It Happened To Me: My Brother Lost His Leg in a Motorbike Accident

Bad news came at us like a runaway freight train. At first, it was a broken leg. Then it was a fractured femur. Then an infection set in. Then it was an amputated leg. From the thigh.
Publish date:
February 4, 2013
family drama, Real life, extreme sports

I was in the kitchen with my mum and my sister when the call about the accident came. We’d just finished dinner and I was clearing the table. I was 13, my sister, Nikki, was 21, Jon, my brother, 24.

They told us at first that he’d broken his leg. It was worse than that.

Almost everyone in my family is in to extreme sports – if it’s dangerous, we’ll do it. My brother and sister spent most of their teenage years surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding, my dad raced motorbikes and mountain bikes, built a high performance car and competed in trial biking.

I eschewed these more masculine pastimes for years of twisted ankles, sprained wrists and damaged knees from the gymnastics vault. Even now, I spend several hours a week six feet off the ground performing hoop trapeze.

Motorbikes were a constant feature in our lives; my dad and Jon were obsessed with superbikes and Ducatis, Yamahas and Fireblades all spent time in our garage.

It was a motorbike trip that led to my brother’s accident. He, my dad and about 25 other men had travelled from Guernsey, where I grew up, to France for a week of bike riding and male bonding.

To this day, we don’t know exactly what happened – all we know was that Jon got separated from the rest of the group, including my dad, and ended up in a horrific crash at a well-known accident black spot.

After that initial call, the bad news came at us like a runaway freight train over the next few hours. At first, it was a broken leg. Then it was a fractured femur. Then an infection set in. Then it was an amputated leg. From the thigh.

My mum and my brother’s wife, Leonie, went straight to France while my sister and I stayed in Guernsey. During my woodwork lesson at school one afternoon, the secretary collected me from my class - Nikki was in reception to take me to France, urgently.

We prepared to say goodbye to our big brother.

Nothing will prepare you for the site of someone you love, someone young, usually full of life and vitality, hooked up to dozens of machines, unconscious.

He looked somehow alien, while at the same time, staggeringly, painfully familiar. We were allowed into intensive care whenever we wanted to spend time with Jon, which showed the severity of his condition.

We all had some time alone to talk to him, and I remember, with startling teenage clarity, that I forced myself not to cry because I was afraid he would hear and be upset. God knows what I talked about – what do you say when you know you might never see someone you love again?

Defying the darkest predictions, Jon regained consciousness not long after that and his body, so fit and healthy from years of outdoor pursuits, began to fight the infection.

He was moved between various French hospitals for three months and my parents and Leonie went with him, staying in guest houses, hospital accommodation and, once, memorably, on a barge. My sister and I spent the weekdays at work and school respectively, and the weekends in France.

There are so many stories from this period that I could write about; the infection in his body that meant we couldn’t touch him or hug him, and had to spend all our time in his room swathed in surgical gowns and masks. Or how his friends took it in turns to come out and see him, setting up dartboards so he could play darts with them from his bed.

Or I could write about the strength of my sister-in-law, who, at 23, held it together even when her world was falling apart, and managed to drive on the wrong side of the road every day to see her husband of one year in a critical condition, without uttering one self-pitying word.

I could tell you about the times that we ended up hysterical with laughter about something trivial, because that’s another way of coping when all your emotions are on a knife-edge.

I could explain how upsetting it is to see your big brother throwing up every meal he ingests, unable to keep anything down, or that ‘ghosting’, where you feel the pain of an amputated limb, is a very real, and very painful phenomenon.

I could tell you how it feels to see your brother’s hair turn white with the shock of the everything his body went through, and that that even when you’re full of the constant fear of hearing more bad news, not even blind terror can stop the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing boredom of hours spent in a hospital room, watching tubes of your brother’s blood being filtered out of his body and put through dialysis.

But that's not what this story is about. Yes, my brother lost his leg in a motorbike accident, but what’s important is how he coped with it. Jon is the single biggest inspiration to me, to our family, and to his many friends.

Put yourself in his situation – you’re 23, extremely physically active and fit, recently married and you’ve just lost your leg from the thigh down. You’d be excused for sacking off life in general and spending a year in a small room, full of bitterness, raging at the world. I would. Jon never did.

Even when he was really sick in hospital, barely conscious and unable to raise his head off the pillow, he was still trying to speak French to the doctors. I have hardly ever heard him complain, even though now he still gets extreme nerve pain, for which he takes painkillers with unpleasant side effects.

As soon as he could go back to work, he did, going on to become a director of a private bank, and turning down an office on the ground floor because he didn’t want any special treatment.

He has three children now – Max, eight, and three year old twins, Daisy and Stella, and I think they’re very lucky to grow up with a dad like him.

Jon uses an extremely high-tech prosthetic leg with an ‘intelligent knee’ that knows when to bend when going upstairs, for example, and turned down a flesh coloured casing on this because he didn’t want people to wonder if it was prosthetic or not – he was happy for them to know. (On an aesthetic note, the blue steel ‘bionic leg’ looks pretty bloody cool as well, as Max and his friends will attest!)

He goes canoeing with his son, goes for long walks with my sister’s dog and judges the surf competitions that he isn’t able to compete in any more.

He has a water leg, and uses that to go out body boarding in rough water, alone – nothing can dent the ‘no fear’ attitude of the Burrows family!

During a stag do, he was told that he wouldn’t be able to take part in the go-karting because his prosthetic leg meant that he couldn’t use the brake – so he went without using the brakes and beat everyone else’s times.

When people ask me what my brother is like after such a traumatic accident, that’s the story I tell, because it entirely embodies his awesome attitude – he has never let what happened to him and subsequent ‘disability’ (I use inverted commas because I genuinely do not think of him as disabled, even though the sticker on his car says otherwise) stop him from doing anything he wants to do.

Obviously, the accident has taken its toll on Jon and our family – to pretend otherwise would be to trivialise it. My mum still struggles to discuss the time in hospital without getting upset.

But while it’s easy to curse our bad luck (my dad broke his neck in a bike accident a year before Jon's accident, but made a full recovery), it’s also easy to remember that we are very blessed. Not only do we have a close, and loving family, we have Jon when we nearly didn’t have him at all.

More than that, we have someone who is an inspiration every single day, without even realising it. Typically, when I asked Jon if I could write about this, he said, ‘of course, but I’m not sure I’m that inspiring.’

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