Locked in, but still lost in music: UK's bravest DJ

Bram Harrison is unable to move, except for his eyes. Does he want the right to die? No, he tells Nina Lakhani – he has the right to live life to the full

Nina Lakhani
Saturday 31 March 2012 02:47
Bram Harrison, seated at the computer he uses to communicate, is interviewed by The Independent’s Nina Lakhani at his home in Exeter
Bram Harrison, seated at the computer he uses to communicate, is interviewed by The Independent’s Nina Lakhani at his home in Exeter

Bram Harrison, better known as DJ Eye Tech, has a truly unique selling point. The playlist for his Eye Life radio show takes weeks to put together – not because he's an indecisive control freak who endlessly revises his record selection, but because he relies on his eyes for everything.

Harrison, 34, suffered brain damage two weeks before his 21st birthday after falling head-first off his bicycle. He was left with locked-in syndrome – the only part of his body he can deliberately move are his eyes and eye lids.

So he communicates with his eyes: looking up means yes, down means no, cross-eyed means don't know.

This allows him to easily respond to questions from his small army of committed carers about what he wants and how he feels.

Several years ago a doctor asked him what they should do if, for whatever reason, his heart stopped. In other words, would he want to be resuscitated or should they let him die? He looked up immediately. He wanted to live then, just as he wants to live now.

His desire for a long, healthy, meaningful life may strike some as surprising. Another man with locked-in syndrome, Tony Nicklinson, 57 – stricken since a 2005 stroke – has made headlines in recent weeks as he took his fight for the right to die to the High Court.

Nicklinson's plight has attracted a lot of empathy as many people assume they would feel the same way: that a locked-in life is not worth living.

This makes Harrison angry. "In the early days two nurses that I overheard talking said that I would not last long and that I would kill myself, but I knew that would never happen."

In an email a few days before we meet, Harrison said: "I've definitely not got the same view as Tony Nicklinson. I don't want people to think that locked-in syndrome is unbearable. I enjoy my rather limited life."

Much of that life, including his radio show and this interview, are conducted via a very clever computer system with four built-in infra-red cameras.

He chooses letters and words by blinking at them on the screen, which the computer translates into the written and spoken word. It is slow but far better and faster than the manual E-trans board he relied on for the first 11 years after losing his voice.

It also lets him access the internet and sites such as Spotify, the music website with millions of songs – crucial for a DJ and a lifeline for a music lover who spent his youth scouring record shops for drum 'n' bass vinyl.

Harrison was born and bred in Exeter, raised by his father Colin after his mother died when he was just 11.

Never a great student, he left school at 16 and took up carpentry at college but settled for window fitting. However, his passion was, and is music.

His favourite band then was Leeds dub outfit Iration Steppas and he would often travel to see them perform live. "He was never home," says Colin. "Perhaps that's why I don't have any photos of him as a teenager."

Harrison's life changed in May 1998. He was with friends and riding his mountain bike down a grassy bank when he rode into a hidden brick wall.

He was not wearing a helmet and fractured his skull, damaging his brain. A tragic accident with no-one to blame, although a helmet, he says, would have shielded him from such trauma.

Understandably, he is a helmet evangelist. He looks aghast when I tell him I don't wear one.

The DJ moved into his new home on the outskirts of Exeter three weeks ago after spending nearly 14 years in hospital. Not because he was ill as such – he is pretty healthy – but because he was waiting for the right house in the right place and with the right care.

A lot has changed in that time, including the earlier expectation that he would have to live out his life in an institution. That is something neither he nor Colin ever accepted as his lot.

He has bagged the biggest and bestof the three bedrooms in his specially adapted cottage, which he is delighted about, and has another week before his first flatmate moves in. The furniture is yet to arrive, so the room is a bit bare apart from the 55in wall-mounted flatscreen TV.

He is a little apprehensive about sharing with strangers but looking forward to the next chapter in his life.

What does he miss most? "All sorts. Everything has changed," he says. "It's hard to say just one thing. You name it and I probably miss it."

On his website, eyelife.org, he writes about the loneliness of being locked in and his desire to fall in love. But that does not mean there is no joy in his life. Far from it.

He loves seeing his family, especially his three nephews, and enjoys film and sport, especially Arsenal, whom he started to follow mainly to annoy one of his former nurses. Inspired by one his carers, he is now learning Polish.

Harrison is cognitively sharp, funny and mischievous; a technology geek who holds faith in medical progress, stem cell advances in particular, to perhaps unlock him one day.

There have been many low points but he has never felt hopeless. "I don't want my relatives to see Tony Nicklinson and think that's how I feel," he says.

Harrison's next show is on Phonic FM (106.8FM in the Exeter area) from 8pm to 10pm on 26 May. A track he has written can be heard at eyelife.org

Bram Harrison's top 5 tracks

Carpetface & Audible – The Baboon Shampoo

The Heavy – How You Like Me Now?

Jack White – Love Interruption

The Black Keys – Gold On The Ceiling

Lianne La Havas – Forget

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