Dean's brave fight defies doctors' expectations

Published 7:00am 27 November 2023

Dean's brave fight defies doctors' expectations
Words by Ashleigh Howarth

Throughout his life, Dean Clifford from Albany Creek has endured more challenges than most people could imagine.

When he was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare skin disease and was told by doctors he would not live past the age of five.

When he turned 10, Dean and his family were told he would never walk again.

But after spending lots of time in hospital - even coming close to death – Dean has defied doctors’ expectations to become one of the oldest survivors of Epidermolysis Bullosa (EB), as well as a motivational speaker and world's strongest powerlifters.

EB is a condition where the skin is considered as delicate as tissue paper or butterfly wings, as it can blister and peel at the slightest touch.

“I’ve got wounds that come and are with me for a week or two weeks, six months or 18 months, then heal only to leave fragile, weak skin to break down the second it’s all healed over and then I go through the same process all over again,” Dean says.

“It heals and breaks open, just by the slightest touch or the slightest movement.

“Then I’ve got wounds that I have for my entire life that will most likely never heal.”

The pain for those living with EB has been likened to living with third degree burns, with most people having to be bandaged every day to protect and medicate their wounds.

Typically, people with the severest form of this disease have a life expectancy of 30, making Dean, 43, one of the oldest known survivors of this condition.

With no ‘binding’ between his skin layers, Dean can spend up to five hours a morning checking his body.

“A normal day for me, if I’ve got nothing planned, is my alarm goes off at 5am. I get out of bed and start the process of getting my skin in the best possible condition. That involves a four-to-five-hour process,” Dean says.

“My nurses arrive about an hour after I wake up and we literally check over my skin on my little toe through to the top of my head.

“We’ve got to bandage the worst-affected areas, which are my feet, arms and hands these days.

“But in the past, it was literally all over my body. Years ago, my entire body was bandaged up, right around my torso and even at times across my face.

“Once this process is complete, I’m ready to start my day.”

Dean, who is supported by Carers Queensland to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), has support workers to help him daily.

The NDIS also funds assistive technologies such as a motorised scooter and home modifications.

Giving back to others

Dean’s sheer grit and determination to dig deep through unimaginable pain has allowed him to live life on his terms and share his story to help others going through rough patches.

“It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I reflected on my past and realised that I do have a pretty unique story of how I survived all the really difficult times and how I have overcome all the really negative and dark periods of my life,” Dean says.

“Piece-by-piece, I started to think about different stories and different things I had achieved and what my head space was like at that time.

“Being able to share these experiences is that gives me a deep sense of purpose.”

He created his company DMC Motivational in 2004, and within 18 months Dean had established himself as one of the most in-demand motivational speakers in the world.

His past clients include the Australian Federal Government, the Australian Federal Police, Qantas, Toyota, the NRL, and the New Zealand Warriors.

“I love engaging and connecting with people,” Dean says.

“I’ve never claimed to be an expert in advice or knowledge, but it’s just my experiences I share that seem to hit home with people.

“I’m very proud of my life, and if people find that inspiring, because I have to admit the medical side of my life is pretty extreme, then I’m fine with that.

“I respect that some people with disability get offended by being considered inspirational, but for me, it is pretty amazing that I am a functioning member of the community.”

Dean will act as the MC at Carers Queensland’s upcoming International Day of People with Disability Stakeholder event on November 30 at Pat Rafter Arena.

As Queensland’s largest NDIS partner in the community, Carers Queensland campaign ‘Celebrating Inclusion, Creating Opportunities’ is a chance for everyone to make positive changes to the lives of the 4.4 million Australians with disability.

International Day of People with Disability is on December 3.

A deep love of sport

Keeping fit and active is so important to Dean that he works out at least four times a week in his home gym, where he focuses on his upper body and core strength.

As the strongest powerlifter in his weight class, Dean can lift 150kg, which is more than twice his body weight.

“Being able to lift 150kg puts me somewhere in the top two to three percent in the world,” Dean says.

“I’m just trying to get as healthy as I can because having upper body strength and power in my legs helps me to get out of the car and do everyday tasks a lot easier.

“When I’m not lifting extreme weights, I’m just focusing on the rest of my body, making sure everything’s working to the best of its ability.”

Dean is also an ambassador of the Brisbane Broncos Football Club, and claims to be their biggest fan.

“My first experience interacting with the club was in 1989. I was invited to watch them train. I was a very sick and fragile 10-year-old. But after that, whenever I was well enough to go to a Broncos game, I was put in a safe area away so I would not get bumped,” Dean says.

Fast forward 30 years, and Dean has attended every possible Broncos game.

He also celebrated his 40th birthday with former player and now mate, Shane Webcke.

Next year when the Broncos kick off the NRSL season in Las Vegas, Dean will be there alongside his mates, cheering as loud as he can.

Contact Carers Queensland

Carers Queensland can help people in the community find out more about the NDIS and apply for finding.

If you have a disability but are not eligible for the NDIS, Carers Queensland can help you identify and link to options for support in your community.

You can also contact Carers Queensland by phoning 1300 999 636, sending an email to [email protected], or signing up to their LAC Connect app here.

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