Canoeist overcomes brain injury to offer hope

Canoeist Jonathan Riddell. Picture: comp
Canoeist Jonathan Riddell. Picture: comp
Have your say

A BEAUTIFUL Caribbean resort and the chance to spend time just enjoying his favourite sport – Jonathan Riddle really was in paradise.

The lush green surroundings of Guadeloupe’s chain of islands were matched by the crystal clear blue sea and the blindingly white beach sands. The pure azure lagoons and the
vibrant mangrove swamps offered opportunities galore for the one-time canoe champion to explore.

Jonathan had arrived full of plans to spend a long break fine-tuning and expanding his canoeing skills, absorbing the natural and unspoiled beauty of Guadeloupe and polishing his French.

Instead, he ended up in a hospital bed, thoughts reeling and his brain in trauma after a split-second car accident that would change his life.

Today Jonathan sits snug and comfortable in his canoe, canal water gently lapping at its sides and soothed by its motion. Being there comes as second nature. Tougher, he admits, can be the everyday, simple things – like putting a name to a face or finding his keys – constant reminders that his holiday souvenir from Guadeloupe is a frustrating,
untreatable brain injury.

He remembers driving on a road not unlike the notorious A9: “Cars were going at 60mph, it was a dual carriageway and in some places two roads cut right across, from one side to the other,” he says.

“I don’t remember what happened. I don’t know and I don’t care. I’d probably rather not know.”

What he is more clear on is that he came round three days later in a
hospital bed.

“It’s not like in films where you wake up all of a sudden and recognise the loved ones by your bed,” he points out. “I was drifting in and out of consciousness for a couple of days before I was fully conscious.

“And although it was a French hospital, it was a French hospital on a Caribbean island,” he adds.

Perhaps it was not quite equipped to deal with all the complexities of a brain injury, for Jonathan recalls being handed his medical notes, discharged and put in a taxi not terribly long after coming to.

He was so disorientated that he left the vital notes behind in the cab never to be seen again, and then retreated to his room where he lay in bed for several days, incapable of doing a single thing.

Alerted to what had happened, Jonathan’s father dropped everything to make his way across the globe to help him gather up his belongings and bring him home just as soon as he seemed fit enough to cope with the long-haul journey.

Back in Edinburgh, complete with eye patch to help tackle confusing double vision caused by a stretched muscle behind his eye, came what felt like a relentless succession of neurological tests and scans as doctors tried to see what, if anything, they could do to help.

“But that’s about all they can do,” adds Jonathan, wearily. “There are no pills you can take to make it better.

“I’ve seen countless doctors and specialists and there’s not even a specific name for my condition; head trauma, brain damage, concussion, it’s all pretty much the same thing. I’ve been told all I can do is look after myself and keep as active as possible.”

Time has helped. However, his particular brain injury has left him with various difficulties, though none, he admits, at the severe end of the scale but together adding up to a relentless, miserable combination of problems.

“I’m slowly getting better although my energy levels fluctuate from day to day and I get tired really easily,” he adds. “To some people who don’t know me I can appear a bit woozy or like I’ve had a really good night out on the drink the night before.

“Basically my brain just works more slowly than most people’s. It’s like the days you have when you think ‘where are my keys’ or ‘what’s her name again?’ That’s what I have to face every single day.

“I’ve fallen into a gap that affects many people with a brain injury – it might not destroy their life, but it does definitely make it harder. Charities and the NHS are able to provide help for you if you are badly affected, the rest of us just have to try to
get by.”

However, a determination not to simply “get by” spurred Jonathan on. An expert computer programmer, now 18 months after his accident he’s back working and has not only returned to the water to coach the next generation of canoe enthusiasts, but has helped secure a major National Lottery cash boost to give people living with brain injury and disability a chance to try the sport.

A £2000 award from BIG Scotland’s 21014 Communities programme meant Forth Canoe Club could purchase three high volume boats – designed to be easy to get in and out of – which are now being used to introduce newcomers to canoeing in swimming pool sessions and outdoors on the Forth and Clyde canal.

For Jonathan, 31, from Polwarth, who was a Scottish whitewater racing champion at 15 and former Scottish schools slalom champion, it’s a chance to share with others gripped by brain injury, the sport he’s loved since a child.

“Since my accident I have so much more empathy for young people who have a brain injury,” he adds. “I think there’s a real gap for people who appear to be not so obviously affected by what has happened to them and seem to be getting on with their lives.

“I know more than most that it can be a struggle and there’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

“That’s why I want to do my bit, however small, to help and possibly introduce them to something they grow to love as much as me.”

For more about Forth Canoe Club, go to BIG Scotland lottery news can be found at

‘Every 90 seconds in the UK’

FORMULA One star Michael Schumacher is still battling in hospital after suffering a head injury in a ski accident.

While he is a high-profile patient, across the UK around a million people are believed to be living with the long-term impact of a brain trauma. And every 90 seconds, someone in the UK is admitted to hospital with a head injury.

Men are twice as likely as women to sustain a long-term brain injury. And the effects can range from anxiety and depression, anger issues, problems with concentration and memory to physical symptoms such as epilepsy, sight and speech problems and paralysis.

According to brain injury support charity Headway, brain injury can place stress on relationships as families adjust to mood swings, depression and irritability linked to the injury.

Headway Edinburgh meets Monday to Thursday in a base within the grounds of Astley Ainslie Hospital and offers support and activities to people affected by acquired brain injuries.

Details from