Ray Edwards - surviving cancer, suffering 4 amputations, playing a corpse on Law & Order - oh, and getting an MBE!
PUBLISHED: 10:54 26 January 2015 | UPDATED: 15:57 23 March 2015
Fate sometimes seems to throw more than a fair share of dramas in our direction. Jan Raycroft meets a man who's been through extraordinary life-changing experiences
Ray Edwards says he knows when he’s in trouble at home because wife Fiona will have put his legs on the wrong way round at their Sandhurst home, so he goes round in circles. It’s a typical joke from this ‘larger than life’ character and you can be sure Ray will laugh at that description because he insists that, without any of the original limbs attached to his body, he look just like a teddy bear.
This is a man who has truly lived – we’d better say still experiencing it to the full and beyond if that’s possible – an extraordinary life. So he’s a quadriplegic, survived cancer even before the limbs went, plunged to the depths of despair and alcohol with a suicide attempt that really should have been the end, pulled himself back to amazing heights… and then had a heart attack.
Even more incredible, that’s just the edited ‘lowlights’, because he’s also received an MBE from HM the Queen, co-founded Limbcare, a vital charity, climbed Kilimanjaro, flown a plane, played a limbless corpse on TV, yes really, and become a mesmerising, inspirational speaker. What’s more, he has written a book, I’m Still Standing, which tells far more of this story than we could ever fit in a year of issues of Berkshire Life.
It’s written in a warm and personal style, for which Ray is particularly thankful to retired schoolteacher Sally Cope. Ray says: “Over the years so many people have said I should tell the story of all my adventures, the fate, trial and tribulations, but nothing happened until Sally came along, volunteered to help, and began recording me talking about it all. We’d sit in an office and out it all poured.
“Sally was perfect at getting everything in perspective. Sometimes we were working on the book and even I had to think… ‘Yes, that really happened’ or ‘I did that, didn’t I? So it was a really good exercise for me.”
The early days
For those who know little of Ray’s ‘adventures’, it all started back in the 1970s when he went into his dad’s construction business, expected to start at the bottom as an apprentice before working his way up to a manager’s role.
This will be a route familiar to many family businesses, but Ray’s first swerved off course in 1980 when a lump in his neck turned out not to be a niggle but Hodgkin’s disease, cancer of the lymph glands. Ray underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy and came through it all.
Normal family life was resumed, including the joyful arrival of twins Michael and Diana. But when they were just nine months old disaster struck. Ray cut himself on a building site while removing a drain, a hazard of the job, and developed septicaemia. It may well be that the earlier necessary removal of his spleen during treatment for Hodgkins resulted in the seriousness of this new setback. He ended up in Hammersmith Hospital on dialysis as his kidneys failed. Septic shock halted the blood supply to his limbs and, on the deadly date of Friday 13 March, 1987 the medical team was forced to amputate all four to save his life.
Ray recalls: “I was heavily medicated and think I knew about the arms, but not the legs. I hit the roof.” In all honesty he suspects that if he had understood the extent of the surgery he would have demanded to be ‘switched off’ but is now exceptionally grateful for the chances it gave him.
Physiotherapy followed, but for a young man in the peak of life there was more to cope with than learning to walk on false limbs. Although typical fighting spirit saw him learn to get about quite quickly, the loss of his old life weighed heavily. Even fastening a button was now beyond him. Sometimes it’s the simplest of things we take for granted that can tip frustrations over the edge. Ray says “It was a battlefield. I built barriers and was at loggerheads with the whole world. Divorce was on the cards, I was more than a bit cheesed off and really hit the booze.”
This led up to the day when he drove a car at high speed into a tree… but survived (Ray’s sense of humour means that he can have an ironic laugh at this now, while understanding the despair he was in).
Finding a new life
Somewhere amongst all this, including going through that divorce, Ray found the strength to turn a corner. In 1990 he was attending a social evening in Egham and met Fiona. They ‘clicked’, but to this day Ray says he has no idea why she puts up with someone who is ‘likely to fall on his **** at any time.”
“She’s seen me at my lowest ebb and there must have been times when I put her through hell. Fiona was an amazing girl when we met, and still is.”
Leaning on his construction expertise, Ray formed Access, a company offering advice and help for disabled people and the elderly in modifying and adapting properties and homes. It was a way to use his own disability to gain an edge in this specialist field, offering advice and assessment to not only the disabled person but also their family, partners and careers.
One might be forgiven for thinking that Ray’s turbulent life had finally settled down.
But in 2005 he had a heart attack. It was time for more surgery and today, at 60, he considers himself to be in the peak of life. A year after the attack he joined a London-based charity as acting Chief Executive and was awarded ‘The Douglas Bader Inspiration Award’. At the age of 53 Ray received a new Ilimb Bionic Arm, some 26 years after his amputation.
He then formed ‘Ray Inspires’, providing motivational and inspirational speaking and nearly five years later set up Limbcare Limited with fellow amputees Barry Perrin, Roy Wright and Alex Hyde-Smith, first as a company and now as a charity helping and supporting limb impaired people across the world.
That same year, 2010, saw him on the slopes of Kilimanjaro and he remains frustrates that having reached 4,500 metres he had to be rescued with a severe chest infection. But every bump in Ray’s life seems to come with a boost and in the following New Year’s Honours it was announced that he had been awarded an MBE.
A funny old world
Probably because he’s Ray Edwards and things like this happen to him, he ended up playing a corpse in an episode this year of ITV drama Law & Order when they needed someone without any arms and legs. The production team wanted a real person rather than a dummy and a friend and fellow amputee sounded out Ray.
He says: “Bradley Walsh, who stars in it, was brilliant, but kept making me laugh – which isn’t very good when you are supposed to be playing dead. There was one scene where I was supposedly in a hospital mortuary on the slab and the pathologist comes in. Bradley dared me to say ‘Boo’ as the actor arrived, so I did, but after that we got on with the filming.”
Life today is a long way from that moment when he realised his arms and legs had gone and thought any form of enjoyable life had ended.
He and Fiona have a delightful home with swimming pool and Ray enjoys gardening. His tribe has grown to five children, the twins Michael and Diana, Chris, Nicola and Taya, and eight months old granddaughter, Emily.
And then there is his special joy, a passion for cars which has survived alongside him on the sometimes bumpy road. So Ray happily spends spare time cleaning and treasuring his Jaguar XK Convertible 5.0 V8.
“These are happy days,” he says. “Make the most of life, and never accept that something can’t be done – it can if it should be. I have no regrets about the past. It’s good that you don’t know what is around the corner. Looking back on my life, I realise now that the experiences I have been through have taught me a lot of lessons and changed me as a person. They have given me a lot of patience, understanding and so much knowledge to give out to other people.”
I’m Still Standing
Ray’s book, written with Sally Cope, was published in November, with 25% of profits going to Limbcare. He says: “I’d love this book to inspire people as to how the world deals with amputees and disabled people.” It’s an honest ‘warts and all account’ from his early life (the family lived in Englefield Green) through Ray’s life experiences to the present day.
The paperback and kindle versions are available on Amazon, published by www.panomapress.com.
The charity offers hope, advice and peer support to the limb impaired and those affected around them. Services and products include everything from fitness programs to advice on independent living and insuring artificial limbs. The aim is to create greater independence for the limb-impaired, whether the disability has been there from birth or from an incident in later life. They also aim to reach out into the wider community so there is much better understanding of the needs of people who have lost one or more limbs.
A major aim is to have a Limbcare Centre where all the services, including a fully equipped gym, can be offered.
Limbcare relies on donations and fundraising events. You can find out more and perhaps start the year with a welcome donation at www.limbcare.org, tel 0800 052 1174.
We’ve just touched on some of Ray’s work here, and he truly is an inspirational speaker at social events and business conferences. Book him to give your occasion a lift – and some laughs! ray-inspires.org
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