Otago Daily Times

Mu­si­cian’s long road back from bro­ken neck

Moun­tain bike in­juries

- LUCY WILKINS Sports · Dunedin · New Zealand · Wellington, New Zealand · Otago · London · Christchurch

HIS cher­ished oboe in his lap, Nick Cor­nish could not lift a fin­ger to hold it. The Dunedin pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian, a man who had lived and breathed mu­sic his whole life, was dis­traught.

The weight of it was too much for his weak­ened hand; his fingers could not move to play the keys; his spir­its had sunk.

‘‘I was ut­terly crushed by that,” he says.

‘‘I prob­a­bly thought at that stage that it was maybe the end of my oboe­play­ing ca­reer. That was hard.’’

Cor­nish had bro­ken his neck about six months ear­lier.

It was Novem­ber 2015, and he had gone to a moun­tain bike park with his broth­ers­in­law, in­ter­ested to try out a full­sus­pen­sion bike at a demon­stra­tion day. The trio had agreed to meet at the top of a track. Im­pa­tient when they didn’t turn up, Cor­nish headed off on a track alone.

‘‘Of course, I should have waited,’’ he says in hind­sight, five years later.

He re­mem­bers hav­ing a great time, ‘‘go­ing per­haps a lit­tle faster than I should have been’’.

He ap­proached a spot on the track with two humps. ‘‘And be­fore I knew it, I was el­e­vated right in the air and head­ing for the sec­ond hump. ‘‘Un­for­tu­nately, my weight was in­cor­rectly bal­anced on the bike, and my body was go­ing for­wards over the han­dle­bars.

‘‘I had no time to put my hands down, and so my head hit the ground ex­tremely hard.

‘‘It was a shock­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. I was just to­tally trau­ma­tised.’’

As he lay on the ground, with a pow­er­ful tin­gling in his arms and fingers, his first thought was that he would be OK be­cause he could move his feet and wig­gle his toes.

‘‘My sec­ond thought was I won’t be able to play with the New Zealand Sym­phony Or­ches­tra the fol­low­ing week, be­cause I was due to go up to Wellington to play with them.’’

It would be two years be­fore Cor­nish would play on a stage again.

But first his fam­ily had to

In the Otago re­gion, there have been 4972 ACC claims for moun­tain bik­ing­re­lated in­juries in the past five years.

In the past five years there have been 37,065 ACC claims for moun­tain bike­re­lated in­juries in New Zealand, which came at a cost of $88 mil­lion.

In 2019 alone there were 7317 ACC claims for moun­tain bik­ing in­juries, the high­est in the past five years, which cost $21.8 mil­lion to help peo­ple re­cover.

han­dle the un­ex­pected sit­u­a­tion of him be­ing in­jured, be­ing flown to hos­pi­tal, and then the un­known of what lay ahead.

‘‘The shock that res­onates is more with the fam­ily than the in­di­vid­ual. I didn’t have any choice but to sit there and let ev­ery­body do what they had to do to help me re­cover,’’ he says.

Al­though he had bro­ken and dis­lo­cated his neck, it was the re­sult­ing nerve dam­age in his arm that caused him great­est dis­tress. The dam­age meant the mus­cles were not be­ing fired up as they should be, he says, leav­ing his hand ‘‘to­tally weak’’.

Cor­nish is a pro­fes­sional oboe player, trained at Lon­don’s pres­ti­gious Royal Col­lege of Mu­sic. He teaches five types of wood­wind in­stru­ment. He plays sax­o­phone, is a jazz im­pro­viser, and the mu­si­cal director of the Dunedin City Jazz Or­ches­tra. He also plays in sev­eral groups around Dunedin. His two adult chil­dren are pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians over­seas.

Af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Cor­nish was dev­as­tated when it seemed as if his oboe­play­ing days might be over. The re­al­i­sa­tion hit home when he first picked up the oboe af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

‘‘I just found it al­most im­pos­si­ble [to play], and so de­press­ing and de­flat­ing. I re­mem­ber many times just stop­ping be­cause I couldn’t stand it. The re­al­i­sa­tion was too much for me.

‘‘But I didn’t stop try­ing, I did keep pick­ing it up.’’

He com­mit­ted to the re­hab, with swim­ming, gym work­outs, physio and hand ther­apy to re­build mus­cle tone and strength.

‘‘I took that on very se­ri­ously, be­cause I re­alised that was the only way back, I had, mostly to get fit again, but also to get my oboe play­ing back.’’

ACC has played a lead­ing role in his re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, pro­vid­ing training for his in­de­pen­dence pro­gramme.

The goals for Cor­nish’s pro­gramme were re­turn­ing to his work as a mu­sic teacher, re­turn­ing to his role in the or­ches­tra and re­turn­ing to moun­tain bik­ing. This re­quired speech lan­guage ther­apy, phys­io­ther­apy, psy­chol­ogy, oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy in­put and hand ther­apy.

ACC also sup­ported his re­cov­ery with a spe­cial glove to strengthen his hand.

‘‘The glove was the first im­pres­sion I got that I could get my play­ing back. That was just so en­cour­ag­ing to me, to think that this could work. It wasn’t perfect, but it was get­ting there.’’

The glove even­tu­ally meant he could re­turn to the or­ches­tra, af­ter a suc­cess­ful au­di­tion, ini­tially wear­ing it for re­hearsals and con­certs.

‘‘I was just ab­so­lutely stoked to be able to play again, and to feel yes, I’m nearly back. I wasn’t quite there . . . but I knew there was light at the end of the tun­nel.’’

He used the glove for about a year, and now plays with­out it.

En­cour­age­ment from med­i­cal staff at Bur­wood Spinal Unit, Christchur­ch, also buoyed his spir­its.

‘‘There was one won­der­ful doc­tor at Bur­wood who said to me: ‘Never give up. There is still hope that you can get your play­ing back’.

‘‘I’ll never for­get his en­cour­ag­ing words. That made a huge dif­fer­ence to me. He en­cour­aged me to think as­pi­ra­tionally. Also, he said: ‘be ex­cited about every day, feel ex­cited about some­thing’.

‘‘And that was amaz­ing to have some­body say that when you are re­ally low in your whole feel­ing and at­ti­tude to life, and ev­ery­thing.’’

But still, the 18 months of re­cov­ery felt like an age.

And it was not just his mu­si­cal life that he was strug­gling to re­gain. To many peo­ple’s sur­prise, he was keen to get back on his bike, too.

❛ I didn’t have any choice but to sit there and let ev­ery­body do what they had to do to

help me re­cover

 ?? PHO­TOS: SHANE BOULTON ?? Re­cov­ered . . . Dunedin mu­si­cian Nick Cor­nish broke his neck while moun­tain bik­ing.
PHO­TOS: SHANE BOULTON Re­cov­ered . . . Dunedin mu­si­cian Nick Cor­nish broke his neck while moun­tain bik­ing.
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