Four months ago Callum Hall was enjoying the holiday of a lifetime. He had set off with his girlfriend Ailish's family to Greece. They hired a yacht and spent their days sailing off the white shores of the island of Skiathos. Their days were filled with sun and swimming, their nights with good food and starry skies. 20-year-old Callum had no idea that his life was about to change for ever.
One day, after diving off the deck into the warm Aegean waters, he kicked off a rock to return to the surface. "At first I just thought the rock was quite sharp," he says. "I hardly felt a thing." When he got back on deck he discovered he'd stepped on a sea urchin – three small spikes were embedded in his foot. Thinking nothing of it, he picked them out, patched himself up and got on with enjoying the day.
Three weeks later, back at his family home in Leeds, he woke up in agony. The next day, after a life-saving operation on a burst abscess in his spine, doctors gave him the devastating news: he was paralysed from the chest down.
"I came round massively confused as to where I was, with my family gathered around me explaining what had happened and telling me to go back to sleep," Callum recalls. "Then I woke up and was told I was paralysed. It didn't really sink in at first. Then later I tried to move, just to get out of bed – and I couldn't."
Specialists were baffled as to how the fit, healthy young sportsman could have developed the extremely rare condition. Then they discovered the barb of a sea urchin, embedded in his toe. Doctors now believe that the wound had become infected. The infection spread in his blood stream, resulting in a spinal epidural abscess – an infection that forms in the space between the bones of the spine and the spinal cord. The abscess had grown so large that it was compressing Callum's spinal cord – causing extraordinary pain.
"When I came back to Leeds from Greece, I had three days of back pain but didn't think much of it, it wasn't too bad. Then one day a few weeks later I woke up and I was feverish, hot and sweaty, and in severe pain – almost as if someone had put a knife in my back," Callum says of the events that led to his devastating diagnosis.
"I couldn't really breathe and I couldn't move my legs or my stomach at all. It's one of those things you might see on TV but you never think is going to happen to you."
Callum's mother, Karen, called an ambulance and he was rushed to St James Hospital in Leeds, where blood tests revealed extremely high rates of infection and an MRI scan discovered the burst abscess, which was bleeding down his spinal cord. Within hours of arriving, Callum was taken to Leeds General Infirmary where specialist surgeons drained the abscess. He was later told that, without surgery, he would probably have had just hours to live – something that Callum, with typical understatement, describes as "pretty scary".
Although the immediate danger to his life was averted, the damage done to his spinal cord had left him without movement below the chest. Callum has been desperately unlucky. Sea- urchin stings have been known to cause infection, but the chances of such an abscess forming were around 1 in 50,000, doctors said. The chances of it causing paralysis were even higher – about 1 in 500,000.
He was transferred to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, where a team of consultants and physiotherapists at the specialist spinal unit monitored Callum and helped him become accustomed to daily life in a wheelchair.
Callum has now returned home. Doctors have told him that, although his chances are slight, the fact that his spinal cord is only damaged and not severed leaves open the possibility that one day he might walk again. The University of Northumbria, where Callum was in the middle of a degree course in sports coaching, has allowed him to defer his final year in the hope of recovery – and awarded him a diploma for what he has already achieved there.
"Football was my favourite sport," he says. "Now it's obviously the least likely sport I'll be able to play again. But I'm determined to walk again. I'm going to get there." Already he has been able to move his toes and in the past few days has had slight movement in his left ankle and left knee as well.
Unfazed by the challenges that lie ahead, Callum has set himself another goal to achieve along the way – a medal at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. "I haven't picked my sport yet but it will probably be an individual one like a wheelchair sprint. I'm being positive," he said. "I want to make my parents proud, I want to make myself proud. I want to show that if I'm in a wheelchair, if things don't go to plan, it's not the end of the world. There's things you can still do and things you can still achieve.
"Watching the Paralympics last year was an inspiration. It's what I said after my lowest point – I said to my dad, 'Well at least I can be in the Paralympics'. My family believe, they're not giving me false hope but they just believe."
Callum's parents, Graham and Karen, his four brothers and sisters, and Ailish supported him through his ordeal, making daily visits to hospital. Now they have set up a fundraising campaign to pay for specialist equipment that could help him to walk again, as well as specialised wheelchairs for sports training.
"My family have been incredible from day one," he s ays. "It's such an unlikely thing to have happened. If you get stung by a sea urchin, get yourself to a hospital as soon as you can. I don't want it to happen to anybody ever again, because it just flips your world upside down."
To find out more about Callum or to donate to help fund equipment to aid his recovery, visit callumhalltrust.com