Mailman who was victim of speeding motorbike reveals how Thistle Foundation gym gave him his life back

John Cunningham works on his fitness at the Thistle Gym
John Cunningham works on his fitness at the Thistle Gym
Have your say

FOR John Cunningham his legs were his livelihood.

Today, perched rod-backed on a weight-lifting bench, curling hefty dumb-bells to his chest with apparent ease, no-one could ever imagine the former postman was a near recluse following a horrific accident nearly 15 years ago.

Gym user Margaret Hendry

Gym user Margaret Hendry

A distinguished black walking cane is now the only residual clue of the career-ending injury that nearly robbed him of his independence.

John’s world changed forever one morning delivering mail in Gilmerton Dykes Drive.

Stepping out from a garden path he was sent sprawling when a delinquent motorcyclist speeding along the pavement ploughed straight into him.

Aged just 43, John was hospitalised for two days but left facing a lifetime of chronic pain in his lower back and a career in tatters.

He returned to Royal Mail eight weeks later – restricted to light duties – but was medically retired in 2000 after accumulative absences crept up to 15 months in the three years since the accident.

With his back condition in freefall, John was issued with a zimmer frame to help him get around the house, while his wife and son would have to assist in even his most intimate moments.

“Helping me into the shower and helping me on to the toilet, they gave up a lot to assist me in a lot of ways,” says John.

“I thought ‘this is going to be my life now’ and that I was looking at spending my time in a wheelchair.

“There was even talk about installing a stairlift in my house. That frightened me because I have always been a fit guy and used to enjoy fishing and ran a darts team that travelled the country.”

Last year, John hit rock bottom after suffering a series of “flare-ups” that would leave him almost paralysed, and was sliding into depression.

“I just couldn’t move at all,” he recalls. “Everything seizes up and you are just stuck there.

“I would get by for a few weeks but then it would come back again. My whole life had changed and I felt I was beginning to turn into a bit of a recluse.

“I didn’t want people to see me like I was and thought when I went out socially with friends I was spoiling their night because they were having to help me.

“I was still a young man but the things I enjoyed doing had fallen by the wayside.

“I had come to the conclusion that my life was finished.”

But during one of these debilitating episodes, a chance conversation with a member of the rapid-response medical team proved a pivotal moment in transforming his outlook – and his health.

John began attending a small gym in Craigmillar credited with turning round the fortunes of many people living with disabilities, mental illness or depression.

The Thistle Foundation gym employs a genuine open-door policy, with regular users suffering from a range of different ailments and aged from 18 to 80 years of age.

A team of professional staff and volunteers provide physiotherapy, fitness advice and health coaching as well as relaxation techniques and Tai Chi.

It boasts a membership of 450 and receives 40 medical referrals each month.

But, undeniably, its core strength is the attitude of its mixed membership.

“The fact is everyone here has problems and there’s no-one who is super fit,” says John.

“I had been to other gyms in the past but felt totally out of place. If you asked for help the staff only seemed interested in the fit people there rather than people with disabilities.

“I thought this would be along the same lines but could not believe how everyone went out of their way to help you.

“If you come in here feeling a bit down you always leave feeling better.”

Like most gyms across the city, there are peak hours and clients can be restricted to 20 minutes per machine at busy periods.

But uniquely, Thistle offers free gym use for people referred by health practitioners and launched a “Fit for Free” scheme between 10.30am and 1.30pm on weekdays for those on a limited budget but who were wanting to make use of its facilities.

Costing an annual subscription of just £15, it is a generous deal for a gym located in one of the most deprived areas of the Capital.

Testament to this strategy, numbers have doubled since the scheme was introduced in 2009.

The Thistle gym is run by a management team and a handful of salaried physios and instructors. But it is the volunteers who help create the homely ambiance that pervades throughout the centre.

Most of the voluntary team started off as users themselves but became so immersed in the can-do culture and “friendliness” around the place, they elected to give something back to new members tentatively coming through the doors – in greater numbers every year.

As a member for little over a year, John feels his life has turned a corner owing to the help, support and companionship he receives at the gym.

He says: “I still can’t walk any distance at all but I am noticing that when I go for the paper in the morning it takes me half an hour where it used to take me an hour.

“Everything I’m doing here is to combat that and it’s made a big difference because I’m able to get out now into the street and talk to people.

“I thought before my life had ended but I’m starting to aspire to new things now. I can see there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

“I wish I had known about it a few years back, it probably could have saved me a lot of heartache.”