The paralysed diver
The amazing story of a man who refuses to let a broken neck hold him back
A serious injury couldn’t stop Bazza West from living a full life – even scuba diving.
Requesting an interview, my finger hovers over the key. I hesitate… hit ‘send’, and the email is gone. “Of course, he might not be up for it…” I remark to the wife in an uncharacteristic moment of self-doubt.
Just a few hours later I have a reply. “No probs man, how you wanna move this forward? Bazzzzza West”.
Barry ‘Bazza’ West seemingly IS up for it. But then he’s up for everything.
Born in East Sussex in 1976, 35 year-old Bazza hails from a large family. The youngest of six children (three brothers and two sisters,) he has always been a ball of energy. Interests during his teenage years ranged from sports like running, boxing, and weightlifting to activities such as Cubs and the Red Cross volunteers. It even included ballet… before barracking from friends became too intense.
This get-up-and-go was simultaneously shaping a successful career as landscape gardener, running his own business at the tender age of 19. A picture taken in 1996 shows a sun-kissed athletic young man with muscles that could shift bricks all summer long – not to mention melt female hearts. But everything was to change abruptly.
Underwater, we are all equals
Driving late at night in rain, he swerved to avoid a badger, left the road and struck a tree with colossal force. The impact staved in the van’s roof and broke Bazza’s neck in two places.
After months in critical care, a grim reality awaited: he would never use his arms or legs again.
Lying in a hospital bed, helpless and sometimes alone, Bazza had feelings of fear, nightmares and hallucinations. Life had been a high and everything was taken away in an instant. Here his story, like his body, could have become locked – one of unending depression and self-pity.
I visit Bazza at his home in Uckfield, East Sussex. He has a dog called Sid, a permanent live-in carer and is visited by nurses on a daily basis. His large family lives nearby and today he has 17 nephews and nieces, a “nightmare at birthdays and Christmas”, he tells me. He refers to me as “matey” and puts me at ease straight away. When asked how to refer to his condition (quadriplegic and tetraplegic have essentially the same meaning, it transpires), and sensing my embarrassment, a smiling Bazza says “Don’t worry, you don’t know any disabled people. That’s ok. None of us do, matey.”
No sign of any self-pity so far.
In my eagerness to meet the man in the bed I’ve failed to notice the walls are covered in paintings – all his own work. A tutor drops by for a few hours each week but initially he taught himself mouth painting by watching YouTube videos, no less. And they’re good, I mean, they’re really, really bloody good.
Sorry for swearing, although Bazza seems at his most comfortable with a bit of profanity. “You need some f*cking patience mate. Proper patience. I can’t lean forward too far… I mean, I’m still learning really, I don’t know how they f*cking come out like that to be honest.” He never had a particularly creative streak before (i.e. before the accident), but it clearly gives him a lot of satisfaction now.
Struggling with the enormity of what happened, a chat with paralysed friend Stuart in the early 2000s was to change Bazza’s life once again. “He told me he’d just done a skydive. I was gobsmacked, I mean, how did he do that? I pictured him landing in his wheelchair, like they’d tip him out the back of a Hercules [military aircraft] or something.”
A switch had been thrown in his brain. No longer was the focus on things he couldn’t do anymore, only the things he could. The glass was half full again.
A spinal injury charity called Back Up organised a skydive – only the first of many intense and adrenalin sports Bazza has since undertaken. To date his achievements put many able-bodied couch potatoes to shame: paragliding, sailing, skiing, kayaking, darts (against Bobby George), abseiling, mountaineering up Snowdon four times… and it’s a work in progress.
“People say to me, would I have been doing the things I do, had I not had my injury? Obviously I can’t say for sure, but definitely the goals I score now are far sweeter than anything I could have done previously.”
Despite being a non-swimmer until the age of 14, in 2009 he became a qualified scuba diver. It was thanks to the help of a small charity called the Scuba Trust that a group of 20 flew out to Barbados. After a cumbersome entry (“I ended up face down in the boat”) he took to the water. Support divers helped maintain buoyancy on either side, with one person in position at the rear. But Bazza had to clear his mask and equalise on his own. Together the group also spent a week in Egypt diving the reefs of Hurghada.
For him, there was a euphoric moment. “I was under the water, with four others, one of them’s got polio, another’s paralysed, others are able-bodied… and I realised, we’re all b*ggered without a regulator. Nobody is swimming any faster than anyone else. We were all equals.
“I was quite emotional when I completed that dive.”
Entrusting your life to tank and regulator is scary enough for a beginner. How did he feel about it? “Well I was in no rush, it took me a year of sessions in the pool. A year! But at least I’ve got my Open Water now. I’d like to do my Advanced next.”
He lowers his voice, as if to speak off the record.
“…mind you, I won’t bother with the rescue bits. I mean, can you imagine me trying to rescue some other b*gger? Could hardly rescue myself can I!” We both laugh.
He loves scuba diving. Sharks, turtles and fish are subjects in many of his paintings, as well as a silhouette of himself exploring the ocean. Would he try diving in the UK? “Too cold. I mean, I’d need a drysuit.” He’s right, but given his achievements so far, this seems like a minor detail to me. Don’t bet against it happening anyway.
Bazza West certainly isn’t planning to sit about. I ask if there’s anything left to try, and he pauses for a moment. “It’s gonna sound crazy, but I’d really like to ride a horse. I mean, not just sit on it, but ride around a paddock without anyone holding the reins.”
Paralysis causes secondary conditions so Bazza is in and out of hospital. Life is not easy. Yet he still manages to travel the country giving after dinner talks and visiting other paralysed people – a role that requires him to “…be careful around the newly injured.” He describes this as hugely satisfying. There’s a documentary on his life in the works and an author is due to write his biography. He’ll be an Olympic torchbearer in July. Not to mention the plan to summit Kilimanjaro.
“It was tough at the beginning, I can’t pretend it wasn’t. But I’ve always had in my mind you’ve just got to get on with it. Nobody likes a miserable b*stard do they?”
Please visit the sites below and support where you can.
Bazza West – www.westyuk.co.uk
Bazza West on Facebook – www.facebook.com/bazza.west
The Scuba Trust – www.scubatrust.org.uk
Back Up – www.backuptrust.org.uk
Indispensable guide to wreck diving in this remote Pacific atoll
Inland site with two unusual inhabitants