Manchester Arena survivor talks about the unsung hero in his recovery

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On 22 May 2017, Martin Hibbert went to a concert at the Manchester Arena – and he barely escaped with his life. In his journey to recovery, there was one important figure who has largely gone uncredited until now: Alfie the Cocker spaniel.

“I had Alfie since he was a 10-week-old pup, and we always did everything together. We were best friends, hardly spent any time apart. Until one day, I went to a concert – and I didn’t return home.”

It would be five weeks before Martin Hibbert saw his Alfie again. On the evening of 22 May 2017, he was one of the people standing closest to Salman Ramadan Abedi when he detonated an improvised explosive device in the foyer area of the Manchester Arena. The attack cost the lives of 22 as well as the bomber’s, and injured hundreds of people; 112 concert goers were hospitalised, including Martin and his daughter, who suffered life-changing injuries.

It was a happy encounter, but Martin was not coming home just yet

Martin recalls, “Alfie was distraught when I did not return home. He always suffered from separation anxiety; even being gone for a short time resulted in him telling me off once I returned. And it would be five weeks before we would see each other again.”

There is a video showing the moment of Alfie and Martin’s first meeting after the terror attack. It shows the blue roan Cocker Spaniel pulling desperately on the lead as soon as he spots his owner some distance away, on a wheelchair. As soon as he reaches Martin, he jumps up to get on his lap and then licks his face, tail wagging all the time.

It was a happy encounter, but Martin was not coming home just yet. At that point, he’d already been told that he would never walk again – and he was facing a long road to get used to his new normal.

Manchester Arena survivor Martin Hibbert with his dog, Alfie“I had missed Alfie terribly while in the hospital – seeing him again was great, and as I continued to work through my rehab, the thought I could see him again on weekends was a great motivation to keep going,” Martin says. “My dad was a dog handler in the police force in Manchester, and I grew up around dogs. When we got Alfie, we wanted him to be a member of the family – and he is!

“Ever since I returned home, Alfie has always been by my side. Having him in my life has helped my recovery a great deal – people often don’t realise how much positivity a dog can bring into one’s life. The other side of that is that he doesn’t like it when I go out, waiting for my safe return, and he’s all over me when I come back!”

And it’s not too unusual for Martin to be away for a while: in June 2022 he travelled all the way to Tanzania to reach the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro with a specially adapted wheelchair, all to raise funds for charity Spinal Injuries Association (SIA).

Now Vice President of SIA, Martin has worked tirelessly to raise funds and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries

Martin’s relationship with SIA started on the day he was told he would remain paralysed from the waist down, when he met SIA Support Network Officer Gary Dawson at the hospital.

“I saw Gary pretty much every week; it was him who first told me that being paralysed wouldn’t stop me from leading a fulfilled life, and that it was all up to me. SIA gives amazing support to people with spinal cord injuries, and when I got out of the hospital, I wanted to give back to them,” Martin recalls. “I became a Trustee, did fundraising, and then I climbed Kilimanjaro. The fundraising for it is now just shy of a million, a goal which we hope to reach soon – we’re very proud of this result!”

Now Vice President of SIA, Martin has worked tirelessly to raise funds and awareness for people with spinal cord injuries, and advocate for better support so that everyone has the kind of support he has had.

“Only a minority of all the people who suffer from a spinal cord injury every day in the UK are referred to a charity or organisation capable of providing the kind of support I got. Of course, everyone gets NHS care, but it’s not just a matter of recovering from a health standpoint – there is also so much that people with spinal cord injuries need to re-learn, depending on the type of injury.

“You need to re-learn how to shower, how to get in and out of bed, how to use the wheelchair, and so many other little things people take for granted – while also dealing with the mental trauma of what has happened. Most people with a spinal cord injury are on their own when it comes to these things, and it makes me so angry – so with SIA we’re working hard to change things. I want everyone to be given the chance to go back to their lives, back to work, and have the best possible quality of life – a fulfilled life for everyone affected by spinal cord injury which is the charity’s aim.”

For his work with SIA, Martin has since won a Pride of Britain Regional Fundraiser Award, and was the recipient of a Prime Minister’s Points of Light Award. When home, he gets to enjoy Alfie’s company to the fullest.

“The unconditional love that a dog can give makes a tremendous difference – I am sure that everyone with a dog will understand!”

“I probably would not have made it quite this far without Alfie. He’s always on our mind. On the days he’s away to the groomer for example, not having him in the house… it doesn’t feel right. His energy and personality is all around the house. He gives a bit of  a telling off when we’re gone too long, true, but he is an integral part of my life, and of my recovery.”

Martin’s life following the Manchester Arena terror attack has been active and fulfilling, with a new sense of purpose – but as well as the struggles one would expect to face while adjusting to life-changing spinal injuries, he has had to deal with a particularly persistent conspiracy theorist. Convinced that the attack had been faked and that the survivors were actors, a man has tracked down survivors at their homes and workplaces; this included Martin’s daughter.

Martin has since filed a legal action against the man, hoping to set a precedent which will protect the victims of terror attacks from harassment. Through all this, Alfie remains his rock.

“Alfie immediately knows when something is wrong,” Martin says. “Whenever I have something on my mind, he will get on my lap, put his paws around him, and give me kisses. He knows when I am going through a difficult time, and he’s always there.

“The unconditional love that a dog can give makes a tremendous difference – I am sure that everyone with a dog will understand!”

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