Minutes passed like hours. Hours passed like days. Days, well they never seemed to end. I wondered, would this week pass quicker than the last? It was enough in itself coming to terms with the physical impact of the accident, but for now, the biggest challenge I faced was mental. Nothing in my life could have prepared me for this…
I started to wake, to slowly open my eyes, and to begin adjusting from the darkness to the bright fluorescent lighting above me. I remember starting to panic a little, I think more with confusion than fear. Where am I? Why can’t I move? Who are these people at the end of my bed? In those first bleary-eyed moments, I had forgotten that I was in hospital. As I began to come to my senses, I struggled to stay awake… I felt utterly drained. For the next few hours at the least, I passed uncontrollably in and out of consciousness. The next time I regained consciousness for any amount of time, I saw the familiar faces of my Surgeon and Anaesthetist at the end of my bed. Everything started to click back into place. As the Surgeon began speaking to me, I found comfort in his calm and friendly demeanour…surely this meant that everything had gone well? Over the course of the next few minutes, the pair took it in turns to explain what the surgery had revealed about my injury, as well as the likely prognosis for my future recovery. The bad news was that I had fractured and dislocated my spine at the T6 vertebrae, which in turn had stretched and compressed my spinal cord, resulting in an immediate paralysis below the chest. The good news, I had somehow, and quite miraculously, avoided severing the spinal cord entirely. The procedure had lasted roughly six hours, and had involved a major realignment and stabilisation of my spine. Two 10” titanium rods had been used to provide added stability and rigidity either side of the break. Whilst the likelihood of a full recovery was not probable, it was not impossible. I was told that the next few days and weeks would provide a better indication of the potential for future recovery. As soon as the pair had left my bed space, I committed myself to optimism, and to the potential that things might improve over the coming days and weeks. In my darkest hours, optimism was the only thing that kept me going.
It was following surgery that I was moved to the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU), where I was to spend the best part of the next five days in a morphine induced haze. I remember seeing my loved ones for the first time since the day of my accident. I remember trying to be strong for them, and to show them that I was still the Darren they knew. It was at some point on the second day that Ellie sat next to me and produced a diary, a “diary for the journey ahead” she said. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I did not have the energy to appreciate the sentiment fully. For the next few days, Ellie would sit next to me and summarise each day on my behalf, and would ask for a contribution from me. I managed two words that first day, “dry” and “positive”, on the second, just “sleepy”. In truth, my first three days in ICU passed relatively quickly as I passed in and out of consciousness in a blur of discomfort, tiredness, and the odd recollection of a conversation with a friend or family member at my bedside. My tired and confused state was made apparent by one of the ward’s nurses when she caught me watching an episode of ‘Air Ambulance – 999’, to which she promptly said “a bit too close to home for you at the moment isn’t it?” before she switching it over. In my half-conscious state, I guess I hadn’t recognised the slight irony! Who knows, I might have even made a guest appearance!
The real irony of my time in ICU was that as I began to recover from surgery, I started to feel a sense of overwhelming claustrophobia about life on the ward. The rhythmic ‘beeping’ of machines at my bedside, the screaming of other patients in pain, the constant movement of staff across the ward, the harsh fluorescent lighting, the lack of daylight. The ward seemed to abide by no discernible pattern; I had completely lost any sense of time or date. ICU was a ‘city’ that never truly slept. As the days passed, the feeling of suffocation began to grow, slowly chipping away at my mental state and positivity. To make matters worse, my body was constantly overheating. It was battling to repair after surgery. I didn’t know it at the time, but on the fourth day, Ellie sat beside me and wrote in my diary: “I hate to put words in your mouth, but I think you are finding everything a little hard today”. She had hit the nail on the head. Thankfully, the staff on ICU were a team of medical professionals who put the interest of their patients’ wellbeing first. With me clamouring to escape the stuffy confines of the ward, two nurses took the decision to push me and the bed (machines and all) straight out of ICU, and into an area below the ambulance loading bay. For the first time in five days, I felt the sun on my face, and a cool breeze of fresh air against my skin. I felt an overwhelming release of tension, stress and worry…I was in heaven. It might have only lasted an hour or so, but I could not, and cannot still, thank the staff of ICU enough for doing that for me. It saved me.
Six days after surgery, my vital signs continued to improve, and as my reliance upon intravenous morphine decreased, it was decided that I could be transferred to the Midland Centre for Spinal Injuries (MCSI). It was there that I would continue a period of six weeks forced ‘bed rest’ before starting physical rehabilitation. I felt a great sense of pride on the day of my transfer from ICU to MCSI, it felt like I was ‘graduating’ to the next stage of my recovery. As I was wheeled out of my bay for the last time, I had the chance to say goodbye to Maryanne, the nurse who had first tended to my wounds, who had prepped me for surgery, and had helped keep my spirits high when things had got tough in ICU. She made me promise that I would be strong, and that I would come back to see everyone once I was better. Lying in the back of the ambulance as we left Stoke Hospital, I was proud that I had survived and overcome what were undoubtedly some of the darkest moments of my life, and I was excited to start the next chapter of my recovery.
Arriving at the Robert Jones and Agnus Hunt Hospital in Gobowen, I quickly lost my bearings as I was wheeled through a series of corridors, double doors, and finally into a single isolation room on Wrekin Ward. I was instantly struck by the peace, by how quiet my room was compared to the ward in Stoke. For the first time in a long time, I had space to think, space to breathe. The team that day made such an effort to welcome me to the ward, taking it in turns over the course of the day to introduce themselves and to help me settle. Away from the noises and stresses of ICU, I finally felt able to start the process of physical and mental recovery. With the love and support of my friends and family, and with the Rio Olympics providing ample television, the first couple of days slipped by without any real effort. With each day that passed, I felt more aware, more ‘me’. I was able to hold proper conversations, to remember I’d had them, and even to make a positive contribution to Ellie’s daily diary. Although I now faced the daunting prospect of a further five weeks of forced bed rest, I knew deep down that things were only getting better, and that day by day I had to keep the faith.
The practice of six weeks bed rest following spinal surgery is a crucial part of the body’s rehabilitation and repair process. By isolating movement in the back, and by lying in a horizontal position, the body was better able to utilise its resources to promote growth and to repair the damaged area. In some cases, patients are able to see a partial or near full return of previous function within this time. In many ways, knowing the potential for recovery within those six weeks made it an easier pill to swallow. In others, it was to make each day a desperate search for any difference or improvement in my situation. In the confines and isolation of my room, it was quite easy to run away with thoughts and notions of what the future was to hold for me. In truth, there were moments where I teetered on the edge. The only way I managed to deal with the uncertainty was to take each day as it came, and to endeavour not to look forward, or to dwell on what I had potentially lost. I made a commitment to make the best of each day, regardless of the situation.
During my first week on Wrekin Ward I was still very much feeling the after effects of surgery. My temperature was constantly high, my appetite was low, and I was setting all types of records for urine output. As a result of my level of injury, I was now dependent on staff to manage many aspects of my daily care, including, bladder and bowels. It was in the first couple of days on Wrekin Ward that Mark, one of the many fantastic nurses, remarked that, “when you enter Wrekin you leave your pride at the door”. He was right, you had to. To start with, it was difficult to accept that I was unable to control the most basic and personal of bodily functions. But, over time, I accepted it as normality, and even as an opportunity to have a laugh and joke with the member of staff at my bedside. The same could be said for much about life on Wrekin Ward really, the whole situation was alien, but the unit’s incredible staff made each day more manageable. Day by day, I became more accustomed to daily life and routine on the ward. With the exception of visiting hours, the undoubted highlight was the ten-minute leg stretch with one of the physio’s each morning. I knew that I couldn’t feel the stretches, but it was a massive psychological boost to see my legs moving. It was during one of these sessions that one of the physios produced a dumbbell for me to do some upper body exercises with…fantastic! The weight she produced however was just 1kg. When I asked if they had anything a bit heavier, the answer was “well 2kg is the most we can give you!”. I gratefully accepted the improved offer, but at the same time conspired for a friend to bring in something heavier from the local gym…a 4kg dumbbell! It wasn’t long before I was clamouring to escape the stuffy confines of my room, and was growing increasingly frustrated by the inability to move my body. I think my family and friends could see this, and after a little request on their part, in came two members of staff ready to get me outside into the courtyard and the summer sun. Therein started a daily ritual of being wheeled outside, weather permitting, for my daily dose of Vitamin D, and importantly, a break from the stuffy confines of my room. During that first week, I had such unbelievable support from all of my friends and family. At one stage I even heard that my work colleagues had created an online calendar so that people could schedule in their visits…such a council thing to do, but I loved them for it.
There is so much I could write about bed rest, it really was an almost insurmountable emotional challenge to overcome at times. There were days which never seemed to end, and I have soon forgotten. But, there were also moments which have defined my journey, and will stay with me for a lifetime. About two weeks into my stay on Wrekin, I was moved into the room next door to mine. Importantly, this new room had double doors to the courtyard…a gateway to the outside world! I finally felt that I was in an environment where I could settle into a routine, and to start working through my remaining days on bed rest. Two days later, Ellie and I had spent the day chatting in the sunshine together, and were settling down to a rare treat…an Indian takeaway! All of a sudden, a member of staff came into the room and dropped the proverbial bombshell that I was to be moved out of the room, and would be sharing one with another patient. When I asked at what point this was to be, I was told quite bluntly, “now, in like five minutes”. As soon as the nurse had left the room, I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. I felt so disappointed in myself. I had fought back tears for two weeks, and it was this which finally got me. It dawned on me that I had lost all control of my surroundings, and that life wasn’t really in my hands anymore. Whilst Ellie comforted me and told me that it was healthy to express some emotion after everything I had been through, I was scared that it could mark the start of a downward emotional spiral. The raw emotions I felt in that moment are something that I will never forget; they marked the undoubted low point of my journey at that point. But, life often has a habit of surprising us. However desperate I felt in those moments, I couldn’t appreciate the positive impact that moving rooms would have on my recovery. In that room was Tim, and it was Tim who would come to make my remaining time on bed rest bearable, and even enjoyable at times. Tim and I were roughly the same age, we were both similarly sporting and outdoorsy in our interests, and our injuries were relatively similar. Most importantly however, the guy was a force of nature when it came to positivity! He is the only man I’ve ever known that could be woken up at 6:00am and talk like he’d already drunk two espressos. Tim was roughly four weeks ahead of me in his journey at this point, and had already started the process of rehabilitation. As I watched his progress from my bed, I aspired to be as positive and driven as he was when my time came. He shared his knowledge of the milestones ahead of me, and he always spoke with a “you got this” kind of mentality whenever I doubted how I might face up to the challenges myself. I have no hesitation in saying that Tim’s friendship was a true godsend, and that without him, this journey would have been so much harder.
Over the course of the next four weeks life passed by in repetitive rhythm as I, slowly but surely, approached the finishing line. I had come to increasingly rely upon and appreciate the support of my friends and family, who, without fail had ensured that I had someone to look forward to seeing each day. Likewise, I will never forget the supreme human effort made by my Nan in catching three buses every day to come and keep me company during the final three weeks. With just a week left, it felt somewhat surreal to entertain the thought that life outside of this ‘safe haven’ existed anymore. I couldn’t believe what I was thinking! I had become institutionalised to this new routine, so ready to accept that each new day was simply a repetition of the last. The last time I wasn’t lying flat on my back, I was standing looking down at Matt from the top of that climb, on that day. As D-Day arrived, I felt a mixture of trepidation and excitement.
Here’s to the next chapter!