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Always believe in the dream

How, after brain injury, Sean Dolan has returned to his dream career as a teacher

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After brain injury forced Sean Dolan to give up the teaching job he had always wanted only weeks after it began, he resolved he would never give up on his ambition. Ten years later, he has returned to his role as a teacher and marked the anniversary of that life-changing moment with an extreme fitness challenge to raise money for the hospital that saved his life.

NR Times speaks to the inspirational survivor, who discusses his journey, the impact of exercise, and why he struggles to acknowledge his recovery is ‘a big deal’

On October 25, 2013, Sean Dolan’s life changed forever.

A newly-qualified teacher, having just completed his first half term in his new role, he was playing indoor five-a-side football when he fell into a wall.

From playing football with friends as he had done countless times before, he was left unconscious, with a fractured skull and bleed on the brain.

Sean was rushed to James Cook University Hospital on Teesside, placed in an induced coma and forced to undergo a craniectomy.

One minute a 25-year-old man in the prime of his life, pursuing his dream career, and the next fighting for survival and facing a recovery where his parents were warned would probably see him lose the use of his left side, and he may not regain full independence.

But from that utter devastation for him and his family has come a recovery his consultant at James Cook has described as a “miracle”.

Ten years on, Sean is a teacher at a Teesside primary school, having resumed the career he loved and always aspired to, through a sheer determination to never give up on his dream.

And having become a prolific fundraiser for the intensive care and specialist neuro wards at James Cook – which he credits with saving and rebuilding his life – Sean has completed his toughest challenge yet.

On the anniversary and for the following ten days, Sean completed his Ten for Ten challenge – a series of gruelling physical challenges, from a marathon to a ten-hour football match, all of which have deep personal meaning attached to them.

“Exercise has been really important for my recovery, for both my mental and physical health, and now it has given me a way of raising money for the hospital that enabled me to rebuild my life,” says Sean, from Billingham.

“There has been a lot of proving myself worthy on this journey, both to myself and to the people who have helped me in my recovery – so fundraising gives me a way to give back, and show what I can do.”

The journey back into teaching

For Sean, being a teacher was his dream. Having graduated from Durham University, he secured a job at a primary school in his native Teesside.

After an enjoyable first half term made him realise this was the career for him, everything changed in an instant during a game of five-a-side.

Having been in a coma, and needing part of his skull replaced with a titanium plate, Sean spent 59 days in hospital in total – but while his recovery was only just beginning, he was desperate to defy the odds and return to the classroom.

“In hospital, I was told that I may need to prepare for life where I might not work again,” recalls Sean. “And that was a really bad time. In my head, I was only prepared to accept that I had recovered successfully when I was teaching again. I had to go back to it.

“But, as with recovery from brain injury in general, it has been a journey. It’s been very much backwards and forwards. It has been a big learning experience.

“When I did feel ready to go back into school, I had to spend time as a teaching assistant, doing staggered periods of work. When I was cleared to go back into teaching, I took the first job possible, and it was too soon.

“Then you have to take a step back – and you feel everything is going backwards. It has been a journey with some difficult times along the way.”

However, having taken the step back he needed, Sean found himself ready to move forwards again – and took a role with his current school, where he has been for three years.

“It took me six years to find the right school, but it’s all going well so far and I’m happy here,” he says.

“Things aren’t always as straightforward and as you’d hoped they would be. But you have to keep going, and you can get there.”

As well as returning to the career he loved and everything he had worked so hard for, Sean also sees his resumption of teaching as a debt of gratitude to those who saved his life and have supported him since.

“I felt almost like I owed it to the people who saved me to get a life that was worth of the recovery I’d made, of the recovery they had helped me with,” says Sean.

“There has been a lot of proving along the way, and a lot of proving that I’m worthy. I have suffered a lot with imposter syndrome over the years, and survivor guilt too. A lot of my fundraising is about proving myself worthy of my recovery, as well as the fact I am teaching again.

“But although I am teaching, I’m still not sure I can ever fully accept what happened. There are peaks and troughs. I look at the friends I had at the time of the accident, and where they are now compared to me. I do feel I have fallen behind everyone else.”

Sean has now reached a point where he is comfortable in discussing his story, and in sharing it for the good of others – although he can never see a time where he is able to be seen as an ‘inspiration’.

“I have been through times where I hated talking about what happened, but now I’m quite happy to share it, as hopefully it can be a positive for somebody else – but I’ll never volunteer myself to do that,” he says.

“I don’t really view it as a big deal. I think that if I got through it, then most people could have done the same. It’s probably a defence mechanism, but I really struggle to take any compliments of any form. I don’t see what I have done as being anything different to what anyone else could have done.

“I do tend to play it down, but if it helps someone else, then I’m happy to discuss it.

“I’m from a small community where everyone knows everyone else, which does bring its own problems because everyone knows what has happened to you already. But I have been lucky with the support I’ve had, particularly around the fundraising and people wanting to help with that.

“When I’ve done fundraising events in the past, like a 24-hour football match I organised, there were probably 80 people taking part in that. I’ve got people from the community joining me in some of my latest challenges.

“It does show that support is there, and that’s great to know.” 

Giving back and proving what’s possible

Having organised four anniversary fundraising events in the ten years since his accident, and taken part in many more initiatives to raise money for South Tees Hospitals Charity – collectively raising well in excess of £10,000 – Sean’s Ten for Ten fundraiser is a hugely ambitious ten-day physical challenge to celebrate his recovery.

All ten challenges, completed over ten consecutive days from October 25, have personal meanings to Sean.

From the marathon – which covers the route the ambulance took from the site of the accident, to North Tees and then James Cook hospitals – to the 59k cycling challenge, which took place ten years to the day of his injury in James Cook hospital where fought for life, to two football matches to bring in his love of the game he was injured playing, everything is tailored specifically around the milestone anniversary.

As the date falls within term time – often the half term holiday has begun by October 25, as it had in 2013 – children from Sean’s class and others within the school were sponsored to take part in a Joe Wicks-a-thon. 

While delivering an ideal fundraising opportunity, the physical activity has been chosen to mark its significance in Sean’s ongoing recovery.

“Pre-accident I was always sporty, but I’ve never been in the shape I’m in now. It has been a journey, which has probably been as important for my mental health as for my physical health,” says Sean.

“I was in hospital for 59 days and I lost muscle through being bedbound. Then I went home and adopted the approach of ‘Well, I did nearly die, so I will have that takeaway, I will have that chocolate bar’. But then I ballooned.

“Exercise has been really important. The fundraising has been great, but when I entered my first Olympic length triathlon a year after the accident, it was probably as much to show that I could do it, having been warned a year earlier that I might lose the use of my left side.

“That first triathlon was my way of proving that I could do it. And from there I started doing the Great North Run, which I’ve done every year since. It’s about showing what I can do, and knowing that I can do it. Exercise is something you can measure, and I like seeing improvement.”

One of the sponsors of his ten for ten fundraiser is Tees Neuro Physiotherapy, a specialist neurophysio which supports patients in their recoveries across the North East, Teesside and North Yorkshire regions, combining expertise with the latest in technology and robotic equipment to deliver life-changing progress.

Coincidentally, Sean’s physiotherapist from neuro Ward 26 at James Cook, Rahilla Pearson, now works at Tees Neuro Physiotherapy, giving a connection he never expected to find – and making the neurophysio practice an ideal partner for his challenge. Rahilla will join Sean on the 10k leg of his triathlon, and physio Rosie Warnett is planning to join the marathon.

“It’s fantastic I have met one of the people who taught me to walk again, and it comes back to that proving myself worthy of recovery and thanking those who helped me in that,” says Sean.

“I remember being told off when I was in hospital by my physios for trying to be too active – I’ve always wanted to get back to a point where I was doing the things I wanted to, and now I feel I am there. Their support in those early days has enabled me to get here.”

Victoria MacGregor, clinical director of Tees Neuro Physiotherapy, says: “Sean is so inspirational and shows what can be achieved, even when at times the outlook can seem really difficult. Returning to his job as a primary school teacher is such a massive achievement, and this Ten for Ten challenge is incredible.

“He has raised so much money over the years for James Cook, and this latest challenge is really taking that to the next level. It has taken so much organising and all of the events have such a personal reason behind them, and we are so pleased to be able to support him.

“Sean is an example to our clients here, and to other brain injury survivors, of what can be possible. With the right rehab and the commitment to overcome the obstacles, it just shows what can be done.”

To support Sean’s Ten for Ten challenge, click here.

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