’t walk again or ever regain any feeling below my shoulders."

Worse still, David couldn't use or feel his hands and only had limited movement in his arms - unable to even move the sheet off him when it got too hot. David also faced constant neurological pain in his shoulders and forearms. 

The only bright spot in dark times was the GIP plan his employer had taken out with Unum. With David off work for the long term and doubt over whether he would ever return, the company claimed on their GIP insurance, which was agreed by Unum. Paying a percentage of David’s salary through his employer's payroll, the policy would ensure he and his family would be financially secure despite their extremely uncertain future. This was a huge relief as David had no idea this policy existed, and had never considered the need for such a plan.

David remained in hospital for 11 months before returning home. With the NHS funding and fitting a hoist to the ceiling, the family’s own savings and the benefit he received from Unum allowed them to make further adaptations to their house, including level access, wider doors, the installation of a through-floor lift, and the conversion of the garage to a wet room.

The 24/7 care David now needed was split between his wife and a local care agency, but the idiosyncrasies of people with spinal cord injury and the understanding needed meant everyone had to go through specialist training. For David, being dependent on somebody for every aspect of living was hard for him to adjust to, and impacted massively on the household dynamic.

Back to work?

Despite all he had been through, David was determined to return to work. He knew nothing else and loved his job, though now admits he had been in denial about the severity of his injuries and their implications.

David's employer was eager to try and accommodate David, but couldn’t do it alone.

However, as well as providing David with a percentage of his salary during his long-term absence, the company’s Unum GIP policy also came with a range of built-in support.

This included access to experienced Vocational Rehabilitation Consultants (VRCs) offering advice on workplace adjustments and the creation of practical return to work plans for all parties.

Working together with David and his employer in 2000, our VRC suggested a number of ways to help accommodate and smooth David’s return to work on a therapeutic basis. He took on a new role and started a graduated return to work plan beginning with working three days each week for three hours a day from 9.30am to 12.30pm.

Workplace adjustments included the installation of disabled toilets and automatic doors, and a review of the temperature in the building, given David’s inability to properly regulate his own body temperature. To help him in his new position, his desktop and laptop used new voice-activated dictation software and an infra-red mouse operated by head movement.  David was also given a voice-activated mobile phone (rare at that time), plus a phone with large buttons at home and in the office.

In 2002, once David had completed his rehabilitation programme, further changes were made, such as the provision of remote access to the office and the potential use of funding from Access at Work to make other adjustments to David’s computer hardware.

All parties did all they could. However, the extent of David’s disability meant that working was difficult both physically and logistically. After five brave and challenging years, David and his employer came to the tough, mutual decision to end his employment.

However, their GIP policy had Pay Direct included. An optional extra, Pay Direct allows the benefit to be paid direct to the employee should they leave their company, ensuring both parties can move on with the knowledge that the employee will continue to be financially protected.  Again, this was unexpected, but very welcome, news to David, giving him much-needed peace of mind at another sea change in his life.

Even so, losing his job and identity had a massive impact on his self-esteem and perceived self-worth. For many people, it would have been easy to slip into self-pity, depression and mental ill-health, and settle for a life indoors in front of daytime TV. But David saw his Income Protection as not just a safety net, but an enabler.

While very hard to come to terms with being completely dependent on people for everything, David was pragmatic about his situation:

“I soon realised that there was nothing that I could do change it, so I had to find things that I could do in my new state.”

The financial security David enjoyed coupled with his determination to get back into the world allowed him to explore the possibilities.

Setting sail on a new horizon

"Being active and engaged is essential for my physical health, pain management, and mental wellbeing.”

“I tried a number of activities, therapeutic work, and had intensive physiotherapy to improve my strength and fitness. 

"Although all these things helped to fill the void, none of them were particularly fulfilling. Wheelchair rugby became an activity that did give me back a lot of confidence and self-belief. I wasn’t functionally very able, and I was never going to be a top player, but it gave me fitness, strength, a new social life, and great camaraderie with people in similar situations across the country."

The discovery of sailing through The Backup Trust (a charity that inspires people with spinal injuries and shows them what’s still possible) was to fundamentally change David’s life – giving him both a new focus and a new challenge.

“After several bad experiences, I discovered that with the right equipment I could not only sail independently, but be competitive against good able-bodied sailors. “

It was while David was sailing a specially-adapted boat that a Great Britain coach spotted his potential. Within six months, in January 2006, he took part in the World Championships in Rochester, USA on Lake Ontario. The logistics were difficult, requiring David to raise funds not only to make the trip with his boat, but pay for a carer, coach and support boat.

Though failing to make the podium, the event marked the beginning of David’s development as a serious racer. This soon led to a number of sailing successes including 2nd and 3rd places in the European Championships in 2015 and 2017, 5th and 7th places in the World Championships and the distinction of being National Champion.

He also campaigned for a place in the Paralympics, even appearing on Noel Edmunds’ ‘Are you smarter than a 10-year-old?’ with his daughter to help drum up support and funds.

Phoenix flight

"I feel my life parallels a phoenix – reborn from the flames."

Unfortunately, during this time, David was a dealt another blow when his marriage ended. Taking on other roles helped rebuild his self-esteem and sense of self-worth, and provide the opportunity to use his professional experience.

These included volunteering alongside the able-bodied as a wheelchair rugby coach and sailing coach, and taking on the roles of Chairman of Gloucester Wheelchair Rugby Club, Principal of Sailability at Whitefriars Sailing Club in the Cotswolds and Treasurer/Trustee of Hansa Class UK – a charity that aims to provide dinghy racing and training to people of all levels without barriers.

While it took time, David’s drive and determination to lead an active life saw his confidence increase. During this time, he met Nicola and the two were married in October 2016.

“Nicky has become very involved with my activities, and is very supportive, taking on much of my care herself. We still have carers, but we are in a position to work this around our lives together. It is a lot of hard work for her, but it does give us more control and flexibility, and enables me to continue with my voluntary roles.

"I couldn’t do it alone.”  

David and Nicola’s wedding even featured on ITV in December 2016 in a documentary called ‘Extraordinary Weddings’.

In 2018, David’s commitment to his sport was rewarded with the Royal Yachting Association’s Sailability Volunteer of the Year Award, and Whitefriars picking up the RYA‘s Yachts & Yachting Inclusivity award.

"I named my boat the Flying Phoenix.  My life has changed beyond belief since that day in 1999, and I felt that it parallels a phoenix, reborn from the flames. Coincidentally, the office where I worked before the accident is located on Phoenix Way. I added 'Flying' because of the independence, exhilaration, and speed that sailing provides."

“Being out on the lake or sea by myself is incredibly liberating. I have always been competitive, and regularly race at my club, and in Hansa Class events domestically and internationally. While I’m racing, I am completely focused on what I am doing, and all the pain and challenges of life go away.” 

“Very simply, without the financial support from Unum, participating in these activities while maintaining a house and living costs would be impossible on benefits alone. How would you cope?"

“My life would be very different, and in my view, not worth living.”