Spinal Cord Injury ramblings

A bit of a self-indulgent ramble here (which I suppose is a definition of ‘blog’ so no harm done…..)

Just been up to Salisbury Hospital (Odstock) to the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Injuries Centre for my bi-annual check-up. It’s always a strange experience, I think because of its obvious, direct, personal association with [my] spinal injury – which of course in itself is a strange experience. After 24 years little seems to have changed. The decor may be uplifted, the equipment may be digital and many of the old faces may have left (but by no means all) – but it retains the same abstract character it always has done.

And abstract is another appropriate adjective. Traumatic Spinal Cord Injury, in the acute stages at least is certainly just that. Anyone can be changed in an instant, courtesy of accident, misfortune, act of violence or misadventure. You will lose all of life’s normal reference points the moment you go down and struggle as you might, there is no way to re-establish what you knew. All that awaits you and your random compadres is a bizarre re-birthing as you enter the world of the ‘cripple’ (I recall that was our own self-effacing vernacular of choice, back in the day) .

We were mainly late teens and early twenties, some sporty, some reckless, others feckless. The pastimes of that generation ensured proportional representation. The few girls amongst our number were inevitably those who’d been dumped or squashed by horses. The chaps diving, biking or other sports, but mainly car and motorbike accidents. However fate’s ‘PR’ meant (tragically) that the youngest was seven and the eldest was seventy. The youngster had dived onto a settee (we’ve all done it have we not?) and was impaled on a knitting needle, piercing into his cervical spine and rendering him tetraplegic. Our senior member had retired from a lifelong career in the merchant navy ‘man and boy’. His paraplegia was a result of falling down a stairway on a cross channel ferry whilst returning from holiday. How ironic is that? I’ve talked to people who ‘died’ (drownings mostly after diving into shallow depths of water) and found the experience most serene – I don’t have anything to add to that – but thought it ‘noteworthy’ and possibly of interest.

I myself was flown up there from Torbay Hospital by the Navy in a Sea King. Blinkered by an immobilising frame and skull traction, a load of injected drugs and acute disturbance to the senses – I arrived at Odstock (“and where is that exactly?”) completely disorientated. (It was to be at least four months until I was to get (or be got) out of bed, let alone get my bearings back again) I was wheeled supine from the heli-pad to an isolation ward where newbies were quarantined for MRSA screening for a day or two. The first thing I can recall being asked was “When do you go to the toilet?” I remember thinking “WTF?” as to be honest that really was the least of my worries and concerns at the time. Besides, didn’t everyone just go when they needed to? (Part of the re-birthing is the acquisition of new and adapted skills and ‘routine’ – but bowel care and the like is not something that one has insight into at the acute stages – and why would you?!)

It was also my first introduction to Paula Crawford (SEN) who was to be my ‘primary nurse’ for the duration on ‘Avon Ward’ (mirroring ‘Tamar Ward’). Paula, along with many of the staff was an absolute star. She had been working at the D of C pretty much since since it had opened in ’84. I found out later I was her first ‘primary patient’. I’ve struggled to stay in touch after all these years, mainly because I’m a bit crap at doing stuff like that, but on reflection, partly because success of the Unit (and rehab in general) pushes you away from explicit and implied dependency. Paula stayed at the Unit for many years, she became RGN and then a Ward Sister. Latterly she specialised in plastics and skin/pressure care and I believe she is still with Salisbury Hospital practicing in that specialism. She later married Tim (who was an occasional Nurse auxiliary on the Unit at my time, but he subsequently trained as an Occupational Therapist) – and indeed, today is I believe, the birthday of their eldest child.

I don’t know if any of this makes sense in the context of the blog, but maybe it’s because it actually doesn’t make any sense at all. As I started by saying – the Unit is different but the same – I just want to convey how mad and topsy-turvy acute spinal cord injury can be at all levels. Something like MASH, Porridge and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest all rolled into one funny yet macarbre, living parody. I really don’t think that has changed at all since 30/11/86. I suspect the demographics, the randomness and the gamut of shock, realisation and rehab (our euphemistic re-birthing) are all still there – like a living ghost (if that’s not too oxymoronic).

It’s in recognition of this, and the fact that Paula and her colleagues, together with their successors, manage to guide us ‘cripples’ through all of the nonsense to at least the point where opportunity can once again knock – that I’m toying with naming the Landie ‘Paula’. Now I’m not sure that cars should really have names, and I’m even less sure that it’s actually flattering to have one named after you – but I do know that I could not undertake the Indlovu Drive without acknowledging my time at the D of C (a year after all) and any positive effect it has had on my own character and ability to manage my subsequent disability. So ‘Paula’ it is on behalf of all of those working in the fields of acute and longer-term spinal cord injury rehab.

Oh, and if you are interested, after the usual kidney X-rays and ultrasound, I still have a clean bill of health.

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