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‘Don’t Write Me Off Because I’m In A Wheelchair’: Manchester Arena Survivor Takes On Kilimanjaro

January 25, 2022

It was a month after the Manchester Arena attack when Martin Hibbert learned the catastrophic toll of his injuries. He and his 14-year-old daughter, Eve, on a “daddy daughter day” to an Ariana Grande concert, were 5 metres from the explosion that killed 22 people and injured hundreds more in May 2017.

Hibbert, 45, from Chorley in Lancashire, was told he would never walk again. Eve would probably never see, hear, speak or move – if she made it out of hospital. They were the closest to the bomb to survive.

Nearly five years on, Hibbert describes every day as “like climbing a mountain” as they continue to recover from their injuries. He is, however, preparing to tackle his biggest peak yet: in June, he will attempt to scale Mount Kilimanjaro to raise £1m for charity to support people with debilitating spinal injuries.Advertisement

“The climb is to say: don’t write me off because I’m in a wheelchair. Look at what someone in a wheelchair can do with the right help and support,” he said.

Hibbert, a football agent, will tackle the 45-mile ascent on a custom-made handbike, using push-and-pull levers to navigate the often harsh terrain on Africa’s highest mountain.

It will take about a week of gruelling 12- to 14-hour climbs to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro, where temperatures can fall as low as -20C. If he succeeds, it is believed he will be one of the first people to reach the top with a complete spinal cord injury.

The risks are considerable. About one in three people who attempt Kilimanjaro never make it to the summit, according to mountaineering websites, and he estimates there is a 10% success rate for those in wheelchairs.

One of the greatest risks is infection, given the length of time he will be in a specially adapted chair, so a skin nurse will be among the medics guiding him to the top. “The odds are against me but the paramedic that saved my life didn’t think I was going to survive the journey to hospital,” he said. “Failure is just not an option.”

Since the blast, Hibbert has become an ambassador for the Spinal Injuries Association and a motivational speaker. Far from blocking out the arena atrocity, he uses it to help counter his depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There are times when it does get tough and I don’t want to get out of bed and you’ve got to find the strength,” he said.

“I just use Salman Abedi or [the thought that] if I don’t get out of bed today, the terrorists have won. They don’t want me sat here with you today during this interview. They don’t want me living life to the full. They want me sat in the corner crying about it.”

He added: “If you could see what I’ve seen, it would finish you off. To see all those people around us dead and blown up – but we’ve survived. That’s what gets me out of bed, because if I don’t live life to the full I’m letting those 22 people down and their families.”

Hibbert has already raised almost £400,000 of his £1m target for the Spinal Injuries Association. His greater goal, he said, was for a “revolution” in how Britain thought about disabled people.

He said he had been shocked by the lack of assistance for those in wheelchairs, for instance in hotels, restaurants or cinemas – and was appalled to learn that only one-third of the roughly 2,500 people a year who sustained a spinal cord injury sought specialist support to help them regain their independence.

“When you’re disabled I think members of the public either think you’re a Paralympic athlete or a benefits scrounger. There’s nothing in between,” he said. “It’s not the spinal cord injury or the wheelchair that makes me feel disabled, it’s people’s attitudes, it’s the landscape, it’s the environment.”

Hibbert, a lifelong Manchester United fan, said he had been inspired by the footballer Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign for free school meals and that he would lobby the government on behalf of people with life-changing injuries: “This is about changing the landscape for disabled people. If all we do is raise a million quid, I’ll be disappointed. I’ll see it as a failure.”

When he reaches the summit Hibbert will scatter the ashes of his mother, who died in October and was “incredibly proud” if not overly enthusiastic about his Kilimanjaro attempt. He will also carry a picture of “my princess” Eve, now 19, whose recovery has astounded the medics who treated her for 10 months at Manchester children’s hospital.

Despite the early prognosis, she can see, hear, talk and has begun to walk unaided: “I keep saying to her: when she is ready, she will inspire the world.”

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