"My boss flew in from NY to visit me in intensive care"
Do you cycle into work in the City of London or Canary Wharf? You might want to take out personal accident cover. In June last year, Steven Dowd, the EMEA head of recruitment for BNY Mellon's Investment Management division, found out the hard way what happens when you don't.
"It happened in a split second on my way to work," Dowd tells us. "I struck a barrier and because I was clipped into my bike, the bike and I went over the top and I landed on my head. One moment, I was doing 10-12 hour days in the office, and continuing to work when I got home. The next, everything was completely different."
Compared to plenty of people in finance, Dowd wasn't even that into cycling. He was persuaded to take up the sport by a colleague who asked him to participate in the Ride London charity cycle race. "I'd only been out 10 or 15 times," says Dowd. "I was riding to meet my colleague for our daily commute when the accident happened."
Thanks to a cycling helmet, Dowd escaped brain damage, but the accident compressed his spinal cord midway down his neck (a C3 C4 spinal cord injury in the vernacular of paralysis). He was left tetraplegic, meaning that he has impaired movement in all four limbs, but it could have been worse. "My spinal cord was damaged," says Dowd. "I am now tetraplegic and have dysfunction in my arms and legs but I was very lucky. My spinal cord wasn't severed, but stretched and crushed. If you sever the cord, it's pretty much a done deal, but if you have an incomplete injury like mine, you can sometimes retrain your brain through neuro-plasticity and get some movement back."
When BNY Mellon learned what happened, Dowd says they were, "absolutely fantastic." His boss, based in NY, booked the next flight to London and came to visit him in intensive care. When he was discharged from the ICU to the high dependency unit, so many colleagues wanted to visit that Dowd organized a rota so that he could see two or four each day. When he returned home, Mitchell Harris, the president of BNY Mellon's Investment Management division came to see him. "I've felt massively supported," says Dowd. "It's been absolutely what I needed."
The accident was nearly a year ago and Dowd has since made exceptional progress. When he arrived by ambulance at London's St. George's Hospital his injury was described as severe. He had no feeling in his body and only reflex movement in his limbs. "I’d lost all sensation from the neck down. Only my heart, lungs, eyes and voice worked. I thought I would be a tetraplegic for the rest of my life," he says.
Dowd was lucky. As a young, fit man (he's 38), he was immediately entered into a trial for a new procedure that reduces pressure on the spinal cord and helps prevent nerve damage. He was also equipped with exceptional willpower. "I was lying in an intensive care bed, and I asked my wife. "What's 200 days from now?". She said, "December 22nd." I said, "Let's make it Christmas Day - and I'll be back to normal."
Dowd set himself a "200 days challenge" of getting back to normal by Christmas day. Thanks to enormous willpower and a state of the art program of neuro-rehabilitation, he is now able to walk again. "When it came to my six month check-up, I walked into the surgery. There's been quite a lot of astonishment over my progress."
Dowd is now raising money for Wings for Life, a charitable foundation that funds research into treatment for victims of spinal cord injuries (and which funded the trial procedure he was given). He's also working on his rehabilitation. "My focus right now is recovery," he says. "Spinal cord injuries tend to have a two year window during which you can really make a difference." Dowd's covered by his insurance for time off, but is still very supported by BNY Mellon: "I'm not in the office and I don't have any responsibilities, but I'm still very much part of the team. I have a regular one to one with my boss and I speak to my colleagues every week about issues at work. I am very well looked after."
In one respect, however, things aren't ideal. Although Dowd's insurance has provided him with some cover for time off work, it hasn't paid the sort of large lump sum associated with car accidents and didn't pay for his initial medical care or ongoing rehabilitation costs. "I broke my neck and was lying on the floor, and the first thing I thought was, "Oh my god, how am I going to keep the house," says Dowd. "The second thing I thought was, "Thank goodness I have private medical cover."
The second thought proved too optimistic. Although private medical cover in the UK provides assistance in the event of "knee injuries" or investigations that require "queue jumping," Dowd says it doesn't usually cover long term rehabilitation. In his case, he's therefore had to fund his course of treatment himself, using his life savings. "Although the initial treatment on the NHS was amazing, the rehabilitation they offer is pretty appalling," says Dowd. "I was in one of the best centres and there's still not nearly enough of it."
For this reason, he advises other City cyclists to take out personal accident cover that includes SCI (spinal cord injury) rehab of their own; if the worst happens, you won't have to drain all your resources to fund your recover.
Ultimately, Dowd needs and wants to go back to work. His job's still there for him at BNY Mellon, but he admits to nervousness about the future: "I'm a disabled person now and I will be forever. Right now, I'm employed by a firm that is genuinely invested in me and that wants me to achieve my potential, but nothing is guaranteed."
Finance as a whole can be a Darwinian industry, says Dowd. Only the fittest tend to survive. "If I had to find another role after such a serious injury, it might be hard. Rightly or wrongly, the City has not always been very receptive to disability. As a recruitment professional, this is something I would like to change."