David Nicholls did two things when he arrived at the bedside of his 18-year-old son in Sydney after a swimming accident left him paralysed from the neck down. Firstly, he broke down. Secondly, he made him a promise that he would walk again.
Eleven years on, the then Michelin-starred chef is the first to admit that he did not realise at the time that paralysis of the nature suffered by his son, Daniel, was permanent and most likely incurable.
But thanks in part to the charity that Mr Nicholls set up to fund research into spinal injuries, one of the potentially most significant breakthroughs in medical science in decades offers the possibility that the 57-year-old will be able to keep his promise to his son after all.
A fit and active teenager, Daniel was five weeks into a gap year in Australia in 2003 when he dived into the waves on Bondi Beach. Not realising there was a sandbank just below the surface, he broke his neck, suffering instant paralysis.
Mr Nicholls, who was executive chef at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in London’s Hyde Park at the time, said: “It is a devastating thing to see your teenage son go from a strong, healthy boy to not being able to feed himself, in need of care 24 hours a day.
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“I made Dan a promise in hospital that we would get him walking again. I didn’t really realise at that point the implications of his paralysis and that it was incurable. It struck me that there was very little in the charitable sector that was funding research and development. So we set up a charity ourselves.”
The Nicholls Spinal Injury Foundation (nsif) has since raised some £3m for scientific research into new ways of treating paralysis with partners including Professor Geoffrey Raisman, whose pioneering work at University College London has helped complete the world’s first regeneration of a patient’s severed spinal column. The work was also supported by a second charity, the UK Stem Cell Foundation.
To help raise the funds, Mr Nicholls, who is now head of food and beverages for the Mandarin Oriental Group, persuaded 42 of his fellow chefs - including Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson, Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith - to donate the secret recipes they cook at home for a book. The resulting tome - Melting Pot - has so far sold some 75,000 copies.
Daniel, now 28, has faced a long road to come to terms with his injury but his father argues that the hope of progress in treating spinal conditions has been a vital part of the process.
He said: “Soon after Dan’s injury I was told by some doctors that the last thing I should do was to fill his head with false hope that he might one day recover.
“But you can’t get through life without hope and I saw no reason why we shouldn’t pursue it even when things were at their most bleak. Dan is at a point now where he lives independently. He even goes to see Arsenal. He is a top, top guy.”Reuse content