Today was the day. Today marked the end of my sixth week on bed rest. Thank God. I wasn’t quite sure how I’d quite managed it, but then again, I hadn’t really had much of a choice. Never before in my life had I wished away days quite like I had these past six weeks. Each day had become a fifteen-hour test of patience. Sleep then repeat. Sleep then repeat. I had lost over a stone in weight, and had watched my muscle mass slowly leave my body. But, that pattern was about to be broken. Today was the day I started to take back control of my life…
For the last six weeks, the staff on Wrekin Ward had counted down each day, and each week with me. “Two more week’s today isn’t it Darren?”. “Only one week left now Darren!”. As I woke that morning, I was greeted with a beaming smile and the welcome confirmation that, “today’s the day!”. I remember seeing Tim raise a triumphant fist from across the room. He had shared this journey with me for the last four weeks, and if anything, seemed more excited for me than I was. As was standard practice following bed rest, I was to be allowed up for no longer than half an hour on the first day. The reasoning behind this was frustrating simple. For each day that I had lain flat on my back, my heart had grown weaker, and had adapted to pushing blood horizontally, as opposed to vertically throughout my body. If I exceeded thirty minutes on my first outing, there was a significant chance that I would pass out. It was about midday by the time that the hoist was brought into the room, and the staff had me dressed and ready to be lifted out of bed. This was it. Go time! As the hoist slowly tightened the harness slung under my body, and as my body started to lift from the bed, the excitement I felt was immeasurable. But, as the hoist continued to lift me higher, my joy almost instantly turned to anguish. As I looked down, all I could see were a pair of thin, lifeless legs swinging below me. God. They were mine. I felt sick. For the first time since the day of my accident, I became painfully aware of the extent of my injuries, and of the fact that I could no longer control two thirds of my body. As I lifted my head, I noticed everyone smiling at me. I tried my best to smile and to put on a brave face, but on the inside, I was hurting. As I was lowered into the wheelchair by the side of my bed, all I wanted to do was to go back to my safe place. To go back to bed. For those thirty minutes on that first day, and I can’t explain this any other way, I wasn’t Darren. I was scared, I was nervous, and I started to consider the realistic possibility that this challenge was greater than the sum of my parts. Back in the safety of bed that night, I teetered dangerously on the edge of collapse.
Waking the next day, I knew that I would be allowed up for an hour. If I am honest, I was petrified. I was scared that I would feel the same as I had yesterday, and if so, that it might mark the start of a downward spiral in my mentality. It was about midday by the time the hoist was brought into the room. Thankfully, a few minutes before I was to be hoisted, Matt arrived with Jack and Gemma. It was such an immeasurable boost to have some moral support, and just at the moment I had needed it most. With my friends waiting outside, the sling was placed under me, and the hoist readied. I felt ready. I knew what to expect this time round. With my expectations lowered accordingly, I felt my confidence growing with each repetition from the day before…this was nothing new! It had been merely 24 hours since I had felt the biggest disappointment of my life, but, as I was lowered into my chair that second day, I felt the fight that had got me this far start returning to my system. As I joined my friends outside in the sunshine, I felt ready to start putting my time on bed rest behind me. I could now look forward confidently to rehabilitation.
For the first six weeks of my rehabilitation programme, I was under something known as ‘brace restrictions’. I had been informed a couple of weeks’ prior that, due to severity of my injury, I would need to allow a further six weeks of limited movement to help ensure that the metal work supporting my spinal column had the chance to set effectively. In practice, this meant that I was unable to bend forward, to twist, or to use a manual wheelchair. Fortunately, the physio department had been able to resurrect a relic of the 1980’s for me to use as an electric wheelchair. This thing wouldn’t have looked out of place in a museum dedicated to artefacts of the Soviet Union. When I grumbled about the speed at which it moved (which was painfully slow) I was told that the control settings had been removed for my safety. It didn’t take long until I realised that I had been duped…the speed settings had been underneath the joystick the whole time! All things considered, who was I to complain? The chair was my ticket to a sense of independence and freedom that I hadn’t felt for a long time.
Now that I was about to begin rehabilitation, I was given something that I had wanted for quite some time…my first timetable! For the next three and a half months, my life would be dictated by these weekly schedules. Visits from friends and loved ones at lunchtimes and evenings would of course continue, but the majority of my time would now be split between sessions of intensive physiotherapy, at educational talks learning more about living with a spinal injury, as well as practicing the basic skills necessary to adjust back to every-day life with an Occupational Therapist (OT). I had already met a number of the unit’s Physiotherapists whilst on bed rest, so I was delighted when I was told that Amy had been allocated to work with me. I’d met Amy on no more occasions than any other physio, but she had this undeniable passion and positivity that could spark a smile, even on the darkest of days. It was a quality that I would come to depend upon time and time again over the coming months, and I didn’t even know it yet. Until this point, Occupational Therapists had been a bit of an enigma, I’d heard lots about what they did, but I’d never seen one…that was until I met Paula. Paula and I were similar in age (thank me later Paula), and we got on straight away. There wasn’t much we could do together until I’d mastered a few basics with Amy in the gym, but I could tell that her ‘no shit’ attitude could get the best out of me. Finally, there was my Key Worker Caroline. Caroline was the unit’s Psychologist, and would be responsible for organising and chairing the ‘progress meetings’ that I would attend every two weeks. The purpose of these meetings would be to set targets for the skills and techniques that I would need to master over the next two-week period. These targets would be anything from mastering something as basic as a toilet transfer, to attempting a flight of stairs backwards in my wheelchair.
I’d had the weekend to continue building up my resistance in the chair before my first physio session on the Monday. Entering the gym for the first time, I was a little overwhelmed by all the new faces, but I was excited by the opportunity to start putting some hard work and determination into practice. As I followed Amy to one of the physio plinths, she explained that we were going to start working on my sitting balance. With the help of a Physio Assistant called Fran, I was hoisted out of my chair, and lowered onto the edge of the plinth. Despite Fran propping me up from behind, and with Amy in front, I still felt unsteady. “Okay, are you ready? Try to see if you can keep your balance.”. Within seconds of the pair relaxing their grip, I lurched uncontrollably forwards and had to be caught by Amy. On the second attempt, I fell back without warning and nearly head-butted Fran behind. God. I couldn’t even sit up anymore. It was a significant reality check, and a painful reminder of how drastically I had changed my life. At my level of injury, I no longer had any muscles in my core to stabilise myself. Over the course of the session we continued to work on my balance points, until I could string a few seconds together without falling. Progress had been slow, but I was proud to have made a start on the journey to recovery. Sitting balance would be something that I wouldn’t truly master before the end of brace restrictions, but day by day things started to improve. Before long, I didn’t need Fran behind me…just a rather large pile of pillows. Amy would hold out her hand to the left, to the right, and then high above, and I would need to maintain my balance enough to tap each in a controlled fashion. Admittedly, ‘controlled taps’ resembled something more like left and right hooks for the first few weeks. On occasions, perhaps when Amy didn’t fancy being punched, we would play catch instead. It was a great way of challenging balance as each throw varied in height and direction, and it was a bit of a childish guilty pleasure at the same time.
As soon as my balance improved enough so that I no longer needed to be hoisted in and out of my chair, I could begin working with my OT Paula. The emphasis of rehabilitation from Paula’s perspective was to apply the skills which I had learnt in physio into a real word setting. We started with something that I had taken for granted every day of my life before the accident, getting in and out of a car. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn’t going to be a case of jumping in and out anymore. Instead, Paula taught me how to use something known as a ‘slide board’ to carefully shimmy myself across the gap and into the car. It was painstakingly slow, it was tough, and it certainly wasn’t pretty. The added complication of brace restrictions meant that I couldn’t bend forward far enough to duck my head easily into the car, much to Paula’s amusement initially. But, over the course of the weeks working together, things started to improve. Sessions would alternate between working outside in the car, and working inside trying to perfect toilet and shower chair transfers. Similarly, toilet transfers didn’t sound like much to perfect at first, that was until you started practicing. On numerous occasions, I tried to jump ahead, and to predict Paula’s next instruction. I was desperate to prove that I could do things quickly, but this nearly landed me in trouble a few times, and by ‘trouble’, I mean nearly falling down the gap between the toilet and chair.
Back on the ward, Tim and I were transferred to the unit’s rehabilitation wing. Saying goodbye to the familiar faces of Wrekin Ward was quite emotional, and transferring to Gladstone held the same feelings of nervous anticipation I’d felt as a child moving from primary to secondary school. I’d only been on Gladstone for a few days when I met someone who would help to define my time in hospital. John was a father of two from Tamworth, and was a week or so behind me in his journey through the spinal unit. I met John for the first time at one of the patient education talks, and it was evident that we shared many of the same attitudes towards rehabilitation. As I got to know him better, and as we began getting into the routine of putting in extra gym sessions together, I became inspired by his sheer will and determination. Over the course the course of my remaining months in hospital, John would become a close friend, and someone that I would come to depend upon for mutual support and motivation time and time again.
As I approached the end of my time on brace restrictions, Amy continued to push me as hard as she could within the limitations of what we were allowed to do. Physio sessions were spent practicing lifts, moving back and forth across plinths, and generally being pushed to within an inch of my muscles collapsing in an undignified heap. That said, we also seemed to spend much of our sessions trying not to collapse in heaps of laughter at one thing or another. It was my final week before starting rehabilitation proper, and I was about to have the opportunity to stand for the first time in three months. As Amy prepared one of the unit’s wooden standing frames, she explained that, due to my brace restrictions, we would need to adapt the technique for getting into the frame. Essentially, instead of pulling myself forward into the frame and strapping myself in whilst bent forward, I would need to perform a flowing pull up and triceps dip movement in order to go from sitting to standing…without bending. With my hands on either side of the frame, and with a Physio called Ruth in support, I started to push myself up. I tried my best not to risk my recovery by bending forward. My triceps were screaming, my body was shaking uncontrollably, and I was straining with the effort of trying to lift. All I could hear was Ruth and Amy shouting “keep going”, “that’s good”, “keep straight”. I continued to push, my arms shaking more than before. How much further did I need to go? All of a sudden, Amy and Ruth started screaming “STOP, STOP, STOP”. As I continued to push, I had started to lift my feet off the floor. The sensation was indescribable, I had no concept of whether I was stood on my feet, or whether I was floating in mid-air. As I lowered myself back down, Amy strapped the belt around my back to secure me in, and…I was standing! For the first time in three months, I was looking at the world from 6ft. It felt amazing, and I couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like I was finally back! By the time that I’d grabbed a quick selfie with Amy and Ruth, and chatted for a few minutes, I started to feel a little queasy. It suddenly dawned on me that I couldn’t hear the words coming out of Amy’s mouth. I stared at her completely complexed, and tried desperately to bring myself back round. No more than a second later I began feeling faint. I could feel the blood rapidly draining from my head, and I started to lose my vision. The next few seconds passed in an incomprehensible blur. I came back round lying on one of the physio plinths, with my legs being held in the air. Looking up at Amy and Ruth, all we could do was laugh. It had been one hell of a re-introduction to the world of standing.
As I approached the final weekend of my six weeks on brace restrictions, I was given the opportunity to leave hospital for the day. For three months, I had seen nothing but the inside of a hospital. I had grown used to the bright fluorescent lighting, the clinical interior, and I’d begun to forget the world that I’d left outside. Ellie and I had spent hours sat outside on the hospital’s helipad making grand plans for our day’s escape. Not content with simply going to the nearby garden centre, or perhaps going home for the day, we had planned an epic escape back into the hills. It was an opportunity for us to get back to the environment that had helped to define us as a couple, and as individuals. As we drove into the Shropshire foothills, I slowly began to reconnect with this lost world. The naturally undulating landscape, the sunlight glistening over the horizon, the vibrant colours of the woodland growth. It was such a contrast to the world that I’d known since my accident. Ellie and I spent the best part of three hours venturing over the top of Cardingmill Valley, working as a team to get over the bumpy ground, and laughing as we contemplated what people in hospital might think of this overly audacious escape. As we approached the Pole Bank trig point, Ellie started to run, pushing me the whole way to the summit. Whilst the cumbersome and rattling NHS wheelchair had made things a challenge, we’d proved that with a bit of teamwork, there was no reason that we couldn’t get back to doing the things that we loved. Driving back to hospital together that night, I couldn’t have been happier. I was ready to start the next phase of my rehabilitation.
The hard work starts now…