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Thread: Melanie Reid of The Times (UK)

  1. #31
    A Visit Home From Hospital

    I was ordered to bed for a skin inspection of my backside. ‘It’s fine – just peachy,’ said the nurse. ‘That’s why I married her,’ said my husband
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. This week, the wider ramifications of her condition sink in on a visit home from hospital
    The trim below the door sills on a Subaru is made of plastic and devoid of sharp edges. This is a good thing, I reflect to myself, as I sit in a heap on the tarmac, examining it from very close range. I am wedged, gracefully but helplessly, under the car door on the road outside the spinal unit, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. But I think I have avoided bruises or scrapes.
    Lesson number one about doing an unaided transfer from a wheelchair into a car: do not get cocky. Determined to show off my new-found mobility to my husband at the start of our first proper home pass, I wriggled so far forwards in my chair that I overbalanced off the transfer board and then, in slow motion, crumpled into the tiny triangle of space between car, open door and wheelchair footplate. Less of a fall, as the head physiotherapist amended his report on Monday to read, than a subsidence. And the only pain was psychological, as I felt myself collapsing and realised just how powerless I was to stop myself. And a hateful voice in my head said: “Hey, you know what, Melanie? Maybe you really are paralysed after all.”
    Nurses arrived with a hoist; we all had a good laugh; my husband ceased being Captain Mainwaring; and they scooped me back into my wheelchair, from where, on the second attempt, I successfully transferred into the car. But when we got home there was worse to come, when we realised that in all the fluster the wheelchair cushion had been left lying on the pavement. For spinal-injury patients, losing your gel cushion is akin to finding yourself mid-Atlantic in a rowing boat without a life jacket. At stake is the preservation of the infinitely precious skin on one’s backside.
    We improvised with sofa cushions, but they jammed the spokes and I was unable to test the newly installed ramps properly. By this time, my husband had succumbed to a stress nosebleed and the day had become a steep learning curve, if not quite a disaster. Poor Dave, he has already suffered so terribly as a result of my accident; and now must adjust to the changed relationship that follows it, where I can no longer cope with all things practical and he can no longer just be the (brilliant) head of entertainment. I adore him, despite the fact the supermarket dessert he offered me for lunch was three weeks past its sell-by date – even the dog was a bit hesitant about it – but I also feel deeply guilty about what I have inflicted upon him at this stage in his life. Dear man, he married a younger woman so she could push him to the pub in his dotage, not so that he would have to be responsible for an emotional liability who would burst into tears at the sight of fields and stables empty of horses.
    But that is the doubly cruel thing about spinal injuries. They inflict themselves upon whole families, not just the individual; they alter multiple lives; they bend careers and change constellations. My son has had his summer ruined because his university exams, due shortly after my accident, were put back on compassionate grounds until resit time. He is now holed up in the library in Edinburgh, and we have regular phone conversations on the theme of: “I’m coming to see you; you’re more important than thermodynamics, Mother,” and, “I’m fine, stay where you are. Thermodynamics must come first.”
    Anyway, the tearful home visit was curtailed and we scurried back to the security of the spinal unit, where I was immediately ordered to bed for a skin inspection of my backside. “It’s fine – just peachy,” said the nurse. “That’s why I married her,” said a mightily relieved Dave.
    But I hope going home will, in the end, be peachy, too. The ground floor of our house, a remote cottage, is on seven different levels, but our local council has been wonderful in helping us install ramps and a wet room. I will just have to get my arms stronger so that I can negotiate the different levels with ease. I must also learn to drive again, in order not to be trapped: our access road is a mile-long track.
    The track itself is testament to the amazing community spirit with which we are blessed; and which, in a way, is a perfect illustration of the Prime Minister’s “big society”. When neighbouring farmers heard that Dave was assembling a group of townie friends with shovels to fill the potholes, so that I and my broken neck would be allowed home, they descended en masse. He still describes the moment he and the puny foot soldiers heard the engines and then saw them coming over the horizon – a convoy of diggers and tractors, their beacons flashing. In a few hours, the machines turned the track into a relative motorway. And their drivers, agricultural contractors, dairy and sheep farmers and Christmas tree growers, despite the fact time and diesel represent their precious and slender livelihood, flatly refused to take a penny for their work. “It’s what friends are for,” they said. So to Euan, Archie, Gregor, Jock, Murray – and Les, who donated a load of stone – my profound thanks. Your generosity has not only built me a road to recovery, it’s made the world a better place.
    My friend Annie, paralysed some years ago after falling off a horse, has movingly described how she and her husband, on her second visit home from hospital, sat in the garden and wept at the realisation they would have to sell their beloved home of 25 years because of insurmountable access difficulties. They, too, were saved by a neighbouring farmer who, passing on his tractor, saw their plight and stopped. It was time for a new chapter in their lives, he said; time to accept the years of happiness in their old house, but to start a new adventure. His wisdom and compassion, she said, allowed them to move on. In our case, we hope the same spirit will allow us to stay. And next time we’ll remember the damn cushion.

  2. #32
    Could this be farewell to the hated hoist?

    I am wired up to electrodes that make my major muscles work. At 4pm, when gym finishes, I reckon I could usefully plug into the national grid
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from hospital, she falters in her bid for independence from the dreaded hoist.
    The game of snakes and ladders continues. Two more little Friday miracles, and one of them taken away by the following Tuesday. When I started writing this column, the good news was that I had learnt, shakily, how to transfer on and off a shower chair. This, I thought, was the final frontier to a modicum of independence: it meant I could wave bye-bye to hoists in my life. No more waiting for the hated rattle of those mean little wheels on the ward floor, the sound that precedes the humiliating abattoir ritual of being wrapped, slung, swung and lowered. Shower chairs are ghastly things too, uncomfortable and desperately hard to lift yourself out of when you’re wet and your skin forms a vacuum seal with the seat, but at least they’re ghastly in an independent way. Boy, was I proud of myself.
    Today I’m back in the hoist, crying bitterly, after I was simply unable to extricate myself from the shower chair onto the transfer board and thus onto the bed. Technique, arm strength, everything failed me. When one gets part of the way but not far enough; one’s left thigh and buttock are wedged painfully down the hole in the middle of the hard plastic seat; one’s ungloved hands cannot stand the pain of trying to lift any more; and two small nurses are trying to stabilise a naked body that feels like a precarious, two tonne, spastic seal, tears are about the only voluntary activity one has left.
    The nurses are unfailingly cheerful. You’re doing great, they say. This happens. You’ll get better at it. Just keep practising. But I am left in dread of my next ordeal on the shower chair, real physical dread, which in turn becomes a mental blight, lurking inside me. I’ve tried so hard to get there. I’m lifting more than 40kg on the triceps machine, well over half my body weight; my arms are long and strong, but my secret fear is that these demonic chairs require balance and muscles I can never regain.
    I have passed one happier milestone – I struggle to find an alternative to the word “step” – in the process of “verticalisation”. Standing upright supported on a frame, without succumbing to nausea or fainting, has been a perpetual challenge to me. No matter how many drugs I take to raise my blood pressure, I have been unable to last beyond five minutes before I am lowered back down into my chair, the colour of Farrow & Ball’s finest off-white. Only on the Erigo – a formidable £40,000 piece of Swiss physiotherapy kit, where my legs are mechanically walked as I am tilted up, thus raising blood pressure – or in the hydrotherapy pool, where the water pressure keeps my blood flowing back upwards again, have I been able to last upright for any period of time. I watch with disbelief and envy as fellow patients stand happily for up to an hour at a time. If I’m ever going to be able to walk, I’ll have to be able to stand first. Whichever way you look at it, this is not rocket science.
    On Friday, however, I had a breakthrough: I lasted 22 minutes on a standing frame. A veritable Ice Age. Half of this time was, I confess, bent forward with my head resting on a shelf of pillows, so I cheated a bit, but the fact remains that I was standing and, hopefully, using muscles in my legs, back and buttocks.
    Snakes and ladders. Beware the double six which sends you tumbling back down the board. Because of the signs of life in my legs, I was asked if I would take part in a trial using the unit’s Lokomat, which is a kind of mechanical walking suit – or, more properly, the world’s first driven gait orthosis. One is suspended from the ceiling in a kind of parachute harness, with robotic cuffs strapped to one’s legs, and then lowered onto a treadmill. God only knows what it costs. Six figures. Anyway, at my fitting-out session, I was found to be unsuitable because the longest femur (thigh bone) length the machine can accommodate is 47cm; and mine are 52.5cm. Taller people may have used it, but not those with such disproportionately long legs. This is disappointing, but then it’s been that kind of week.
    I shouldn’t begrudge any kind of tiny advance, should I? But nothing is enough. Because I’m cursed with the desire to be up performing Riverdance tomorrow, I am broken- hearted that there has been no significant progress in my legs from last week. I’m awfully bad at recognising smaller achievements.
    God only knows the psychological crash I’ll encounter should, as is entirely possible, I never be able to make my legs carry me again.
    My right ankle throbs like mad. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Good because it might be a return of sensation there; or bad because it’s congestion from the DVT? The leg remains as uncooperative as a lump of ancient yew. Have I inadvertently strained the ankle during my adventures with transferring? I bore myself wondering.
    Another acronym has taken over my life – FES, or functional electronic stimulation. At various times, my fingers, wrists, stomach muscles and the major muscle groups in my legs are being wired up with electrodes and made to work, the science being that it will strengthen the muscles. In hand therapy I get FES on my left wrist to improve its strength; in the gym my wheelchair is rigged up to a special FES bike, with electrodes driving my thighs and my glutes. Or I lie on physiotherapy plinths, my legs in slings, and FES electrodes on my quadriceps to strengthen what voluntary movement I have. Some days at 4pm, when gym finishes, I reckon I could usefully plug into the national grid.
    But being in a wheelchair, as any occupational therapist will tell you, calls for creative thinking. I rationalise that the shower chair failure is mainly down to sore hands. Inspired by Leslie, the unit’s resident wizard in helping tetraplegic hands, I have ordered a pair of the thickest wetsuit gloves over the internet. These, I figure, may serve several purposes – they will keep my permanently freezing hands warm; they’ll act as splints on the claw-like fingers; and best of all I can shower in them and they’ll protect my hands when I lift myself back into bed. Sounds like a plan, doesn’t it?

  3. #33
    For the first time, I realise that being in a wheelchair can be fun

    I am lining up opposite a fellow tetraplegic, a young man with pretend murder in his eyes, and the two of us are accelerating towards each other
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from a hospital bed, she welcomes an opportunity to take risks again
    If this wheelchair were a racehorse, you would say it was by Mad Max out of a mare by Robot Wars. At floor level it has a protruding skirt of battered armour, like an evil dodgem car, and carries hooks with which to spear opponents. The wheels are opaque, crusty, blood-splattered and cambered dramatically inward, so that the base of the chair is several times wider than the top. You do not so much sit in the low bucket seat as be melted down into it, your feet tucked far underneath you, and the brilliance of the chair’s design is that, once in, you feel like a centaur. You can pirouette, accelerate and swerve, with ease and speed and a magical feeling of total security. This is what it must feel like to drive a top rally car, or fly an Apache, or ride a Grand Prix dressage horse.
    Which is why I am lining up opposite a fellow tetraplegic in a similar chair, a young man with pretend murder in his eyes, and the two of us are banging our wheels with our crippled fists like mad charioteers, and then accelerating towards each other. Seconds before the head-on collision – reminding myself I am almost old enough to be his grandmother, and, well, did break my neck not long ago – I chicken out and feint left. We still crash, but the armour absorbs the impact, and we circle, grinding and shoving and grinning.
    Welcome to wheelchair rugby, a sport originally called Murderball, and made famous by the terrific documentary film of the same name about the American and Canadian teams. For the first time, I realise that being in a wheelchair can be, instead of a prison sentence, sheer, unadulterated fun. And I am now convinced that every spinal unit in the country should have at least two rugby chairs – no point just one; you need someone to crash into – to reignite the fire in the eyes of male thrill-seekers whose necks are healing but whose spirit remains broken. Even in my brief time in a spinal unit, I have seen too many of these depressed, paralysed young men who lie in bed developing the classic thousand-yard stare, convinced life is no longer worth living. Here is a sport, specifically designed for tetraplegics and those with upper limb deficiencies, which is black, brutal, fast and inspirational. Just watch the film, available on DVD, and you will understand.
    Thanks to Options, a tiny charity run by the physiotherapy staff here, my fellow patients and I spent last week exploring all the things we can do, rather than dwelling on those we cannot. Wheelchair football, basketball, athletics, sailing, skiing, kayaking, adventure golf and using wheelchairs on public buses, to raid cash machines and negotiate cobbled streets. The best bit by far was getting a shot in the specialist rugby wheelchairs lent by a local team. “Oh God, do you have to choose rugby?”groans my poor husband. “Can’t you do something safe, like shopping? Or embroidery?”
    But the point is, of course, that the only way to understand what is possible is to try everything that ought to be impossible, however risky it may seem, however fragile one feels. Besides, just what could happen to us that would come close to the catastrophe we have already endured? Risky is a redundant word. My great dread is that I will have far, far too much time in the future to be wrapped up in cotton wool, doing boring stuff like shopping, or, as right now, hunched over a computer typing with one finger. Even if the bittersweetness it causes is overwhelming at times, I need to find out that the fun, active, outdoors part of my life can still exist. (The national charity Back Up, incidentally, exists for this very reason, doing wonderfully crazy stuff like taking paralysed people camping or mountaineering.)
    So it felt amazing to shoot across a loch in a wicked squall, going so fast that one of the outriggers (stabilisers) on my customised dinghy was lifting dramatically out of the water, though had I any qualification for captaining a boat, other than a childhood spent reading Swallows and Amazons, I might have been scared. Thus I also pushed myself round a 400m athletics track in under… oh, seven minutes; and threw a softball all of six metres. Well beaten, incidentally, by a fellow patient, a 72-year-old great-grandmother. Did the laughter we shared outweigh the agony and envy of seeing athletes in training on the same track – lithe, beautiful bodies flowing on fast, free legs? Of course not, but we pretended it did. Sometimes you almost forget your smiling face is a mask.
    Besides, the packed programme of sport had the advantage of taking my mind off my legs. If improvements are taking place in my body, they are too small to convince me they are improvements. One day I sense something tantalising; 24 hours later I can’t repeat the feat. I am, for instance, aching all over after the sports week, so much so I have had to resort to paracetamol by day as well as night. But is the pain I feel in my torso and back caused by returning muscles?
    I have recovered enough strength to routinely sit myself up in bed every morning and stretch the iron girdle round my hips (no question where the expression hamstrung originates). I can, during the night, now stretch my left foot tentatively towards the bottom of the bed – though there is a delay of several seconds between asking for motion and the leg straightening. (And only the sheet twitching tells me it has moved.) My hips will lift a millimetre off the bed if I try my very hardest. And yesterday, lying on a physio bed, temples bulging like a Soviet shot-putter, I managed to raise my left knee and slide my foot towards me.
    The little vixen I wrote about two weeks ago fares less well. Last time I saw her, about ten days ago, she was hopping wretchedly on three legs. The lower part of the injured limb looked grey, misshapen, mushy with gangrene. Since then there has not been a glimpse of her. Hopefully she died quickly in a secret place; and hopefully she had no cubs. There is too much suffering in this shrunken little world of mine to wish otherwise.

  4. #34
    The only way to survive is to save every ounce of energy for positive things

    ‘Among his search and rescue colleagues, Daz Craig used to be known as Wurzel. Since my first article, he much prefers his new nickname, Dishy Daz’
    One of the things that most amuses me is that the spinal unit is full of forms encouraging us to complain to senior managers. We are positively exhorted to complete them and put them in the complaints box. Every time I wheel past the box, I imagine the kind of creativity this should inspire. “Health and Safety never warned me that if I got drunk and fell off the kerb I could break my neck.” “I hate the colour blue. Why do nurses wear it?” “I should have been told there is a fate worse than death.” “Double incontinence is contrary to my human rights and I’m going to sue the NHS.” Or even (from English patients), “Nurses in Glasgow use the word ‘wee’ all the time: ‘You’ll just feel a wee scratch’; ‘With you in a wee minute’; ‘A wee bowel problem’. I find this term offensive and without exception inaccurate.”
    The developed world exists, as we all know, in a state of institutionalised moaning. Companies have managers who manage moans, and higher-paid managers to check that the moans are being managed properly, and off-shore them if they’re not. The NHS, one of the biggest organisations in the world, and one completely shackled by the blame culture, adopts what one can only call an aggressively defensive position on complaints.
    In reality, I bet the vast majority of official complaints made in here are, by comparison to the catastrophes our injuries have bestowed on us, fundamentally irrelevant – a litany of minor grumbles about the food, the staff, the heating, the noise, the endemic jobsworthiness. I hear people girning about this kind of stuff every day and despair at the amount of negative energy it consumes.
    This is not to say that macaroni cheese is desirable ten times a week. Nor is it to say that all nursing staff would pass the simple test of whether they’re in the right job (when I call them, do they approach me clearly intent on getting away from me as swiftly as is humanly possible, or do they approach with the body language that says, “What can I do to make this patient comfortable?”). The point is, I did not come into hospital to eat, nor to have angels in starched white caps hovering around me. Very soon after arriving here, I made the decision that I would only complain about things that really matter. The only way to survive is to keep this sense of perspective, remember the bigger picture and save every ounce of energy for positive things.
    So here’s the progress report. The DVT leg has gone down a bit, largely due to the industrial amount of warfarin I take every day, although still remains log-like. My hands are strong enough to hold a magazine without it slipping all the time. I have now achieved two reasonably trauma-free transfers from shower chair to bed, thanks largely to the arrival of my humongous, 5mm-thick Billabong wet suit gloves. They may look like monsters’ paws and make hair washing a rather peculiar experience, but they keep my fingers warm and straight, and mean that when I have to lift myself out of the shower chair by pressing down on its weaselly, sharp wheels, my hands don’t hurt. This is major stuff. Oh, and the other really exciting development is that, suddenly, when I take my feet off the wheelchair footplate, I have a sensation of the floor beneath the soles of my trainers. I can press weight down through my feet.
    But hey, sometimes it’s hard to be positive. There was the memorable day when the struggle to lift my legs in and out of the Fiat Punto, the practice car in the gym, defeated me. I could transfer my torso successfully from wheelchair to car seat, but heaving the dead weight of my legs over the door sill was too much for me. It was 4pm and time to call it a day. Tears of utter frustration streaming down my face, I bolted for the privacy of the ward. Which is when I saw him – tall, flying-suited, unmistakable – striding down the corridor towards me.
    It was my dishy helicopter crewman, a man I had last seen when he had leant his face close to mine, imploring me to keep breathing as the Sea King made its approach to Glasgow. “Do it for me, girl,” he’d called above the clatter of the machine. In the intervening months, I had daydreamt of this moment. I would be on my feet, leaning on crutches in a slender, fragile, feminine way, as I thanked him for saving my life. His eyes would crinkle with tenderness, the way men’s eyes do in Mills & Boon books, and he would offer to fly me home. Instead, here I was, in my wheelchair, face like a bulldog chewing a wasp, and lentil soup stains all over my T-shirt. “I’m really sorry I’m crying,” I blubbed, frantically wiping snotters on my bare arm. “It’s just that I’ve been struggling to get into a Fiat Punto.”
    “Don’t worry,” said Dishy Daz. “Getting into a Fiat Punto would make me cry, too.”
    Actually, it turns out he owes me one. Among his Royal Navy search and rescue colleagues, Darren (Daz) Craig used to be known as Wurzel. Despite having had the mickey taken out of him relentlessly since my first article, he – understandably – much prefers his new nickname, Dishy Daz. He and the pilot, Al Hinchcliffe, brought me a framed print, signed by all the crew, of the old warhorse they fly in – Sea King HUMK5XZ920 Gannet SAR Flight. They had been carrying the picture in the aircraft, praying it wouldn’t get broken, until they had a chance to land at the Southern General on exercise.
    They are wonderful, laid-back, amiable guys who have what must rate as one of the most thrilling jobs on the planet. I wonder if search and rescue aircrew moan, too. Probably – about stuff like long hours and heaters that don’t work and unnecessary paperwork and punters who go hill walking in high heels. But I bet they don’t fill in complaints forms.

  5. #35
    Cage fighting and catheters

    ‘Susan is standing over me, grinning. That’s the evil thing about physiotherapists. Try hard for them and all that happens is they ask you to try even harder’
    Picture this, my very own version of cage fighting. I’m lying on my right side on a bench, my left leg suspended by hooks and slings from the metal grille above me. In my peripheral vision, I can see my physiotherapist approaching. I’m trying, Susan, I’m really trying. With eye-popping effort, I pull my left thigh slowly towards my chest, then push out my foot in front, straightening the knee, and finish off the movement by drawing the whole leg back behind me. One, two, three… Terribly slow and jerky, but in effect I am asking my leg to mimic the action of walking.
    “Go on. Pull, pull, pull,” says Susan, a young woman impressed by nothing. “Three sets of ten repetitions, and then you can do the same with the other leg.”
    It takes me more than 15 minutes to do the 30 repetitions and, by the time I finish, the leg is so tired I can barely move it. I relax back onto the pillows and make the mistake of closing my eyes. Within seconds, the black velvet glove of sleep has seized me, pulling me down, deliciously down, into a darkness where I don’t have to fight any more.
    “Mel! What’s this! Sleeping on the job?” Susan is standing over me, grinning. That’s the evil thing about physiotherapists. Try hard for them and all that happens is they immediately ask you to try even harder. And they have the nerve to smile disarmingly while they do it.
    So I must roll onto my other side and repeat the exercise. DVT leg, the right, is about twice as reluctant to move as the left. I manage about 15 repetitions and fall asleep again. As punishment, she makes me turn on my back, bend my knees and push down through my feet to lift my hips. I manage five, which earns a “Good” from her. I leave the gym, tail wagging like a happy dog at such extravagant praise. She’s a heartless hobbit, but I love her. Her enthusiasm allows me to suppress, temporarily, my secret fear that the motor function in my legs is too weak to take me anywhere.
    You will forgive me if this column sounds a little tired. It’s because I’m exhausted. With encouragement from the doctors and nurses, I am attempting a practice so inhumane they didn’t even try it in Abu Ghraib. Intermittent catheterisation – the equivalent, for normal people, of going for a quick pee – is regarded as the gold standard of bladder management for the paralysed.
    Basically, you exchange the joys of a bag of urine strapped to your leg for a relentless four-hour cycle, night and day, which leaves you crazed, sleep-deprived and emotionally very vulnerable. Sort of ten times worse than being a young mother with her first baby.
    I will spare you the intimate details, but suffice to say the process first involves a leap of faith that the bladder muscles will hold, and then a regular ordeal with a mirror and a small tube. You reach the point, at 2am, when all the world is sleeping and you are blindly, fearfully groping around with numb, clawed fingers, when you do start wondering, a) Exactly what the bloody hell you ever did to deserve any of this, and, b) Are there any other orifices into which we could poke something, seeing we are having so much fun? Ears, perhaps? I ask the nurse. How about ears? Eyes? Nostrils? Haven’t tried to stuff anything in them for a while. And at least I could find them.
    I am forbidden to drink more than 400ml of fluid over the four-hour period, for fear of overstretching a bladder which, I am assured, will have shrunk to the size of a walnut since my accident. I lie fretting about this image.
    And you know the most unfair thing of all? This whole procedure is a relative doddle for men. I know, because I sit in the canteen and, over ocean pie and jam sponge and custard, blokes I hardly know confide in me about how “easy” self-catheterisation is. It is a peculiarity of the paralysed community that you end up sharing these things within minutes of meeting. You lasted six hours and peed only 550ml? Wow! That’s brilliant. Pass the tomato ketchup, would you?

  6. #36
    The six-month milestone

    ‘I have been sent books, poems, cutlery with extra-long handles, remedies for the smell of vomit and bedsores, and the best chocolates I’ve ever tasted’
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from hospital, she begins sifting through the mail she has received over the past few months.
    It’s the strangest thing, really, but breaking your neck is the closest you get to attending your own funeral and hearing what people think of you. This is, let me tell you, a truly peculiar experience – akin to standing at the back of the church and hearing eulogies about the deceased, a person whom you thought you knew, and shaking your head a little in bewilderment.
    Only now, therefore, nearly six months on, am I emotionally strong enough to start looking at the cards and tributes that arrived in the immediate aftermath of my accident. So far I have only seen a fraction of them, indeed can still only manage to read a few at a time without getting upset, but the kindness and generosity of the messages in them are overwhelmingly humbling. This has to be proof of what I long suspected: that obituaries are 99 per cent spin.
    So, to friends from past and present, to cousins, neighbours, colleagues and former workmates, I am immensely grateful for the outpouring of love and good wishes. But to adapt that old chestnut from the movie Love Story – “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – can I just say, “Love means never having to reply to your wonderful cards and e-mails.” I wish I had the time and energy to write back, but I just don’t. Now please stop being so damn nice to me, because you know it makes me cry.
    To Times readers, who have written to me in droves, both directly to the hospital but also redirected from London, I can only express amazement at your kindness, lyricism, wisdom and, just occasionally, glorious eccentricity. Just as you say I inspire you, you have inspired me with your stories of recovery and resilience. I have been sent books, poems, cutlery with extra-long handles, remedies for both the smell of vomit and bedsores, prayers; and something called the Hydrant, a simple invention to allow people without hand function to drink independently. Other kind souls offered my family a bed near the hospital. One lady delivered some fabulously easy-to-put-on socks; Ian Clough sent me a splendid package of art materials; and Judith Burgess had couriered to the hospital some of the most drop dead gorgeous handmade chocolates I have ever tasted. And the best bit was, we ate them illegally in the hand therapy class when no staff were looking (NHS pointless rule No 5,300,674: no food or drink in clinical areas). And enormous dexterity it took to get them out of the box, too.
    When I can, I will reply to you. For all there should be masses of time, however, there isn’t. This is how my day pans out. From 6am, mornings are consumed with the grotty side of being paralysed, the ordeal of toileting and dressing. It is after 10am before I am finally in a wheelchair; but my schedule is then packed solid until 4pm with two 90-minute gym sessions and an hour of hand therapy. Supper is at five; then it’s time for visitors. By 7.30pm, at which point I am starting to wilt, I lodge my wheelchair under a hospital bedside table, open my laptop and set to with one finger. By 9.30pm and the last medication trolley, I am a zombie, becalmed in the cool, lonely space between bed and window. I never watch TV or movies, I’m saving Tony Blair’s A Journey for what little downtime I have at weekends; and my rottweiler husband now only allows visitors three nights a week.
    Funnily enough, I have not yet read a published word of what I have written, either on the printed page or online. I crouch over my laptop, write, then hit send; a kind of weekly catharsis of pain. I am not sufficiently emotionally robust to read it again. My defence mechanism is the necessary separation between the hidden, private me and the public face. Nevertheless I believe the writing, although physically hard, is compulsively good for me.
    If truth be told, I am struggling a little at the moment. As I said earlier, it’s nearly six months since my accident – and six months seems to be the magic figure for spinal injuries, the time frame within which it is generally assumed that whatever big recovery is going to happen will happen. Fact is, my legs, although they move, have not developed any significant power at all in the past month. So I have my seriously weak moments, crumpling into the embrace of my favourite nurses and therapists, wetting their uniforms with those deadly bodily fluids known outside hospital as tears. That’s when I wish I really was as indomitable as people credit me with being.
    But if I concentrate on the positives, then I can tell you that yesterday I noticed some feeling in the tips of the first two fingers of my left hand, the seriously crippled one. My back aches where my now bony spine rubs against the wheelchair – and I shouldn’t by rights have any sensation there. Even better, I have finally conquered the standing frame and can lock my left knee so it supports my weight – albeit for a few seconds, but it’s a start. The right knee is much more recalcitrant, although underwater I can just about lock both of them.
    As any fool can see, the mistake I’m making is to look too far into the future. Stop gazing at the horizon, urges my husband, and start living in the moment. Just concentrate on today, work as hard as you can, and ignore the bigger picture.
    An ex-patient, a very special man called Peter, who had a similar accident to mine and made an amazing recovery, almost by willpower alone, agrees. He says it’s a bit like skiing towards a really awkward turn, and how that future turn affects our ability to do the turns before it. How, if you play a musical instrument, the anticipation of a difficult bar affects the bars before it, which would otherwise have been effortless. When things got very tough, Peter shrank his focus to a pinprick in time and battled to suppress the thoughts that were so corrosive and painful. That, I suspect, might be the answer. Stop thinking.

  7. #37
    Welcome to disability world: a whole new frontier of consumer possibilities

    The electric-powered bikes looked as if they could take you up Ben Nevis. “Don’t know about you, mother, but I want one,” said my mountain-biker son
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from a hospital bed, she marvels at the technology that now exists to help her.
    All my working life, I have loved subcultures. One of the delights of being a journalist is the chance to explore hidden, faintly batty worlds unknown to people with mainstream interests. Planespotters, pekinese breeders, Purdey shotgun collectors, steam-train enthusiasts, hoarders of football memorabilia or first folios or moths. The world, you discover, is made up of thousands of these little niche groups, each with their own gatherings, language, hierarchies and gentle degrees of Asperger’s. And for every harmless chap who builds his own amplifier from scratch, and every twitcher who flies a thousand miles for some poor, bedraggled finch, nothing is surer than that a specialist market will spring up to serve him.
    It’s actually rather thrilling to discover I’m now a member of a subculture, too; an extensive, alluring one, rich in fascinating design ideas. Welcome to disability world: a whole new frontier of consumer possibilities. From kitchen gadgets to vast, drive-in Popemobiles for power wheelchairs, one should grip one’s credit cards tightly, for this is an industry dedicated to relieving the halt, the sick, the lame and the paralysed of their money. In the nicest possible way, of course.
    Last weekend saw us spinal patients being loaded into the minibus bound for the Mobility Roadshow in Edinburgh, a display case for most kinds of vehicle, wheelchair, zimmer or hoist that a crippled person could ever want or need. A kind of jamboree for the hobbling classes. To me, freshly crippled, the sheer inventiveness was mind-boggling – though commercially unsurprising in the age of the affluent baby-boomer with failing hip and knee replacements.
    There were manual wheelchairs as light and stylish as Tour de France racing bikes; there were crafty power-assisted wheels that treble your pushing ability in a manual chair – “magic power, like having someone push you along”; lever-drive propulsion wheels; and even innovative electric-powered four-wheel mountain bikes that looked as if they could take you up Ben Nevis. “Don’t know about you, mother, but I want one of those,” said my mountain-biker son, an engineering student, who had joined me in the hope of a free lunch but remained, enthralled by the mechanical ingenuity on display.
    What I was really seduced by was a beast of a four-wheel-drive chair called a Four X that not only went up steep hills but had the option of a seat lift which, at the touch of a button, stood you upright. There are lots of variations on this theme – I have even read in Horse & Hound about a woman called Susi Rogers-Hartley who is, unbelievably, a member of the Great Britain para showjumping team despite being paralysed from the waist down. How utterly amazing is that? (Please don’t tell my husband about this, incidentally; he’d be horrified to think I was getting ideas.) Anyway, she has a power chair called an F280, which lifts her up so she can mount her horse.
    What was also fascinating – aside from the WAVs, the vast wheelchair-accessible vehicles that look like the transport for President Obama’s spooks – was how easily ordinary cars can be converted for tetraplegic hands. Some handicapped people just need a hand lever that is an accelerator one way and a brake the other. I will probably need the system whereby an inner ring on the steering wheel is the accelerator.
    Of course much of this is fantasy stuff, not just because of the price tags but also because, for me, driving is such a long way away. The waiting list for official driving assessments, to test whether I have the hand function to get behind the wheel again, is 44 weeks long in Scotland. It will be next summer before I can make any decisions about buying cars. (How about a Subaru Impreza, incidentally, converted to manual controls? And why did the salesman look so appalled when I mentioned it? Is it compulsory to become an old fart because your legs won’t carry you?)
    In some ways, needless to say, the wait is a good thing. I remain determinedly optimistic – some would say deliberately perverse – about how disabled I am going to be in a year’s time. Perhaps, indeed probably, I may require magic off-road wheelchairs and the like, but I am still holding out for the alternative possibility; and perhaps my ability to grasp a steering wheel will have improved greatly by then. This is a form of pig-headedness, plainly, but it’s really the only weapon I have got at my disposal.
    Know this: I am digging deep. Every time the future unfolds in my head, and tears of self-pity well up, I consciously force my focus back to the here and now. Live only in the moment. Get to the gym and fight. Today, FES (functional electronic stimulation) to strengthen my quadriceps. Today, locking my knees for a few seconds more. Today, they will wheel my bed into the gym and I will work at one of my biggest challenges – lifting my legs on to the bed. I can get my body onto it fairly easily, but I still need a nurse to swing my legs up after me. This is despite having developed biceps – “Urgh, you’ve got arms like Madonna,” squawked a girlfriend – but plainly not ones enough to lift uncooperative legs. People think – I used to – that if you’re paralysed you have limp, malleable legs. On the contrary, most of us have rigid, tight, heavy ones, often gripped by horrendous spasms. Manoeuvring them is ghastly. And getting the correct anti-spasm medication is a matter of trial and error: too much of one kind and you’re chemically coshed, unable to stay awake during the day; too much of another and it knocks out what little muscle power your legs have regained. Personally, I prefer to err on the spasmy side, even if it hurts. Besides, in the deadly silence of the spinal night, when no bodies stir, I rather like the rustle of my bedsheets as my legs go walking all by themselves.

  8. #38
    With spinal injury, just as you have met one challenge, another pops up in its place

    I have started swimming breaststroke – underwater, I can hear my shoulder joints and vertebrae cracking, like dolphins clicking at each other
    Times columnist Melanie Reid broke her neck and back after falling from a horse in April. Writing for the Magazine from a hospital bed, she squares up to a fresh set of challenges.
    There’s a woman kneeling in front of me, her body bolt upright, her arms outstretched on a raised bench, as if in religious supplication. She’s tall and gaunt, her face pale and contorted. She looks as if she’s awaiting death by stoning. She’s swaying a little from side to side. She looks vaguely familiar, but so much thinner and older than when last I saw her.
    The woman is, of course, me. The physiotherapists have placed a full-length mirror in front of me in the gym, the kind you get in old-fashioned gents’ outfitters, so that I can see what they are asking me to do. The wonderful Susan is behind me, growling as only she can. “Go on, push your hips forward, and hold. Hold. Get those shoulder blades back and down. Go on. Now hold.”
    All I can feel is pain. Everywhere. Pain in the feeble muscles in my buttocks and hamstrings as I try to clench them. Pain in the hip flexors and abdominals, as they are stretched out fully for the first time in six months. Pain right down my back, where the muscles are rigid. Pain in my arms, which are propping up the whole shaky edifice.
    I manage to hold the position for a few seconds longer, then collapse forward on to my elbows. On my knees and elbows, panting, still wobbling, I try to relax and savour the delicious weirdness of not being in one of the three conventional spinal-injury positions: sitting, or lying on one’s back or side. This is really horrible, I decide, but I love it.
    In fact, it’s hard to describe the mixture of emotions. There is a kind of masochistic joy, in that the pain suggests that core muscles are creeping out of paralysis. There is dread, because the ache from these muscles, which have lain frozen and scrunched up for six months, is so sickening, so all-encompassing, so breath-removing, I don’t know if I can face it. And there is the self-doubt: the deep-seated fear that, whatever barriers I push myself through, the muscles may be too weak ever to be of much use. But it’s too late to indulge that kind of defeatism now, isn’t it? Trite as it sounds, isn’t that the secret of success – never to give up trying?
    Stretching the muscles down my front seems to have become increasingly important to my progress. When Susan initially rolled me into a prone position, about two weeks ago, it was the first time I had lain on my front since the accident, and I experienced an extraordinarily powerful flashback to the moment when I was planted face-down in the turf behind the cross-country jump, unable to move, crying out for help. Lying on the blue plastic plinth, my face on a starched white pillow, I panicked and sobbed, racked by both grief and muscular spasm.
    But we persevered, and now I can lie on my stomach in the gym and relax; even fall asleep. I can lift myself up on to my elbows and stretch my neck back, a movement I never thought I’d do again. Even more rewardingly, I have started swimming breaststroke – arms only – in the hydrotherapy pool, with a mask and snorkel, thereby gently easing the muscles down my front. It is most peculiar – underwater, I can hear my shoulder joints and vertebrae cracking as they mobilise, like dolphins squeaking and clicking at each other. I don’t try to move my legs for fear of them spasming and drowning me, but if I get up enough speed with my arms, they trail happily along behind.
    The physios have been trying other things on me. Last week, in another rather thrilling moment, I raised myself up from a seated position to stand holding on to the parallel bars. This probably sounds more of a breakthrough than it was, but it nevertheless felt great. I had the senior physiotherapist,
    Jon Hasler, sitting in front of me, exhorting me to tip my upper body right forward over my feet; and Susan behind me, ready to catch me if I went backwards. “But I’m going to fall and crush you,” I wailed. “It’s never happened yet,” said Jon, the Yoda of spinal therapy, although much better looking. So, I put my weight down through my feet, pushed on the parallel bars with my hands, put my head south of my knees, and willed my feeble, feeble thigh muscles to lift me upright. And I did actually do it; I managed to stand up briefly, teetering like a newborn foal, and lock my knees for a few seconds.
    Walking, of course, is a whole different frontier, and one that I’m deliberately not thinking about. I have subsequently succumbed to another UTI (urinary tract infection), which has rendered my legs powerless and in perpetual spasm. They burn constantly, as if they are being deep-fried.
    I have fantasies about burying them in ice. Why is spinal injury so cruel, that, just as you think you have surmounted one challenge, another simply pops up to take its place?
    But I have also been told to stop fretting about reaching the six-month post-injury landmark, which, as I mentioned in a previous column, is said to be the period during which major recovery takes place. David Allan, the director of the spinal unit, rebukes me, saying 12 months is a far more realistic figure. And I have received several letters from people with spinal injuries who say they have made significant improvements for up to two years and, in some instances, much longer.
    A footnote. There may or may not be a new byline picture on this page. My husband, a professional, tried gamely to take a new photograph of me. For my part, I tried gamely to co-operate, putting on mascara, earrings and a nice shirt. But hardly had he started shooting than I started weeping; and the pictures may not be useable. Call it self-pity, call it denial, call it bereavement, but I was unable to cope with the realisation that, yes, this was the new me, a me I hardly recognise any more.

  9. #39
    Thank you pelican. I really don't know how to comment, it's so, so raw. This: "tears are about the only voluntary activity one has left" is one of the best summaries of sci I've ever read.

  10. #40
    Senior Member Timaru's Avatar
    Join Date
    Apr 2006
    Hampshire, England.
    Thanks for posting Pelican, fantastic read, although it's a long way removed from the then considered gold standard rehab. I went through thirty three years ago.

    However some things never change, the first car door sill I became intimately acquainted with also had Subaru inscribed on the kicker plate, my old Subaru 1.8 Turbo Estate.

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