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Teenager told he’d never be able to move again set to walk West Highland Way

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THREE years ago, Connor Docherty was paralysed from the neck down after a horrendous rugby injury … now he’s going to walk the West Highland Way.

The teenager had broken his neck and badly injured his spinal cord in a tackle and was warned he might never be able to move again.

But now the 19-year-old is to attempt the gruelling 96-mile route to raise cash for the Murrayfield Centenary Fund, which helps rugby players whose lives have been devastated by spinal injuries.

He already has nearly £5000 of sponsorship with more flooding in.

The Paisley student is also walking the famous route in memory of former Scottish Rugby Union boss Bill Hogg who died suddenly this year and who gave Connor endless help.

Connor, who is studying electrical and mechanical engineering at Strathclyde University, said: “Being told you might never have any movement from the shoulders down or walk again, never mind run or play rugby, is shocking.

“It takes a while to sink in and you have a lot of time to think lying there.

“Of course, there are moments where you wish it had never happened, but there is no point in looking back.

“You just have to deal with it.

“But to be where I am today about to walk the West Highland Way is incredible. A few years ago, that would have been unthinkable and I am really excited, if a bit nervous, about it”.

Connor started playing rugby in second year at St Aloyisus’ College in Glasgow. He said: “I loved all sports but especially football and rugby.”

Then in January 2008, in a first 15 match against Edinburgh Academy, Connor made a tackle that would change his life forever. He said: “I don’t remember too much but I think I went in for an ordinary tackle, except my head must have been in the wrong position. I was out cold for a while and then in and out of consciousness.

“I don’t remember pain. I couldn’t really feel anything. I was taken away in an ambulance and then I just remember seeming to sleep a lot.”

Connor was taken to hospital in Edinburgh, then transferred to the spinal unit at Glasgow’s Southern General Hospital for tests.

He said: “I remember thinking that things weren’t right and I was obviously quite concerned.

“But at the same time, I just wasn’t really sure what was happening.”

It wasn’t long before doctors gave Connor the terrible news that he might be paralysed from the shoulders down.

The teenager said: “It was a huge shock and my family were all upset.

“But it is almost too much to take in.

“It was depressing and I was lying thinking about all the things I might not be able to do again. But at least I had friends and family around me.

“You lie in bed and try and move your arm or leg but they just don’t work. It is a strange, surreal feeling.”

A week after the accident, Connor underwent 11 hours of surgery to fix the damaged vertebrae by fusing them back together using titanium and a bone graft from his hip.

He said: “It was to reconstruct the neck but they said there was nothing they could do to fix the spinal cord. It’s that which causes lack of movement.”

After the op, Connor began the long process of rehabilitation, which at first simply involved being helped out of bed and into a chair.

Gradually, he began to notice sensation returning to his arms.

He said: “It was something which happened little by little. But once you become aware of it, it gives you hope.”

Working hard at rehab, Connor soon had full use of his arms and sensation began to return to his legs as well.

He said: “It was hard going, doing rehab every day. It could be exhausting but I just wanted to keep going.

“There were moments of frustration but they were fleeting and you just have to deal with it.”

Six months after his accident, Connor walked out of hospital on crutches. He said: “What an amazing feeling to finally leave hospital and to be doing it on my own feet. By then, I was much stronger and much more confident about the things I could do.

“Of course, I knew things were going to be different and my goals were going to change.

“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to play rugby again or do the other sports I enjoyed, but you just have to get to grips with it.”

A couple of weeks later, Connor rejoined his rugby teammates on a tour of South Africa.

He should have been playing in a schools tournament but Connor was delighted just to be able to be among his friends once again.

He said: “It was great just to go, even if only to support them.”

Having been in hospital for six months, Connor had also missed a lot of school work.

But with the same determination he put into his rehab, he went back to school to finish his Highers and started university in 2009.

He said: “I honestly don’t really know what I want to do but I am just enjoying university.

“I manage fine there because there are plenty of lifts and things. All the lecturers understand if I am a few minutes late for class.”

After leaving hospital, studies took up a lot of Connor’s time and he wasn’t dedicating quite as much energy to his rehab as he might have done.

But that all changed last September when Connor met his new physiotherapist, Eilidh Dorrian.

Suddenly Connor went from having just one session of physio a month to three or four a week.

Eilidh also introduced him to the idea of having a goal and the idea of walking the West Highland Way together was born.

She said: “I think what Connor has achieved is amazing and he has been fantastic to work with.

“Once we have done the West Highland Way, I want to set new goals as there are plenty of things, such as cycling, which are easily achievable.

“There will be line drawn by his body because of his injury, but we won’t know what that is until we try.

“The first time we went walking, he had terrible problems with cramps and spasms, but now he copes brilliantly.”

Connor and Eilidh will set off on Monday from Fort William for seven days of hard walking with a large group of friends and family. He will use his crutch for most of the way.

He said: “I have a bad habit of walking looking at my feet so I need to remember to look up more and enjoy the scenery.”

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Samantha Booth

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