Tetraplegic Bangor man volunteers at new therapeutic garden to support spinal injury patients

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Just over 25 years ago, student Derek Stockdale, now 51, from Bangor took advantage of a one day window of good weather on a rainy weekend, dived into a river, hit his head on a rock and lost all feeling.

The County Down man, who, in that instant became tetraplegic has returned to Musgrave Park Hospitals Spinal Injury Unit where he was rehabilitated to volunteer at a new therapeutic garden.

The fun day out with five friends in October 1997, while Derek was studying countryside management at Aberystwyth University in Wales, turned into a nightmare when the 25-year-old, who enjoyed an active lifestyle couldn't move.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

He had to hold his breath underwater until friends pulled him out. That day, changed his life forever. Derek is now giving up his spare time to help other patients adjust to their life changing circumstances and give them hope for the future.

Derek Stockdale in Horatio's GardenDerek Stockdale in Horatio's Garden
Derek Stockdale in Horatio's Garden

"If it helps just one other person," he says, "that would be brilliant."

Horatio's Garden in NI is the seventh to be built by UK-based charity Horatio's Garden which has ambition to sustainably grow thriving communities and bio-diverse gardens in all 11 NHS spinal injury centres in the UK.

It was created by nine times RHS Chelsea Flower Show medalist, Andy Sturgeon. His modern designs combine traditional materials and contemporary styling, known for their timeless architectural qualities, innovative planting and sculpture characteristics.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The garden was completed last Christmas providing a sanctuary outside hospital wards and clinical settings.

Special features inlcude a dedicated boccia court; a sport played by Paralympians; NI hopeful, Claire Taggart being a regular visitor. A first in any of the gardens the charity has built, it is located in a social area with parasols and sensory planting.

It also has a warm garden room with timber cladding, and a green roof and garden pods offering shelter, privacy and socialising spaces with a large greenhouse for garden therapy and growing.

Garden designer, Andy Sturgeon said: "It was an enormous privilege to be asked to design Horatio's Garden NI. As a garden designer, it's very unusual to get an opportunity to have such a positive and fundamental impact on people's lives.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"It's fantastic to have created this place that will foster wellbeing during long periods of rehabilitation and have a transformative effect on thousands of patients and their loved ones. This garden, I feel, is making a difference."

The garden set off by a beautiful water feature cost £1.46million in fudraising to build and will cost a further £100,000 per year to maintain.

Speaking from one of the outside pods, Derek told how the accident had left him paralysed with limited upper body movement in his arms and hands. He now uses a power chair and drives an adapted vehicle. HIs own lived experience, he believes, is of benefit to patients at the Spinal Injury Unit who are at a much earlier stage of their journey.

He said: "I should have been studying that day, but the weather had been rubbish and this day turned out to be a good one. Five friends were visiting from England so we decided to make the most of it and headed for a river in nearby countryside. We were all diving into the river in a certain spot. I moved across about a foot or so and dived in. The next thing I knew, I couldn't move and had to hold my breath to survive but still didn't fully understand the seriousness of it.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"I ended up in ICU in Aberystwyth and was then moved to the Spinal Unit in Oswestry in Shropshire, England. I was there from October to December when I was transported back by air ambulance to the Spinal Injuries Unit at Musgrave Park Hospital where I underwent physio and occupational therapy before moving back in with my parents in Bangor.

"I stayed there quite a while, 22 years I think, moving into my own place five years ago because I wanted my own independence. It took me a while to adjust and I have carers coming in at night and in the mornings to give me a hand getting dressed and back into bed."

It was a carer who told him about the new Horatio's Garden being built at the Spinal Injury Unit at Musgrave Park Hospital where he had been previously treated. Derek made enquiries and filled the paperwork in to volunteer. He was an ideal candidate having an interest in the garden, outdoors and countryside, in line with his degree.

"I enjoy volunteering and getting involved in things and helping to make connections with people. This type of injury can be isolating if you let it. I started by doing an induction and going through all the relevant Access NI safety checks and took up the role in September. Because of my limitations with movement, I garden a little bit by potting up in the green house but my ability to do that is limited.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

"What I enjoy doing is meeting other volunteers and encouraging them to get involved and of course meet some of the patients being treated in the Spinal Injuries Unit in the hope I can help people through my own experience adjust to whatever their own personal circumstances are. It really is a huge adjustment to make and is a very emotional process.

"People can say stupid things like, I know how you feel. They have good intentions but unless you have experienced this, you can't possibly know how it feels. The garden is an amazing resource now because Musgrave hasn't changed that much in many years. It opens the place up. You can have appointments in the pods or go out and socialise or play a game.

"People with life changing injuries need a bit more headspace. The pods allow people privacy to have a cry or meet a social worker. Couples can have lunch together in a nice environment and have their own privacy. It's a nice calming environment and a haven outside a clinical setting. If I can help a single patient, it will make the volunteering even more worthwhile."

Related topics:

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.