A Skye man is set to mark a year’s service with the Portree fire brigade next month having overcome a series of life-threatening injuries endured from a 90-foot fall at one of the island’s beauty spots.
George Jefferson-Spear (23), who works behind the bar at the Portree Hotel, was visiting the viewing platform at Lealt Falls, north of the Old Man of Storr, with best friend Rachel Wilson when the horrific accident occurred in May 2019.
Speaking to the Free Press this week, George recounted his disbelief at waking up in hospital after coming out of an induced coma, paid tribute to his family, friends and the local community for his recovery, and talked about his appreciation for life two years on from the fall which had left him with a broken skull and unable to walk.
“If I am honest with you, I still don’t even know what happened myself,” said George, seeking to paint a picture of the accident.
“My friend Rachel saw me going round the corner, and I remember her shouting, ‘be careful’, and I said ‘I will’, but I wasn’t and then two weeks later I woke up in hospital in Aberdeen.
“I think I slipped, it could have been something as simple as putting my foot in the wrong place, or the ground giving way.
“We were up on the platform, and I walked back down towards the old mine at the bottom. I had gone off the path at that point – there is a fence there now, but it wasn’t there at the time. I was at the other side of where that is now, towards the edge, as something had caught my eye.
“It looked like a trig point, I really wanted to see it, but of course I never did.”
Piecing together what happened next from different accounts of the accident, he said: “I managed to tumble all the way down and ended up in the river below, my bottom half was in the water.
“The paramedics said were it not for that then I probably would have bled out, as the cold water running around my hips and waist slowed down my blood flow. Had it been a hot day that would have been the end of things.
“Aaron, a policeman from Dunvegan, managed to get down to the water to see me. I saw him when I got back from hospital to thank him, and he told me that I was quite energetic following the fall, and that I was standing up, trying to shake his hand and introduce myself!”
He added: “I don’t remember anything, of course, as I was in shock and probably high as a kite on adrenaline. I think I was conscious until I was taken away in the helicopter, and that’s when they plugged me into the machines and put me into an induced coma.”
The helicopter flew George from Lealt to Raigmore Hospital in Inverness, where he spent time in the intensive care unit and underwent an MRI scan and x-rays. He was then transferred by helicopter to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
“I was in an induced coma for seven days,” he said.
“They tried to pull me out of the coma after four days but I didn’t react very well to it, I started panicking and trying to pull out all the wires, so they put me back in for another three days.
“In the week following that my grandparents, my brother, and my step-dad all came to visit me, but I have absolutely no memory of that to this day.
“A week later my friend Rachel and her dad Gary came to see me. It was then that I woke up from a nap and asked my mum, who was also sitting next to me too, ‘What’s going on, mum? Where am I?!’”
George’s mum explained to him about his fall, but he struggled to take it all in at first.
He said: “I didn’t believe her, I refused to accept that it had happened to begin with.”
George was then informed of the extent of his injuries which were numerous and severe.
“I had two broken vertebrae, a broken skull, a broken shoulder,” he said. “I had completely snapped the right-hand side of my jaw off. I also had lacerations to my lungs, and my hips, and cuts and bruises all over me.”
He spent four weeks in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary before he was discharged and able to return home to Skye.
“I had to do certain tests to see if I could get out and be okay in the big bad world after suffering brain injury and head trauma,” he said.
“I stayed with my mum for a week and a half when I first got back because the stairs at my home in Portree were considered to be dangerous. She had to give me blood-thinning injections during that time just as a precaution to prevent clots.”
George engaged in physiotherapy sessions in order to repair the ligaments and tendons in his neck which had ripped during the fall.
“My confidence took a really big knock after the accident. I was a lot more introverted and not willing to do things.
“I had completely ruined the muscles in the left side of my neck, so it took a lot of work to get them back to work, my shoulder was broken so I had to do work on that too to get it back up to speed.
“The physio worked a treat and helped a lot. Around August time I was able to take the neck brace off.”
After gradually returning to work, George’s next goal came in February 2020 when he enrolled to join the fire service.
“I went to Invergordon to undertake a general fitness exam, involving a bleep test, kit carries and climbing ladders. I had a full consultation with the fire service doctor – they asked me if there was anything I wanted to tell them, so I told them about the accident. I didn’t have any problems physically at all, though, and passed the test.”
He then went on to pass a two-week training course in Newburgh in May 2020, before signing a contract in June that year to serve as a retained firefighter for 90 hours a week.
Talking about his time with the service so far, he said: “It had been a bit quiet during lockdown, but this year with the falasgairs — the wildfires — I was really busy.
“I joined to do my bit for the community. I was confronted by a really bad experience and wasn’t myself at all, but when I came back here my friends, family, work colleagues, and the community wrapped its arms around me, picked me up, dusted me off, and put me back on the saddle.
“Rachel had to be the person responsible for helping me get out of that situation, and she did a great job. I will forever be thankful to her for it.”
Touching on how the accident has changed him, he said: “I had always moaned about this and that, but now I appreciate how precious and how good life is.
“The fire brigade has been a big part of that as well. I have been with them for a year now, and it has been great.”
He added: “My family is really proud of me and how far I have come.
“Two years ago I couldn’t stand or walk, but here I am now, climbing ladders, fighting fires, and getting cows out of bogs!”