British Superbike legend Shane ‘Shakey’ Byrne is facing an agonising three-month wait to find out if his career is over following his high speed crash at Snetterton last month.
Byrne bruised both his lungs, fractured almost all of his ribs, broke his sternum (chest bone), collarbone, four vertebrae and his neck in two places when he fell from his Be Wiser Ducati at Snetterton’s fast third turn.
Remarkably, considering all of that, Byrne returned home just over two weeks later but faces a long road ahead in the recovery process and at this stage it remains unclear whether his injuries will be career ending.
“I think all things considered, I’m doing really well,” Byrne told MCN in his first interview since the crash.
“I have to keep reminding myself of that when I get frustrated. I’m at home with my family and I can walk around which is pretty incredible when you realise the extent of my injuries.”
“I went in to the wall head first”
We’re sat at the kitchen table of Byrne’s family home on the Isle of Sheppey. He offers us a cup of tea. You’d not even know anything had happened to him were it not for the uncomfortable looking framework surrounding his head that has been fitted to give his broken neck the best possible chance of healing.
“I went in to the wall head first and my head was pushed backwards and that’s what did the damage to my neck and back. My spine opened up like a tin of beans, it sort of peeled backwards… The surgeon told me he could fix it by putting all the broken vertebrae back together and attaching a titanium plate to bridge the gap so everything would heal perfectly, but with my spinal cord dangling about it was a risky procedure.
“He’d already said he was astonished I wasn’t paralysed from the injuries, but then he sat me down and told me that he couldn’t guarantee I’d come out of surgery without paralysis as he’d have to play with things inside my back that aren’t really supposed to be touched.”
As well as the surgery to fix his back, the surgeon had told Byrne’s wife Petra they would also need to fuse his broken neck bones together. While that would in theory ‘fix’ the problem, it would leave him with no to little movement in his neck.
“When they said that, Petra immediately said no. She told them whatever they did they shouldn’t take away any chance I have of riding a bike again as that’s me, it’s what I do. The only other option was to fit this halo and let the neck heal naturally.”
The halo around Byrne’s head is held in place by four screws in his skull and attached by four bars to a stiff, lightweight vest that fits around his chest. This prevents any movement from the neck and spine to give the injury the best chance of healing naturally, but there’s no guarantee.
“It’s not as simple as waiting for a fracture to heal like my collarbone, sternum and ribs will,” Byrne explained. “At the minute there’s part of my neck that is in bits… the force from the crash shattered the bone like a CD being smashed by a hammer.
“It might heal itself properly and when I take the halo off I’ll be able to move my neck or a load of the broken bits of bone might join together and fuse the neck in place naturally… It’s literally a three-month waiting game. After that we’ll see if there’s any movement and if there is we enter a physio programme to build up strength. It’s going to be a lengthy process and there’s no guarantee.”
“I don’t know if I’ll be back”
While he faces a three-month wait to find out whether his injuries will be career-ending, Byrne remains pragmatic about the situation in regards to whether he’ll race again.
“When I woke up from the operation and realised everything worked I was so relieved. From that point I decided I didn’t care what happened from there on in as I could be a Dad, run around and lead a normal life. If my neck moves at the end of this, great, if it doesn’t then I'm not too bothered as it could have been much worse.
“Do I want to ride again? Of course I do. I’m already spending time in the hyperbaric chamber, having laser therapy and trying to heal in the best possible way. But I won’t come back until everything is perfect and ultimately it might never be…
“The only thing I wanted from my racing career was to be a world champion… Even if I come back racing as fit and healthy as I’ve ever been, I know I’m now not going to get an opportunity to do that.
“After having a crash where you’re told you might be paralysed, it kind of puts things in to perspective. Do I give a damn if someone beats my 85 BSB wins or six titles? Not really, but at present there’s nobody close so it’s a record that’ll stand for a good while even if I don’t come back.
“That’s not me saying I don’t want to race any more, it’s just me saying this crash has made me realise how much, or how little, those things mean. That being said, I’m a racer, so if everything goes well and I can move my neck what’s to say I can’t go back and win more? If I do come back, I’m not going to be pissing around – I’ll be doing it properly.”