The stakes are high in episode one of Inventing the Impossible: The Big Life Fix. “You realise there’s a proper, genuine, one hundred per cent risk of death in this?” engineer Ryan White says to product design engineer Yusuf Muhammad.
Last year’s debut series, fronted by Simon Reeve, in which a team of inventors created solutions for people with apparently insurmountable problems, was intriguing and heart-warming – but rarely terrifying. In series two, they’re sending a brain-damaged man down a mountain on a snowboard.
The man in question is 46-year-old Graham Naylor, an extreme-sports enthusiast who lost the use of his legs after being caught in an avalanche in 2012. He was buried so deep in snow that the oxygen to his brain was cut off, leading to ‘action myoclonus’, an injury to the part of the brain that controls motor functions, swallowing, speech and limb movement.
“I remember it being very sunny, perfect conditions,” Naylor explains when I meet him and Muhammad at home in his London flat.
“Then cracks appeared all over the mountain like crazy paving and a torrent of snow rushed down. It looked like waves rather than snow. I tried my best to keep the front end of my board up – after that, I don’t remember anything. No pain, just having the most crazy dreams. It took more than 30 minutes to find me. Then I woke up in a hospital bed, surrounded by machines.”
He types his words into his smartphone, which then “speaks” his quotes in a slightly monotonous tone.
Naylor now relies on his carer round-the-clock: “Roy has to chop up anything I eat and I have to smother everything in oil and sauces to help food slide down without choking, I look like a seal swallowing mackerel. Everything is a bit of a battle, but I try to stay positive and I still believe in mind over matter – come on legs, move!”
The accident was a life-changer for the graphic designer, who admits he was a bit of a social butterfly. “But the one thing I liked more than anything was escaping up a mountain. It was probably the only thing I’ve ever excelled at.”
Naylor now struggles to stand, as his leg muscles are constantly spasming and relaxing. He can control his arms a little better – he can put on his glasses and almost touch-type so that the speech synthesiser becomes his voice. He’s got a sharp sense of humour and refuses to get down about his condition – always dreaming that one day he’ll be back on the mountain.
“When the show came to my ‘disabled only’ gym, I suggested trying to snowboard – jokingly, thinking that they’d never go for it. I was just hoping to get that flying feeling again.”
But Yusuf Muhammad offered to take on Naylor’s request because, he explains, “I’m a snowboarder myself – but also because no one else wanted to”. He gives Naylor a wry grin. “It made sense to me – revisiting the mountain and trying to conquer it again.”
Muhammad comes from a background in this sort of problem-solving, having graduated with a double master’s in Innovation Design Engineering from the RCA and Imperial College London and won the prestigious Red Dot Award for product design in 2016. However, after working for a few weeks on a snowboard for Naylor he had serious doubts.
“We had a session at an indoor snow centre where Graham struggled just to stand on a board for a few seconds. The prospect of finding a solution that worked was daunting,” he admits.
Watch the trailer for Inventing the Impossible: The Big Life Fix below
He took Naylor to a mobility research clinic at Guy’s Hospital, London, in an attempt to understand the possibilities – and was shocked to discover that all the muscles in his legs were constantly switching off and on, meaning there was no possible option that involved his legs.
One solution would have been to design a board where Naylor would be sitting, but that was an idea that Naylor hated. Instead, Muhammad built sturdy crutches that fastened to the board to allow Naylor to control his movements with his arms. He took his handwelded design to snowboard company Burton, which built a prototype.
Getting out onto the mountain was draining for everyone except, surprisingly, Naylor. “Emotionally and mentally I was really looking forward to it,” he grins. “I knew I would enjoy it regardless. The only thing I was worried about was not being able to do Yusuf ’s snowboard justice. The cold made my myoclonic jerks worse, so my muscles went into overdrive and got hot very quickly. There was a lot of fresh powder – perhaps a little too much. My board was heavy with snow. I wasn’t exactly flying, but it was enough to get me smiling from ear to ear.”
Muhammad is excited by his design – he believes it offers a new way of utilising a snowboard as a rehab tool for people trying to stand, and he’d like to find a manufacturer who wants to take it to market. “And I’m still in contact with Graham – he’s such a good laugh and so enthusiastic, it’s hard not to get swept up in his ideas.”
Although Naylor’s progress has now plateaued, he stays optimistic: “Who knows, with a bit of female companionship maybe the loose screws up in my head will reconnect with my feet, speech and all the other things that don’t work properly,” his eyes sparkle mischievously.
As for snowboarding? “I think this is the closest I’ll ever get to snowboarding again. Given how difficult it was even with the backing of a TV company, I think it’s time I hung up my boots. Never say never, though. I’ve still got Yusuf ’s board under my bed!”
Inventing the Impossible: The Big Life Fix airs on Thursday 26th July at 8.00pm on BBC2