A freak accident in the Navy led to Sean Gaffney having his leg amputated, but he has never let that or cancer hold him back. Catherine Scott reports.
At just 27 years old Sean Gaffney faced an horrendous decision – have his leg amputated or be dead in two hours.
“It was a no-brainer really, although I knew it could mean the end of my Navy career.”
Sean’s foot had been crushed during a freak accident as he and his Fleet Air Arm Field Gun Crew were preparing for the Royal Tournament in 1999.
“It was during a practise run for the famous event, “ recalls Sean, now 46 and living in Pontefract.
“As we manoeuvred a 900lb gun across some 28-ft chasm, attempting to connect it to a supportive rope, the barrel dropped from a height of around seven feet, smashing my left foot.”
Despite feeling ‘no pain’ initially and even trying to stand up, it soon became apparent that the injury he had sustained was worse than feared as five men struggled to pin down Sean, who added “the pain was even savage with morphine”.
Initially undergoing 25 surgeries over a three-month period as surgeons battled to save the foot, Sean had to resign himself to defeat. His 26th operation finally saw the amputation of his leg, but since that day Sean has always been determined not to be defeated.
“I developed septicaemia, a form of blood poisoning, and was told I wouldn’t last two hours, with the only choice being amputation. One month later I was given my first prosthetic leg and walked out of the disability centre without the need for a walking stick.”
Just one month further down the line, in January 2000, Sean joined his local gym and attempted running. His aim was to get his job back as an engineer in the Navy that had been his life since he joined up at the age of 18.
“One of the junior doctors took me to one side and put a hand on my shoulder and said that I should give up hope of getting back into the Navy, especially as no amputee had done so since 1974,” says Sean. But this determined man doesn’t like being told what he can’t do.
“It just made me even more determined and, by the end of the assessment, I was told they would give me 12 months to prove that I could do it.
“A year after my amputation I passed my 1.5 mile and multi-stage fitness tests using the basic leg provided by the NHS. Now even at 46 years old, I can get the pass mark required of a 20-year old.” Despite this, it wasn’t all plain sailing for Sean in his quest to return to active service, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2001.
“I had a different type of cancer in each testicle which apparently is extremely rare. I can’t say there weren’t dark days, I am not superhuman, but I am pragmatic, I think it is the engineer in me. I just look at the options and try to find the best way forward. In this case I had both my testicles removed and they kept me under observation, and that was 17 years ago,” says Sean, who also gives inspirational talks to teenagers.
In 2009 Sean served a seven- month tour in Iraq, followed by seven months in Afghanistan in 2011/2012 working as a rotary wing liaison officer overseeing the use of a civilian helicopter squadron to resupply patrol bases.
During this time Sean developed a passion for obstacle course racing, in 2008 becoming the first amputee ever to complete one of the first courses he took on.
“I had put on a bit of weight and so my sister challenged me to a 10k and then it just developed and we started doing obstacle courses.
“That passion has turned into a special family affair with my sister and wife both also have the ‘OCR (obstacle course racing) bug’.” Sean’s wife, Fiona, is a detective chief inspector in West Yorkshire Police. “We always look for bigger, longer, tougher events and our next challenge will be Total Warrior Leeds event on the weekend of June 23/24, although I really like the winter events where it is really tough.
“OCR has given both me and my family a means to face adversity. Not only that, but it allows us to travel the country, see some amazing scenery and meet some inspiring people.”
He has also raised a lot of money for military charities such as Help for Heroes and Blesma, the charity for veterans who have lost limbs, but also other general charities.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sean was also an Invictus Games double gold medallist in 2016, 2017 World Indoor Rowing Champion, and a silver medallist from the most recent World Indoor Rowing Championships which took place in the USA.
And earlier this month he represented Wales (his mother is Welsh) in the Commonwealth Games as a para powerlifting competitor on Australia’s Gold Coast.
“Powerlifting isn’t my passion, but the opportunity was too good to pass up,” says Sean.
Although things didn’t go quite to plan in Australia after he sustained a back and shoulder injury, it has just made Sean even more determined to qualify and do better in the Birmingham Games in 2022.
“Had I achieved a PB (personal best) in Australia I probably wouldn’t have continued with powerlifting, but that isn’t my style.”
As well as the Commonwealth Games, another of Sean’s goals for the future is to return to the top step of the podium at the 2019 World Indoor Rowing Championships.
And he is also facing one of his biggest challenges when he leaves the Navy after nearly 29 years later this year.
“I don’t think I am institutionalised, you never know until you leave, but I am aiming to become a personal trainer which means I can continue doing all the things I love.”
Total Warrior Leeds takes place on June 23 and 24 at Bramham Park. The event, is timed and suitable for all levels of fitness and has 25 ‘punishing’ obstacles combining to challenge racers with the ultimate test of strength, stamina, determination and teamwork. It includes ‘The Waterfall’ – a unique obstacle which sees runners scrambling up and over a series of walls whilst contending with water gushing down from above. Tickets are available now from £59.95, before a price increase at midnight on May 3.
To donate to Blemsa and Sean’s fund-raising for the charity visit www.justgiving.com/owner-email/pleasesponsor/Sean-a-Gaffney