DIVING AMBITION; Paralysed in a horrific accident, climber Fraser Bathgate had given up on life – until he took the plunge.
Byline: KATRINA TWEEDIE EXCLUSIVE
FROM the dizzy heights of the soaring mountains he lived to climb, Fraser Bathgate could see his bright future stretching ahead of him.
But when a fall from a training wall left him paralysed from the waist down, his journey from the roof of the world to the bottom of a booze bottle was swift and tragic.
His spirit crushed, the 23 year old from Edinburgh, who had embraced each adrenaline-fuelled challenge, plunged to the depths of despair.
Fraser said: “It was like going from 500 miles per hour to full stop overnight. I was in a drunken stupor for most of that time and abused my painkillers.”
His anger over the lack of feeling in his useless legs was compounded by the bitter knot in his stomach and only drink and drugs could blot out the pain.
His reaction was not uncommon, but he admitted: “I did always tend to go overboard.”
Sitting comfortably in his wheelchair, Fraser, now 38, doesn’t look like a man at war with the world.
But the battle to regain his will to live was one he almost lost.
He explained: “My story took a change of direction in 1992. My sister Susan was concerned that nothing could shake me out of my depression and asked me to go on holiday to Dubai.
“I agreed, having nothing better to do and also thought it would be a good opportunity to get my head together after spending six long years in the foulest of moods.”
While there, a friend suggested they learn how to dive.
Fraser said: “At first I discounted it and told them not to be so ridiculous. I had completely given up on doing anything active again.”
But after some goading, Fraser reluctantly pushed away his hated wheelchair and fell into the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.
He recalled: “As I plunged into the water, I found I could do it. I was totally elated. The water supported me like a mother cradling a newly-born baby.
“Ironically, I found that my chair, the very object which gave me mobility on land, was totally redundant in the water.”
Within 24 hours, Fraser’s life had changed for the second time.
He said: “I had discovered something I could do on a par with my peers and be as good at, if not better.
“My old enthusiasm for life returned with a vengeance and in a short time, I passed my PADI Diving Instructors qualification and became the world’s first disabled diving instructor.”
His spiral to depression and subsequent recovery makes him seem horribly competitive, as if only danger makes his life worth living.
But denied his first passion, the reality is that Fraser is someone who discovered the hard way that a disability need not mean the end of adventure.
Ironically, the accident which destroyed his life happened not on a treacherous mountain, but a 25ft climbing wall.
That it was someone else’s fault made it even harder to bear.
He said: “If it had happened on a mountain and had been my own fault, I would probably have dealt with the situation a lot better.”
Fraser, who had given up a promising career as a chef to pursue his all – abiding passion to climb, was training for a Himalayan climbing expedition.
As he clambered up the training wall he slipped, but someone had stolen the equipment designed to break a fall.
Still cringing at the memory, he said: “I landed on both my heels, knocking them into my ankle, my ankle into my tibia and I compressed my spine.
Had he not bent his knees, doctors said his hips would have ended up where his shoulders are.
After numerous operations, the medics decided to tell him the truth.
He recalled: “They told me very matter of factly: ‘very sorry, but you’ll never walk again’.”
Refusing to admit that his once-strong legs, used to striding up mountains, were now useless, Fraser tried to force them to work – causing more damage.
He said: “I tried to get up and walk and made it even worse by falling over and compressing my back even more.”
After the accident, Fraser left London where he worked teaching outdoor and leadership skills to a management training company, and returned to Edinburgh to live with his mother, Christine.
He said: “I was stuck in a house up two flights of stairs which was pretty soul-destroying, especially since I’d been so active.
“I wasn’t getting up until mid-afternoon, if I got out of bed at all, then maybe having something to eat, then going to pub, where I would often stay until closing time.”
As his family looked on helplessly, Fraser descended into depression.
He explained: “When you are in that mental state, you don’t take anything in. I was angry and depressed and if you are in denial, the last thing you admit is that you need help.
“People used to ask me what I got out of climbing. It was the feeling of peace, the sense of achievement every time you conquer something, not to mention the views.”
Fraser’s devastation at losing it all was understandable.
He said: “I was on a rather slippery slope until my family managed to get me on the right track.”
As the world’s only paraplegic diving instructor, he has become something of a celebrity.
He attracted the attention of the Ford Motor Company, who sponsor his work teaching able-bodied diving instructors how to teach the disabled to dive.
Much as he revels in beating his depression and disability, Fraser refuses to let it engulf his life in the way climbing did.
As a climber, relationships had taken second place and after the fall, he resigned himself to a life alone.
That all changed when he met Blaire, a nurse, at a friend’s wedding in Ireland.
Fraser said: “Blaire has only ever known me in the chair so there was never any pretence, but we probably would not have ended up chatting if we’d met before my accident.”
The couple were engaged within six months and after their wedding five years ago, Fraser took Blaire, 35, to Dubai, where she too learned to dive.
The energy Fraser once channelled into climbing is now used to encourage others to embrace their life, despite their disability.
Taking the message to disabled people across the world is an expensive operation for which he is unpaid, but he raises funds tirelessly for the cause.
He is assisted by Ford’s new call-centre service, MAGIC, the Mobility and Information Centre, a one-stop shop for disabled people.
He said: “Diving is the only sport where you leave the chair behind and now, for people who thought it too expensive, it is more available to them than ever before.”