In the early hours of New Year’s Day 2010, Jack Martindale and four friends were walking home from a night out when a car collided with the group. One was pronounced dead at the scene. Jack and another were comatose, with the latter never gaining consciousness again.
The accident threw Jack into a battle for life, a period of time he calls “the intense months.” Jack sustained serious injuries: a bruised brain, a broken arm and a broken jaw, shattered into more than thirty pieces. During the period that Jack was unconscious, surgeons conducted operation after operation, so many in fact that Jack can’t pin down an exact figure… “Between ten and twenty…it would have to be such a callous estimate. Just a lot of operations basically!”
The decision to undertake surgery to reconstruct Jack’s face was not a straight-forward one: “Simon Holmes was the surgeon who basically saved my face. He was completely the driving force behind the decision to conduct the operation. Other medical staff were like, ‘why bother’, even if this guy does come round, there’s coming round and then there’s appreciating what’s been done to you, just being vegetative.”
Later, Jack was to write, in a book which he hopes to publish in the future, ‘Simon had the wisdom to realise that my recovery would be much harder from a physical and mental perspective if I continued to resemble Quasimodo…’
“The nurse would ask ‘how much insight do you have into your situation?’ Well, I knew that the shit had hit the fan. I knew that much!”
“Simon and I met up for a drink in 2011 I think, he was saying that even if I spent the rest of my life in a care home it’s just better.” In fact now, the only mark left by the accident is an alteration to Jack’s voice. “We’re British, we’re polite, we wouldn’t say it, but my speech is my biggest deficit. The thing that I’m aggrieved by, is that I’ve been left with an altered voice. Speech is the vehicle that we use for communication and I think it is a big part of our identity. I do have to formulate a bit more of what I’m going to say and sometimes getting the expression in your voice when you’re making the effort to be audible is more difficult. But it’s never let me down, I’ve never felt pushed out because of it.”
I asked Jack to explain the extent of his reconstructive surgery, a question to which he had a very simple answer. Tapping his cheek like a trusty piece of machinery, “This is all titanium – I’m like the metal man, It’s ridiculous!”
It’s this ability to take the difficulties he went through with such lightness that surprises me. Jack might have been talking about the most intense moments of his recovery and still be able to make me laugh. “After the accident, I scored a meagre 3 on the Glasgow Coma Index, which is the lowest score at which you can get and remain alive… I’m not quite sure what scoring 2 yet being dead means? An ‘active-dead’ is not an expression with which I’m familiar.”
“It’s surreal coming out of a coma. It’s a completely alien situation, there’s no way that people can relate to it. Coming round again, you don’t just wake up, not like the Hollywood perception where you just brush yourself down and go, ‘right, what am I doing now?’ You just fluctuate in and out of consciousness really. I wouldn’t have been able to say whether I was ten or if I was a hundred.”
Making light of such situations may seem bizarre when you first hear of Jack’s story. But Jack is adamant that you shouldn’t “take yourself too seriously” as he constantly repeats. And this is something he carries with him into the future. When I ask him what he wants to do now that he has recovered so well. “Really now, I prioritise having fun, having a good time…”
Although he mostly only had praise for all those who helped him to recovery, Jack did mention his distaste for the nurse’s pandering. “One funny thing about therapy is the term ‘insight’, ‘how much insight do you have into your situation?’ I knew that the shit had hit the fan, I knew that much.”
I think we underestimate ourselves, because you’re not asked anything more of yourself most of the time.
I ask him what he hopes to gain by talking to the media, being quick to mention that I didn’t consider myself a ‘journalist’… “Well I wouldn’t call myself a celebrity either, but I’ll admit this isn’t the first media appearance I’ve made!”
When I suggest that it might be brave to continually retell his story to national and student media alike he pushes my comment aside: “Is it brave? I’m just trying to be pragmatic. I want to enhance other people’s understanding because with having a severe brain injury there’s a tendency to feel slightly isolated.” Jack also finds the telling of his story as liberating. He spoke about getting the “onus back”. “The best thing in the world is that it’s my choice who I tell it to and who I don’t.”
His story is also the means by which he celebrates the lives of his two friends who passed away as a result of the accident. “The grief is… it’s not something that I really want to get away from. It’s not something you want to carry with you on a day-to-day basis. But I think it resembles part of my life. There’s a difference in the way I think about it – it’s not just mourning, it’s celebratory. Yeah, now I can look back and say, we had this fantastic time for a number of years and it was great. But it will always be one of the greatest regrets in my life.”
Unsurprisingly Jack refuses to say that he is particularly resilient or strong-minded: “I used to give into peer pressure, I don’t know what that says, but I think that when it comes to it you are more resilient than you think. I think we underestimate ourselves, because you’re not asked anything more of yourself most of the time.
“Mostly the reason I’ve recovered well? Luck. The paradox is that I was very unlucky for this to occur, but then there were people in the right place at the right time daily to assist me in recovering well and whatnot. But still it’s the only credit I can give – self-praise would be very un-British anyway.”
Talking to Jack, you almost feel that he’s had an inconvenient break from life, but that now he’s back on the track where he left off. “You do the whole reassessment, but really after all this, you find that really you’re still the same guy and you haven’t really changed at all. You can walk away from it.”
The break from his life that the accident and recovery now represent, can, it seems for Jack, be seen as just that, a break. “I was very happy with my life before. Instinctively there’s a tendency for me to look back on my life prior to when this happened and the rose-tinted spectacles come on and you sort of just see how glorious it was. But it wasn’t! There were always the ups and downs, that’s what life is. But at the same time, aged 21 I was in a good place when the accident occurred, I was happy. This sounds corny and ridiculous but I do actually remember thinking once when I was out walking with my family in Belgium, ‘yeah I’m doing alright at the moment, Jack.’
“You get that, a bit of self-inflection, and perhaps something’s going to happen and obviously it did…”
Work on his book, currently titled Battling a Brain Injury, both during recovery and now means that there will always be a record of those ‘intense months’. “I would like to publish it someday and do some further editing. Obviously I haven’t graduated yet and there’ll be more chapters that are relevant to go in it. But then I am glad that I captured it all when I did, when it was still fairly fresh and raw, because there were things that I felt that even when I read it now, I still can’t imagine… Did I really feel that, or think that? It’s quite good that it captures that lack of order to the earlier passages, and that captures the confusion within me. It charges it quite well as a backdrop.”
One area where the book does highlight regret is over the legal case surrounding the drivers of the racing cars. The driver not involved in the accident was given two years for perverting the course of justice. Jack recalls the rest of the story, “[The other driver] was found guilty of death by dangerous driving on two accounts, rah rah rah, and all this, and he got five and half years, or seven years, I don’t know. He’s probably out by now… God, I sound like a Daily Mail reader, shit!
“No, all it would have done would have been to acknowledge what they’d done. There’s an awful lot of emotions within me with this. I think what I’m so aggrieved with is that I’ve been this conformist conventional individual, I’ve ticked the boxes, I’ve gone through life serving society, society serving me, and then this happens, and I get told…” He sticks his middle finger up. This is undoubtedly one of those areas of his experience that is ‘too far’, beyond humour. In a previous interview he described the driver of the car as an ‘ignoramus’, ‘amoral’.
But, it is the British legal system, and the barristers operating within, that he directs his greatest anger towards: “Basically people’s egos are just too big – that’s the foundation of it all. There’s a lot of point scoring and our legal system gives a high reward to manipulation of the truth, that’s not ethical.”
But for now, Jack is moving on. He tells me gleefully that he’s got just one more essay to do to complete his degree, and from there he thinks that he’ll settle in York. “I know it’s a bit of a stereotype, but I do think Northerners are a bit friendlier! Also I‘ve got a good friendship network here and there’s the slight advantage with being from London – I know the streets aren’t paved with gold. I know that there’s some inevitability that I’ll return there at some stage but it’d be nice to have a few years off doing something else.” Ultimately it was endearing how, despite having such an remarkable story, Jack is still flattered by the attention: “I’ll be honest, it’s not bad for the ego all of this stuff. I had a little bit in Vision, and now a double page in Nouse. I’ve moved up in the world!”