Interview With Jon Shields

Posted by Jeremy Windsor on Jul 16, 2021

In 2018 Jon Shields suffered a life changing injury following a fall from Pretty Face (E1 5b) on Curbar Edge. Despite surgery and extensive physiotherapy his left leg failed to heal and he subsequently underwent a below knee amputation. I caught up with Jon during lock down to talk about his recent experience and his hopes for the future.

Thanks Jon for taking the time to talk to us. Can I start by asking you to tell us about how you got into climbing?

My father was a keen climber so I spent a lot of my childhood at the bottom of crags and eventually climbed with him. I particularly remember climbing Lakeland classics such as Little Chamonix (VDiff), Ardus (VS 4b) and Fool's Paradise (VS 4c) at about the age of 11. We moved to the Peak District and that sealed the deal - I became something of a Gritstone addict! I have also climbed snow and ice in the UK and further afield in the Alps.

In March 2016 climbing stopped after you fell whilst at home. Can you recall what happened? What injuries did you sustain?

Whilst we were having a loft extension I took a head first fall from a second storey while inspecting the work that had been done. This resulted in multiple fractures to my hand, neck and skull. Altogether, I had 6 seperate bleeds on my brain. 

You mentioned when we first met that whilst your fractures healed quickly, the damage to your brain took time to recover. You were referred to a Head Injury Clinic in Derby but were reluctant to attend. What lay behind this? Did the Head Injury Clinic help?

Looking back there was some reluctance on my part to attend the Head Injury Clinic. This was because I was in denial. I simply did not think that I had a head injury and remember feeling rather embarrassed to be there. However initial tests, especially of short-term memory, showed that something was wrong. I attended the clinic for quite some time and it certainly helped prepare me to go back to work in May 2018 on a part-time basis. 

More than 4 years on from the injury I still continue to see my neuropsychologist every couple of months just to check that I'm keeping on the straight and narrow!

Despite these injuries you returned to climbing. Can you describe how you did this and the barriers you overcame? 

Yes, I made a fairly quick return to climbing - in particular on the grit! Initially it was very much about trying to cope with the injuries to my right shoulder and the fatigue, loss of balance and nausea caused by my head injury. The fatigue meant that a return to Alpine and winter climbing were not possible. This channeled my motivation and by the end of 2018 I had managed to get 3 grit E4s under my belt.

Jon's left leg just days after his fall from Pretty Face

Can I bring you to your most recent injury. What do you remember about the day? What damage did you do?

My most recent accident was on 27th January 2019. I was climbing a gritstone E1 called Pretty Face at Curbar. The route is about 8 metres high and has no gear. I was aware of this and had a friend spotting me with a bouldering mat. Unfortunately I fell from approximately 7 metres and missed the mat. My left foot hit a sharp block and I suffered an open compound fracture. My leg was shattered at the top of the ankle joint and both the tibia and fibula were broken in several places.  

You then spent several months in a wheelchair. You've mentioned before how difficult this was. What stood out from that time?

The wound opened up just before I was released from hospital towards the end of February. Due to the tightness of the skin the wound did not heal until some time in September. The seven months in a wheelchair was quite interesting as you really learn something when you try and walk a mile in somebody else's shoes. People taking their children to disabled toilets and not apologising. The feeling of belittlement as people are constantly looking down at you. The pedal bins in disabled toilets when you have no leg to open it. The list goes on...

The tightness in the skin around Jon's ankle is clearly visible. Skin breakdown and delayed wound healing meant further surgery was not possible

Can you describe the steps that lead up to the amputation?

The first operation was carried out on the 28th January 2019 and was meant to lay the ground for a second operation where a cage would be fitted around my broken bones. However further dirt and bone fragments needed to be removed and I was told that it was unsafe to move onto the next stage. Eventually, I was then asked to bring my wife in so we could have a conversation regarding the next step. Option 1 was to carry on and plan to have the cage fitted. However I was told that this wasn't promising as so much bone was missing. Option 2 was quite simply to remove the lower left leg below the knee. I was given a lot of information and asked to think it through. I met with staff who had worked with those with cages and amputees. In the end, the decision for me to remove the leg was quite straightforward and made with no emotion - possibly helped by my head injury - the leg was removed on February 15th 2020.

Can you talk me through how it felt in the days and weeks afterwards? You mentioned how uncomfortable it felt being amongst others who'd gone through similar surgery.

Yes, I did mention feeling uncomfortable when I met other amputees at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield. As awful as it sounds it was mostly because I still regarded myself as fit and healthy and not really disabled. I suspect that those I met had never been fit and healthy. I remember watching them smoke after the physio session whilst waiting for the bus! My situation improved with a visit to the Derby Amputee Centre and I felt much more confident in their care.

Jon leg following his below knee amputation

You also mentioned how COVID-19 has affected you - both directly and indirectly - can you tell us how?

Covid has been a strange time! The stump has shrunk and I was measured for a new prosthesis in March but due to Covid-19 I did not get this until July. This meant that longer walks had to be stopped as I was needing to wear four pairs of thick socks to pad it out! Having agreed with my wife never to trad climb outdoors again, the ban on indoor climbing meant that my options were limited. I had also booked to attend a climbing wall instructor course but this was also cancelled due to Covid-19. On the upside, this Summer I started to sports climb again with my wife. However she has now had to return to work so climbing time has reduced but it was a great start! I would still like to do the rock climbing instructors course and feel that I am capable of leading the severe grade. 

Jon climbing at the wall prior to the fitting of a prosthesis 

Financially, during this time it was difficult as a self employed hairdresser. My wife could not work and although she 3 three years worth of accounts and was eligible for the government scheme, it only paid 80% of her profit and not of the wage she paid herself. This resulted in her receiving only 2 weeks worth of money during the entire 3 month period.

In terms of the physical, you move very freely and confidently with prosthesis. How long did it take to move this well? Were there important milestones along the way?

I took to my prosthesis very quickly and was told on my first day that I was already at the stage most people had taken 6 weeks to achieve. Before the stump shrunk I had managed to walk 7 1/2 miles - but this was hard work and a little painful! Climbing was more difficult. Initially the prosthesis did not improve my ability to climb but I stuck with it and have managed to get an "Evolve" adapted foot. This has given me a lot more confidence with foot placement and I hope will improve things in the future.

What have you found to be the greatest challenges of your recovery?

To be fair the greatest challenge has been the head injury. Despite setbacks, the challenges with the leg are mostly mechanical and can be overcome. The fatigue from the brain injury is hard and has to be managed very carefully. Psychological  there's also the feeling that I have been written off by others. This is a huge challenge for me to overcome.

Jon climbing with his new prosthesis

You've described the fatigue you feel. Can you talk through a normal day and how that fatigue affects you?

A normal day is effectively a half day. I awake at 0730 and take medication with a cup of tea. I usually go back to sleep until about 1000 and will have an afternoon nap for two hours around 1500. I usually go to bed at 2200 but sometimes earlier. I can stretch this but struggle the next day with headaches and poor motivation. With the onset of fatigue my balance suffers and my speech starts to break down. I start to stutter and lose my words. It then becomes increasingly difficult to concentrate.

You've described the response you've had - some good, some bad. Not only from strangers but also those you knew before the accident. There's also, the relief and warmth you've felt from children who've been incredibly open and inquisitive. There's a paragraph in Rebuilt, an essay by Craig DeMartino in Alpinist 70, that reads,

"In the end I think what each of us really wants is to feel accepted in the form we come in. Broken, shattered or normal looks different on each of us, but we all need that acceptance to thrive."

Does that ring true?

We all need that acceptance to thrive. The feeling I have when people do not make eye contact because of the leg is one of dismissal and is sometimes quite hard. There is a joy however in the children who want to engage and ask. I can't stop their curiosity! Other than children I have found that others, mostly women, will want to speak to me about my leg. I do feel that I would much rather have a conversation regarding the leg and then move on. I know people must be curious but often hold back from asking!

Jon on the podium during the 2020 British Paraclimbing Championships

Finally, you're clearly incredibly passionate about climbing and the outdoors, what do you want to do in the future and how will you get there?

I am passionate about climbing and the outdoors. I believe I am, despite my age, a child at heart who longs for adventure. This longing never goes away and I will continue to climb. I'm less interested in the grade but more interested in the experience. I'm curious about what I can do with the leg! I still have alpine dreams - I very much would like to do the Frendo Spur! Sadly, I don't have a queue of potential climbing partners yet! Anyone keen?

Thanks Jon for answering my questions. Good luck with your ongoing recovery!

More on ankle fractures can be found here.

This moving video by Cam Campbell describes the long term effects of injuries suffered following a fall.

The benefits of long distance walking are described here

Do you eat enough protein? Read this and find out!

Managing inflammatory bowel disease in the mountains can be a challenge. See this post for more information.

If you would like to find out more about mountain medicine why not join the British Mountain Medicine Society? See this link for details.

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