Words by Daryl Jones, additional photos by Jack Burgess
Unnaturally good looking. Pale skin. A devilish grin and almost hypnotic charm that makes ladies swoon. Extremely intelligent and wise beyond his years. I first met Aidan Marshall when we were working behind a bar together in the conveniently overcast Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia. He only ever seemed to work nights…
The more astute readers will already have pieced these clues together, enough to know that they wouldn’t be inviting this 19-year-old vagabond into their houses anytime soon, and would seriously consider switching to a garlic-scented cologne, just to be on the safe side. But I didn’t suspect a thing. That is, until Aidan fell 25 meters off the roof of a five storey building in Glasgow, onto a cast iron spiked fence, before crunching into the concrete, and stubbornly refused to die.
Yep. Definitely a vampire. It’s the only logical explanation. If I mysteriously disappear after this is published, you all know why…
According to the traumatically named “Splat Calculator” Aidan was travelling at 79.69 kilometers per hour when he hit. He crunched to earth feet-first, taking one of his heels clean off on the spike of the fence. He shattered both his elbows while instinctively raising his arms to protect his head. Both of his legs and ankles shattered on impact as did his pelvis. Both wrists, arms and his left shoulder were broken along with was every bone in his face. The fall broke his spine and neck in multiple places and ruptured his spleen. His lungs filled with fluid. His brain swelled down the back of his skull. The full list of Aidan’s injuries fills two typed pages. It’s a list he wants to get tattooed. He’s currently accepting donations.
All of this was just a few short months ago. And yet Aidan Marshall is somehow sitting here beside me, in that same bar where we first met, quietly sipping a beer and grinning that baby-faced grin of his, telling me about hitting on Miranda Kerr, and the physics/neuropsychology degree he’s just started at university. So we just had to ask him, “How the fuck are you alive?”
AM: Short answer: No one knows. Not the surgeons, neuroscientists, no one. Except maybe you and your vampire theory of course…
DSM: Well miracle boy, we kind of know the end of the story because you’re sitting here drinking, chatting and grinning, but what led you to that fateful rooftop in Scotland last year?
AM: Basically because the Irony Gods decided to strike! I ended up on that rooftop because I was fired from my job here in the cocktail bar because I had climbed onto this rooftop with some friends for shenanigans. So I thought “Fuck this, I’m going overseas to get an even better bar job and meet women with better accents.” So I visited my sister, who is a soul singer over there, and charmed my way into a fantastic job in one of the top cocktail bars in the UK in a five star luxury hotel. I was working with an amazing team, serving people like Prince and Slash and Billy Connolly. I was living the dream, feeling independent and happy!
One of the worst things about the accident is that I have no memory leading up to the fall, thanks to post-traumatic amnesia. This is upsetting because the party that I so dramatically exited from, I’m told, involved multiple gorgeous women, hot tubs and Dom Pérignon, in the penthouse suite.
“I basically fucked up the best party I’ve ever been to, which is the biggest, most violent and cruel kick in the gnads. My first vague memories are of gradually waking up in a hospital a couple of months later.”
DSM: So tell us about the fall…
AM: I’d just arrived at the party after finishing my shift at work. I was with my friends on the balcony of the penthouse.
‘Everyone was turned away from me. When they turned back, I was gone. At first they didn’t believe it, ’til they went down and found me on the pavement.’
It’s still a complete mystery how I actually managed to fall the five stories, 25 meters, onto a cast iron spiked fence without screaming or making a sound. But it looks like it was just a complete, proper accident. I wasn’t drunk; I didn’t even have time to get to a drink! The blood test shows I actually had no alcohol in my system at all and still my insurance company managed to wriggle out of it somehow. Wouldn’t pay a cent. The fucking dicks. And despite the fact that sometimes I can be a bit of a c**t, I definitely wasn’t pushed.
DSM: So one moral of your story is to never bother with comprehensive travel insurance?
AM: Exactly! They did the same to other people in the brain injury unit, declaring basically anything and everything an “Act of God”. It’s disgusting.
Anyway, the force of the impact ripped a spike off the cast iron fence. I, very luckily, landed feet first, and the spike took the heel clean off one of my feet. It’s one of my favourite scars. Then I must have pitched forward with my elbows up, shielding my face from direct impact.
I broke both legs. My right tibia snapped in half and was sticking out through my flesh. It was pretty gruesome. I broke both ankles, my right knee, pelvis, both arms, my left shoulder, my left elbow, right elbow and both wrists. Then I broke my jaw in three places, and my cheekbones…
DSM: You can’t tell to look at you that you broke your entire face…
AM: Yeah. They were incredible. They did all of the operations from the inside. I have a metal jaw and metal cheekbones.
‘I’ve actually put on a lot of weight, all in the form of titanium additions. I was hoping for adamantium, but I’m not really complaining.’
Some of the kickass scarring on Aidan's right leg, 5 months on.
DSM: What about your spine and neck?
AM: Yeah, I broke my spine and broke my neck. Jesus, I was getting to that, don’t interrupt me mid-injury list man! My ribs were fine, so my organs were mostly all ok, but I did rupture my spleen. And my lungs filled with fluid and had to be drained.
DSM: Again, how are you actually alive…?
AM: Where was I? Oh, yeah, my spinal cord… I broke something like five to ten vertebrae; I didn’t ask for specifics. It wouldn’t help me get better so I didn’t want to know. I had frontal lobe contusions and three hemorrhages. I had a very, very severe Diffuse Axonal Brain Injury, where the axons are basically jolted away from the neurons and the white matter separates from the grey matter.
I woke up from the coma a vegetable. I couldn’t recognise my family nor could I communicate in any measurable way even once I opened my eyes. And this is the good bit; no one un-becomes a vegetable. Neuroplasticity doesn’t work that way. It’s the rest of a lifetime of moulding to recover basic functionality, let alone fucking memories.
‘The brain does not heal from this kind of injury. But somehow, just somehow, I did. In a matter of weeks and months. Completely. I’m me again. All of me. No one does. But I did.’
No neurologist or psychiatrist or psychologist or expert can tell me how I am alive and myself. But somehow, I am.
DSM: I have mega goose bumps right now. So science has failed to explain it. Immortal-vampire theories aside, has it made you turn elsewhere, like to God for instance, to explain the fact that you’re not dead, and not a vegetable, and still very much Aidan Marshall?
AM: It does tempt the religious, but for me, no.
‘The way I understand it, for me it’s just the fact that the universe is chaos, and I am still here. In an infinite number of universes or realities, in one of them, one Aidan is gonna be just fine. Turns out it’s this one.’
DSM: We’ve skipped from the fall to the miracle of you being here now, but miracles surely only get you so far? I’m sure in between there was a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get back to sitting here with me now…
AM: Yeah I slowly started to come back to myself over a period of time after I woke up. At first the doctors told my family to tell everyone that I was definitely going to die. When my brain was swelling back down the back of my brainstem there was no regulation of basic bodily functions, such as breathing, blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.
‘My first operation lasted over 13 hours and saved my life. For the first few days after the fall the doctors – one doctor in particular, “Dr. Death”, told my family I was definitely going to die, either from the trauma, the operations, the bleeding, my heart stopping, blood pressure regulation, my brain bleeding and swelling.’
The list of things that should have killed me goes on…
But then, bit by bit, I began to defy the medical predictions. I didn’t die, and actually seemed to start improving, But still everyone was completely sure that, if I did survive, with that level of brain damage, everything from my personality to all the basic functions that we take for granted, like speech and mobility, would be severely impaired, possible forever.
My sister didn’t give up though, and pretty much didn’t leave my bedside. Without anyone else knowing she was giving me secret speech lessons, and she taught me my first words. When I spoke she quickly yelled “Dad, dad, dad! Aidan’s talking! Aidan’s talking! Go on Aidan, say it again, tell dad your words!”
‘And so I croaked my first words, words that medical science said I’d never be able to say again: “Fuck youuuu…”
My sister has a sick sense of humour.
She would also sing to me every night. Dad was videoing it one night by my bedside as she sang Otis Redding’s ‘Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay’, and somehow, talking through a tracheotomy, I knew every word, and joined in.
My lost short-term memory came back over a few weeks, and I got snappier and snappier. One strange anomaly is that my long-term memory has actually improved. I’ve actually unlocked old memories and have checked the facts with my parents and it seems that I can now remember back to when I was as young as three.
But yeah, I was bedridden for ages, with no walking or standing, partly due to spinal cord being almost completely severed. And I was left with fuck-loads of pain. My whole right leg is metal, my pelvis is metal, my jaw is metal. Cheekbones; metal. Most of this arm and right wrist is metal.
‘If I’m ever in a tight spot I’ll melt down my body and give it to gypsies. I always wanted to sell my body; now it’s actually worth something!’
But yeah, the mental and physical anguish I had to fight through was indescribable. I was transferred to a Brain Injury Unit in the Scottish countryside for three months. It was not a fun place. I had some of the worst days of my life there.
Brain injury units are places where hope does not exist, where people don’t know how to feel, don’t know their own names, don’t know their loved ones, have no memories, nothing to hold on to. They don’t have anything to be excited for.
‘It was basically a unit where people watch themselves die.’
And I was told over and over again that I had a brain injury, and one more severe than lots of the people drooling into their food, and that was true. But somehow, I was me, and I knew I would be ok.
I fought so hard, physically and mentally. I was born with a positive attitude that makes me want to fight to succeed, so I battled, pushing through the pain.
Teaching myself to walk was excruciating. I couldn’t even stand up for a long time, and due to a vascular problem I had an intense burning sensation if I ever let my legs dip below horizontal. I had four months of extreme internal burning sensations. But after starting on an exercise bike, eventually I was ready to try my first walk out of the wheelchair with a walking frame. We were trying for five meters. I got stubborn and pushed through 150. So I went from bedridden to walking in a few weeks. The physio’s were basically like “What the fuck?!”
DSM: So this is partly the story of an inexplicable miracle, but some but some of this miracle recovery is down to your attitude and determination…
AM: I never gave myself an option of giving up, of not being back to Aiden, to not being completely fine.
Mostly the people working in brain injury units, including the ones back here in Australia, tried to find and prove the extent of the damage (or even traces) of my brain injury, which is understandable considering what I had been through and the fact that everyone else who has had this type of injury is severely impaired. But eventually they just couldn’t. They would not believe that I was ok. They all tried so hard to find the damage that they knew should be there.
‘In the end I challenged my carers and my psychologist to scrabble, and beat them all. Turns out, PHD medical professionals do not like being beaten in scrabble by a patient with a brain injury.’
Basically no one could believe it. Before Christmas even the Starlight Make a Wish Foundation called and asked what wish I would like, as they’d just read about my case and assumed the worst. I asked for a 70 ft yacht and they hesitated, so I asked for Miranda Kerr…
“Meet her, you mean?”
“No, to keep…”
Again they somewhat failed to live up to their name, but I managed to negotiate it to a new MacBook Pro and Miranda Kerr’s phone number, so that’s pretty amazing of them.
So even though not many people really believed I could ever be ok again, I try to be an optimistic person, I have always been that way. I just went through with the tool of objectivity and reason and a matter-of-fact way of looking at my existence; not “Woe is me”, just, “I’m gonna be fine”.
I woke up and I told my parents at the end of November that I would be able to work again and keep travelling. And they gave me some tough love and a massive reality check. They were like “You can’t think, or walk. This is going to take years, if you’re lucky.” But I told them that I’d be fine. And at the end of November, back in Australia, sitting in my own bed, in my own house, having climbed the stairs, after driving a car there, having applied and being accepted to uni and on my way to move down to the city, I said “Hey dad… hate to say I told you so…”
DSM: Bet he has never been happier to have been proved wrong!
AM: Yeah it was a definite win-win!
So now I’m back in Australia, I can run, jump, eat, shit and fuck, exactly the way I was before basically. My personality has changed, but only in the perspective I now have on life and the people I love.
The awareness of the amount of love I have in my life has changed massively. I have so much incredible support from family and friends and that’s been a lot of the strength behind how I’ve come through so much of this. I felt surrounded by people who loved me, and it sounds funny, but also by people I want to impress. People didn’t believe I could possibly be ok. So my stubborn pride has pulled me through some of the most difficult times.
It’s the same with my degrees that I’ve just enrolled in. This year I’m studying physics and neuroscience at Sydney Uni.
‘I’m the only kid in neuro who can bring his own MRI’s to class, and shit they are gonna be pissed when the kid with a brain injury beats them.’
DSM: Seems strange to ask, but do you regret falling off the roof?
AM: I do not. If I was a quadriplegic or my personality had changed or if I had lasting physical or mental complications then yes of course I would. But I don’t, and I feel like it has empowered me to be an infinitely better person. I think we make the mistakes we make for a reason. I now live for other people.
‘I’ve fallen in love because I’ve fallen. I know love. I take nothing for granted. I’ve fallen in love with life and being able to return that love.’
I’m following the path of what I’m interested in, exploring what I’m curious about, learning from others and hopefully teaching too. And I’m making music to make people dance.
DSM: You’ve basically been granted something not many people get, to come back from the dead, getting a second change to live. What advice would you give the rest of us, as someone who’s come back from the other side?
AM: Don’t live for yourself. Embrace the miracle of life before you’re forced to. With the shit you’ve been through, you have to see the difference between a reason and an excuse.
When things happen they don’t just un-happen, so there is no point in dwelling on the past. Excuses are for the past; reasons are for the future. Excuses are for yourself; reasons are for others. It’s so often those that who choose the harder path that benefit.
‘Somehow I’m still here. I have the choice again today, and I choose to continue to strive to do more and to be more.’