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"I can dive to depths of more than 100m, but I can't make a bacon and egg sandwich" Main Image

"I can dive to depths of more than 100m, but I can't make a bacon and egg sandwich"

Wed 31 Oct 2018

A passionate scuba diver whose devastating brain injury ended his career and almost wrecked his marriage, has been shortlisted for a national award.

James Neal's brain injury drastically changed his personality and turned his life upside down. But his passion to scuba dive once again has helped him to turn his fortunes around.

Now, he has been named as one of three finalists for Headway - the brain injury association's Alex Richardson Achiever of the Year Award, sponsored by Slater and Gordon Lawyers.

"When I found out I was a finalist I was lost for words," said James. "To hear that I have inspired other people is just seriously cool."

Days before Christmas 2013, Dimple Neal arrived home to find her husband unconscious on the floor having suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a bleed on the brain.

James, 49, was rushed to Frenchay Hospital, where he underwent immediate surgery to stop the bleed, while his loved ones were told to prepare for the worst, he was not expected to survive the night.

James pulled through the surgery, but his life was changed forever.

He was left with short-term memory loss, had difficulty thinking logically, making decisions, and being rational.

He struggled to find his words and was overwhelmed with fatigue. He could no longer run his business, and his marriage was pushed to the limits.

"He quickly became angry, having outbursts that I thought would end our marriage," said Dimple. "The dynamics of our relationship had completely changed and we were struggling."

James' inability to filter his thoughts made him blunt and direct and as a result he was kicked out of one of the two diving clubs he attended, shattering his confidence.
Crushed and reduced to tears, James took a huge step back in his recovery.

"People knew I had sustained a brain injury but because I looked fine they were unwilling to accept that I was struggling," said James. "That's the problem with brain injury - it's a hidden and fluctuating disability.

"My wife says everyone else gets nice James, while she's a work, but she comes home to the fall out. I struggle to manage my fatigue and emotions, it's like Jekyll and Hyde.

"My wife is remarkable, I don't know how she does it. I love her to bits."

James Neal

Thankfully, Cheltenham Sub-Aqua Club were understanding of his injury, and once given the go-ahead by doctors, helped him get back on his feet.

"My neurological doctors didn't know anything about diving, and my diving doctors didn't know anything about brain injury, but I put them in touch with each other and I'm really grateful they worked together to support me," said James.

Eventually James' doctors gave him to go ahead to dive again. But getting back in the water wasn't easy.

"For the first half a dozen dives I was absolutely terrified," said James. "I would break out in a cold sweat. Even though it couldn't happen, I was worried the pressure would cause me to have another brain bleed.

"But diving is my identity. If I couldn't dive I don't know who I would be. It was my passion that pulled me through."

Although James lost many of his life skills as a result of his brain injury, his knowledge of diving was still there.

"All of my worries and concerns disappear as my head drops below the surface," he said. "I basically go into autopilot.

"As a result of my injury, I can only focus on one thing at a time. When I'm diving I focus on that and everything else is gone. On dry land there are always too many things going on at once and I can't focus on doing anything.

"I’m qualified to dive to depths of 100 metres plus, carrying multiple cylinders, breathing gases that would be deadly if inhaled at the wrong depths. But I can't make a bacon and egg sandwich without ruining it, it makes no sense."

James is now among the top 1% of divers world-wide, with no limit to the depths he can dive to. He is also an elite diving instructor and has found a sense of purpose through helping others to better themselves in the sport that means so much to him.

In September 2017, James organised a 24-hour scubathon with fellow divers to raise awareness of brain injury.

The incredible event was months in the planning, a challenge in itself for a brain injury survivor.

James poured his heart and soul into the event, which went off without a glitch, and raised an incredible £8,000 for Headway Gloucestershire.

Alison Hendley, Manager of Headway Gloucestershire, said: "We're absolutely delighted that James has been named as finalist.

"To achieve elite diving status is an incredible achievement, but like many survivors, James still struggles with day-to-day tasks. We're so pleased that he's raising awareness of the hidden effects of brain injury, through events like the scubathon.

"The money he has raised has helped us to support more brain injury survivors and their loved ones at such a difficult time in their lives."

Each year, the Headway Annual Awards celebrate the exceptional efforts of survivors of brain injury and their carers.

James will find out whether he will win the Alex Richardson Achiever of the Year Award, sponsored by Slater and Gordon Lawyers, at a glittering ceremony at The Dorchester Hotel, London, on Friday, 7 December.

Awards for Carer and Volunteer of the Year will also be presented, alongside the Stephen McAleese Outstanding Contribution to Headway Award.

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Headway - the brain injury association is registered with the Charity Commission for England and Wales (Charity no. 1025852) and the Office of the Scottish Regulator (Charity no. SC 039992). Headway is a company limited by guarantee, registered in England no. 2346893.

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