The night post surgery I slept soundly and woke up feeling refreshed, relieved and comfortable. No pain. Soon after breakfast, two ARI physios had soon introduced themselves to me. The conversion from recovery to rehabilitation was about to begin.
I was still attached to various surgical appliances and monitors. I was being given a briefing on what the physios were here for, but I wasn’t really getting my head around them being here today, less than 24 hours after 8 hours of surgery. And what about all this stuff attached to me? I seemed to be the only one worrying.
It soon became clear that they weren’t just here for a nice chat. After the sharp/blunt test, where they use both ends of a pin to ascertain your levels of sensation, In my case this was across my entire body – above the point of spinal injury won out handsomely to below; the lead physio then said they were going to get me to sit up on the side of the bed.
By this time, I’m looking for the hidden cameras. This must be some kind of joke?
This was happening. I was instructed to rise slowly from my lying position. Once or twice I made for a grab of the hand rail but reasonably confidently, I soon sat upright. It felt brilliant. I said hello to my ward neighbour opposite, first time seeing him. He offered me his newspaper but there would be time for that later.
Once acclimatised on my lofty perch, I was asked if I could cup my left hand under my left leg and lift my knee towards my chin? I knew how much weaker I had become so this in itself was another test. In your negative to anything physical mindset, you instantly dismiss this as preposterous – Physiotherapy School must have a Crazy Talk module.
Tentatively and prepared to strain, I gritted my teeth like the great weightlifters and ‘heeeurrrgh’, there was no great resistance, my knee was coming towards my chin. Now I was asked to lift this leg over the bedside. I was doing this too. Adrenalin and some incredulity coursed through me. More confidently, my right leg soon followed. I was sitting up on my bedside, feet dangling and it felt like like one of my life’s greatest achievements.
From this point, I understood I would have to disengage with every aspect of how my life used to be with spina bifida. This was spina bifida catching up with me. Now I was beginning to have to face up to its inevitable impact. Every body movement was now being taken back to its component parts. Forget everything taken for granted before. I was prepared for the fight.
I soon took solace from having had some 30 years on my feet. Most people with the condition are not given that opportunity. I had a level of independence few with the condition can have too. Now I too would have to adapt. I vowed I would continue not to let spina bifida define me no matter what it may have in store. I have since heard of other people battling to thwart the anticipated outcomes of their own medical condition, attempting to outwit medical science. This inspires me. I was determined not to settle on these laurels. Loving life and a strong work ethic were instilled in me. I could still be independent. I could still be me.
In all, I would spend around a month in hospital in Aberdeen. The physio team continued to encourage me, albeit with limited resources. I was soon given an upper body work out plan to follow, increasing the strength of my arms, along with little movements on my bottom to improve balance, core strength and coordination. My left leg was responding very well, a range of flex was returning which gave me some belief that hope was not lost there. Really though, it was also time spent waiting for an available bed in the Spinal Injuries Unit.
The morning of my transfer and for the first time in my life, I really didn’t know what to expect from my home town. What would the SIU be like? This didn’t sound like just another hospital ward. Would I have a room to myself? My final week in ARI saw me move to a single room. I never felt nervous going back to Glasgow. This was different.
The patient transfer vehicle I was in, I shared with a wheelchair user who had a clinic appointment at SIU. I got talking to her and explained how our respective injuries had come about. She was attending clinic having been a long term patient a few years before. Three hours soon passed by as I bent her ear about what to expect. She was entirely positive of her experience. For the first time I took notice of someone’s wheelchair.
On arrival, the unit seemed empty. Two corridors, receptionist-free reception area, empty glass lined meeting rooms and a day room opposite with no one using it this day. It was so quiet.
Round another corner and suddenly there was a buzz about the place.
“Hi, just in there, thanks” I was directed into a manic room of animated discussion and high jinks, noise I had become unaccustomed to in my time in hospital. Yes, this was Glasgow. I was instantly terrified.
I tried to remain incognito but the guys soon introduced themselves to me, one or two in wheelchairs, a couple seemingly permanently in bed and a fifth guy on his feet, age range teens to pensioner. I was the new blood. I just really wanted to read my book.
After being checked in and a limp sandwich, I met my new physio. He gave me a tour of the gymnasium. All expectations were instantly blown. This was incredible. Specialist exercise and lifestyle equipment designed to give me the best possible chance of regaining my independence. This would be my workshop. Prepared to graft, I instantly felt settled, motivated and assured this would be the making of me.
After assessment, there would be three main outcomes which would define the level of success during my rehabilitation; to walk again (with or without aids), to make full use of a wheelchair, and to learn to live independently.
The next day you find me strapped into a wooden frame, from the waste down, standing on my feet for the first time in a month. Designed to fool my brain into believing that I can stand in the hope that the brain subsequently restimulates damaged or dormant nerves, this would be repeated half an hour every two hour physio session.
This was also the time I would spend on the orthodox looking cycling machine, adapted to include an electronic drive, again, designed to fool the brain.
The gym was a hive of activity. Patients at various stages in their own rehabilitation programme, alongside those with from birth injury were those fighting back from eg motorcycle accidents, poolside slips, rugby scrum collapse, a 200 foot fall off Arthur’s Seat; these patients were those now tentatively walking between parallel bars, learning to transfer from their wheelchair into the front end of an actual Ford Fiesta, another learning the tipping point of their wheelchair, others walking with the aid of a cast, sticks or getting used to a new neck and spinal brace.
The upper body work was just as important here. I soon got to know all the physios, one of whom was a national level Rugby player, incredible physique; his nickname was ‘Buses’ given his resemblence to the side of one. He never let me rest on my laurels but I’ve never laughed so much either while pummelling a bench press. I soon learned the threat of his singing voice would see me automatically add another weight to the bar. All the motivation was in not hearing him sing.
I never had felt comfortable with attending the gym. I loved the outdoors too much for a start and I soon bored myself of the routine and monotony of waiting for the person using the apparatus you want to use next. A bike ride or a good walk was far more stimulating. But this gym was inspirational. You soon made friends as there was a culture of encouragement among patients who understood precisely what you were going through. Little miracles were occurring before your own eyes every single day.