A member of staff at the spinal unit remarked that being discharged from hospital was like ‘going from the zoo the jungle’. She explained that, in hospital, you are fed, cared for and supported 24/7. However, in the jungle, you’ve got to learn to look after yourself. After the events of the last few weeks, I felt more like a wounded animal than ever before, and I wasn’t sure how I’d survive in the wild.
Days began to tick by with a mixture of emotions circling in my mind. The daytime routine of physio, occupational therapy and the gym allowed me to channel my positivity, frustration, hurt and anger. If anything, this concoction of emotions allowed me to push myself harder and further within each discipline. It was still the nighttimes I found hardest. Once evening guests had departed, and the lights on the ward dimmed, my thoughts and fears would resurface and echo across the ward’s empty corridors and rooms. I was told by countless people that “it will get better day by day”, but how could they know? They’d never been in this position. My revised discharge date of the 30th November came and went, and with no place for me to call ‘home’ to go to, I was now fast approaching my original discharge of the 8th December with no end in sight. Although I couldn’t appreciate it at the time, all of ‘those people’ were right; day by day things began to look brighter, and week by week the confidence and positivity which had helped to define my journey to this point began to return.
“Okay, now get your head forward, and remember the technique as you lift.” I was sitting on the gym floor, with one hand on the plinth to my left, and my other hand on the floor to my right. On Amy’s command, I would attempt my first ‘floor to chair’, the ultimate goal of my time in rehab. “1,2…3”, on three I pushed with every inch of muscle in my arms and shoulders as I slowly began to raise my body from the floor. Remembering the technique, I dipped my head and chest forward in an attempt to pivot my backside further from the canvas. Hearing shouts of “YES, YES, YES” and “PUSH, PUSH, PUSH” from Amy and Kate, I was able to hold my shaking arms together just long enough to scrape myself over the lip of the plinth. I had just achieved something which I had thought impossible during my first weeks of rehab, and I couldn’t have been happier. After a few moments of triumphant celebration and reflection, Kate looked down at the floor and semi-seriously joked, “well now we’ve got to make sure that wasn’t a fluke.” It sounded like a challenge to me. As my tired arms lowered myself back down to the floor, I wished that I could learn to back down from a challenge. At least once.
Throughout all of the months I’d spent in hospital to this point, I always had one eye on the future, and with my heart set on achieving some ambitious goals. It was only a matter of weeks since I’d finished bedrest when I broached the subject of buying a racing wheelchair to Amy, to which her professional advice was, “maybe when you get home and have recovered a bit first?” The problem was that I’d already spent £600 on a chair in ‘racing blue’, and that I was asking more in the hope that she might say ‘fantastic idea Darren!’. Now that I was two months further into my rehab, and two months more ambitious for it, Matt, Harry and I set off to Manchester one Saturday in search of the next piece in the puzzle…a sea kayak! Pulling up outside the Manchester Canoe and Kayak store, we knew this could become quite an expensive trip. As we walked around the store, looking at the hundreds of kayaks on sale in varying shapes, sizes and colours, we spotted the two Matt and I wanted. They were Perception sea kayaks, one in an Ocean crystal blue, and the other in a fiery red and orange. A few moments later they had been brought down and put on the floor in front of us. At this point I was content to bend down to touch, to look, and to think ‘this is the one for me’. That was until the guy working in the store that day looked at me and said, “well, feel free to get in and see how it feels.” There was a quick exchange of looks between Matt, Harry and myself. Each of us knew that I’d only just managed to do my first floor to chair in the physio gym only days ago. This was potentially chair to floor, floor to kayak, kayak to floor, and floor back to chair! Now, the logical and sensible response at this stage would have been to admit that I was still an inpatient at the local spinal ward, and that I hadn’t yet worked up to such a manoeuvre. Whilst that thought did cross my mind, excitement and blind optimism got the better of me. As I shuffled forward on my chair, more wry smiles were exchanged between the three of us, with Matt and Harry close by ready to save me if it all went wrong. It was more of a controlled fall than anything else, but it worked. Once I’d managed to get myself sitting in the kayak, I felt like a King. I said yes there and then. As we left the showroom that afternoon with the kayaks strapped to the roof of Matt’s car, I wasn’t quite sure how I’d break this one to everyone at the hospital.
I’d continued to work with my OT Paula on a daily basis, and we were now looking to fine tune some of the essential skills I’d depend upon once discharged. Of all the techniques taught, I found the process of dismantling and transferring a chair into a car from the driver’s side position the most difficult. Just as I would allow myself to think that I’d finally cracked it, I’d end up knocking the frame of the chair against my face, or trapping the chair between myself and the steering wheel with the horn blaring out across the car park. Paula took great pleasure in telling me to “suck it up princess” as my transfers started to get worse and agitation got the better of me. I guess you have to find your kicks where you can when you’re standing in a car park on a cold December’s day! In truth, our sessions were an invaluable opportunity to talk about everything that had happened recently. Paula had been the first member of staff I confided in about the relationship ending, and she was someone I trusted to listen and not to judge. She was an excellent OT, and I knew I’d miss her when I finally managed to get out of hospital. In many ways hospital life had now become my safe place, I’d made genuine relationships with the members of staff, and there was a reassuring consistency to the pattern of life here.
As events continued to unfold, it became evident that I would never return to my home on the farm. It was heart-breaking to accept, and I initially tried my hardest to fight against the unrelenting tide of reality. I had to find a new place to live. Christmas was now only a matter of weeks away. With the help of Paula, family and friends I scoured the pages of every local newspaper, searched online, and called estate agents on a daily basis. For one reason or another, each potential property slowly became unrealistic. Too small. Too isolated. Too unsuitable for a wheelchair. Whether it was the time of year, or whether it was just another twist to the saga, it became increasingly hard to see where my future lay through the building fog. Tim’s wife Dorleta had been renting a small bungalow near the hospital in Oswestry, but she was looking for somewhere bigger that they could rent once Tim was discharged. The opportunity to move into the bungalow once they moved out became my best option, and I decided to put all of my eggs into that one small basket.
The 8th December marked my last day of official rehabilitation, beyond which point I would now become a ‘delayed discharge’. Given that I had achieved all of my targets, I would no longer receive a weekly timetable of activities as such, but would still have the opportunity to use the gym and hydrotherapy pool. Before my time with Amy had come to an end, she had one last ambitious goal. A few weeks earlier a charity called Back Up had delivered a day of advanced wheelchair skills, which culminated in one of the trainers demonstrating how to descend a flight of 25-30 steps…if absolutely necessary. As he sat at the top of the stairs leading down from the High Dependency Unit, and as he jolted down step by step, I thought he was crazy. Now it seemed that it was my turn. Warming up on a set of three to four steps outside of one of the hospital’s entrances, we practiced ascending and descending. Attempting my first ascent of the small flight of steps, my right hand pulled desperately at the handrail to my right, whilst my left tried to grip my wheel against the step in an attempt to roll it over the top. Amy and Kate were both screaming “PUSH, PUSH, PUSH! COME ON PUSH!” It wasn’t until I’d made it to the top that we realised the set of steps we’d decided to practice on were those into the maternity ward, which had all of its windows open. Suddenly every scream of ‘push, come on push’ seemed a little over dramatic. As we moved inside and took the lift to the first floor, the screams soon turned to my own as I started to descend the flight of steps…backwards! With Amy and Kate shielding me from an early departure from this world, I took the flight of stairs step by step. My right hand gripped feverishly at the smooth chrome railing, whilst my left slowly backed my wheel off each step. After a few jolted ‘warm up’ steps, I’d managed to enter something resembling a rhythm. Lower. Thud. Lock. Lower. Thud. Lock. As we approached the last remaining steps my right forearm started to cramp, and I had to fight the temptation to rush the next two or three steps. With one final jolt, I reached the sweet saviour of the ground floor, and I was able to look up to equally relieved smiles from Amy and Kate. Would I have done this without them there? Not a chance in hell. But, in a life or death situation, I’d take the 50% chance of death and head for the stairs! My time working with Amy had now sadly come to an end. Over the course of the last four to five months we had built a genuinely strong bond, and I owed my success in physio to her approach and attitude. Looking back, I can’t remember a single session where we didn’t smile and laugh our way through. I couldn’t have asked or wished for a better physio.
By the 15th December things had started to look more positive for my discharge. Tim and Dorleta had moved out of the bungalow, and I’d been able to go around the property to have a look. Desperate as I was to leave hospital, I began to overlook some of the impracticalities of the property, as well as the monumental challenge of living alone right after discharge. Not willing to entertain the prospect of still being in hospital over Christmas, I started to push ahead with preparations for taking on the bungalow at the earliest possible opportunity. At this stage Paula still had some serious reservations about the suitability of the property, which I tried to rebuff at every opportunity. On the 16th we visited the property one final time together, this time in the NHS chair which I would be discharged in. Entering the property, everything suddenly became tighter as the cumbersome chair cornered awkwardly from room to room. As we turned into the narrow corridor, I banged into the opposite wall. I tried to back myself up in order to gain a better angle. Bang. I pushed forwards this time at a slightly different angle. Bang. With every bump, I became more and more agitated, more unsettled. Bang. It suddenly dawned on me. I couldn’t make this work. I couldn’t live here. I probably couldn’t live on my own. I sat in the corridor with my head in my hands looking down at my feet, trying to fight back tears and losing horrifically. The weight of reality had finally proved too much. My best hope for the earliest possible discharge from hospital quickly faded away.
In the days following the visit to the bungalow, I was found to have developed a pressure mark on my backside, and found myself back on bed rest. Having been so active on the ward, and knowing that I still needed to sort my housing situation, being stuck back in bed represented a real mental challenge. It was at this stage that the decision about my future was taken out of my hands. Up to this point I had stubbornly avoided the prospect of moving in with my family, I had wanted to prove that I could take on the challenge of living alone. With my best interests at heart, Mum came in to tell me that she would be ordering a stair lift to be fitted so that I could live with my Nan. When I tried to argue that I could still find an alternative, she admitted that a booking had already been made to have the chair fitted the next day. My annoyance was clear to see, yet I knew that she was only doing the best thing for me, even if I couldn’t have appreciated it at the time. With food menus now being handed out on the ward for Christmas day, I was desperate to leave. I just had to wait for my pressure mark to subside.
On the 23rd December, I awoke to what would be my final morning at the Midland Centre for Spinal Injuries. The process of packing up my mountain of clutter had started the night before, as had the process of saying goodbye to the many members of staff I had become close friends with by this point. After just under five months in hospital, I had come to regard many of them as an alternative family. It was shocking how much clutter I had amassed during the course of my journey through hospital. A guitar, a racing wheelchair, a box full of get well soon cards, a paint by numbers picture of a monkey…it was almost a surprise that the kayak hadn’t managed to sneak its way past the nurses’ station. In a way it made sense, this place had been my home for a considerable length of time. If I’m honest, as my bed space slowly cleared, and I came closer to saying my final goodbyes, I felt more and more anxious about leaving. It felt like I was heading into unknown, into the ‘wild’. By about 5pm, I was ready to go. Of all the goodbyes that day, there were two which I found hardest. Mark was one of the Nurses on the ward, and we’d come to grow really close. He’d often refer to me and Tim as “his boys”, in his noticeably scouse accent. During one of my last nights in hospital, Mark finished his shift at about 7.30pm, and then proceeded to sit chatting to me until about 10pm as we did our best to put the world to rights. At one point, probably around 9pm, his wife called the ward concerned about his whereabouts. Picking up his phone, he replied “I’m just chatting to my mate Darren, aren’t I?” Saying goodbye to Mark on that last day, I realised that I was about to lose someone who I considered a father within my hospital family. Then there was John. John was so much more than just a fellow patient to me. He had become my gym partner, my motivation partner, and we’d shared more than our fair share of laughs and escapades during our time on Gladstone together. He’d had a run of bad luck himself recently, and his discharge was slowly slipping into the new year. I put off saying goodbye to John until I was packed up and ready to leave. Pushing across to John’s bay, we exchanged perhaps the most falteringly manly goodbye as we both tried our hardest to not let our emotions show, and to keep our voices from wobbling. Neither of our journeys through hospital had been plain sailing, but we’d been there to support each other through the hardest times. I felt guilty to be leaving without him. By the time I was ready to leave, the ward was quiet, and it was dark outside. As I approached the doors to the ward, about to leave for one final time, I paused for a brief second. My mind was racing, and my body buzzed electrically as a million emotions pulsed through my veins. I remained on the verge of tears for the duration of the car ride home. Arriving at Nan’s for the first time since my accident, I made it as far as the kitchen before I was overcome by the weight of emotion I’d tried to hold back all day. My family tried their best to comfort me as I sat in the middle of the kitchen crying. I didn’t have any strength left to cope any other way.
From the lows of the night before, Christmas Eve 2016 will be a day I’ll no doubt remember for years to come. Whilst I’d been preparing to be discharged, Jack had persuaded the local leisure centre to allow me and Matt to practice our kayaking skills in their main pool. An act of heroic salesmanship I am sure! So, with both sets of families in attendance, including my Aunty Gill who had surprised me by flying over from Canada to stay with us over Christmas, we hit the pool. By the time we’d got on the various bits of kit, and had me sitting in the kayak, Matt and Harry outlined our plan of attack for the session. “Right, so if we slide you in, and maybe do five minutes of getting used to it, then we’ll look to make sure you can get out if you flip upside down?” It sounded like we were on to a winner, so with nods of approval all round, I set off on my maiden journey in my new kayak. For about, well I’d say perhaps three seconds, I glided serenely across the pool’s surface. At which point, my lack of abdominal muscles became fully apparent as I flipped upside down without a hope of avoiding the tumble. Swimming back to the surface, I felt more alive than I had done in months. It hadn’t been quite five minutes, but we knew I could get out, and it’d brought laughter to everyone watching. Over the course of the next hour I became quite accustomed to falling in, as did everyone helping at getting me out and back in again. It wasn’t easy, in fact it was really really difficult, but I felt alive. It felt like I had started my journey to rediscover ME!
Being back at home for Christmas was such an important milestone for me, and I felt so grateful that things had worked out, albeit in an unforeseen fashion. Surrounded by my family, and with Gill there too, it was honestly magical. I was still very much getting accustomed to life at Nan’s, and to life in a chair, but I was so lucky to still be here so that I could sit round the same table as we used to, and to play the same games as years gone past. My greatest Christmas present that year was still being with my family. Although, on the subject of presents, I did seem to receive an awful lot more than usual. Not that I’m advocating a near death experience as a way of increasing your haul at Christmas. As the night drew to an end, Nan, my Uncle Peter and I had to make the short journey down the road to Nan’s. Before we left, Mum stressed that Nan needed to look after me as it was dark outside, and “it is late!” However, as soon as we’d turned out of the drive and started to head back, Nan started stumbling and swerving a little across the pavement. Once she denied that she was, the penny dropped. Oh my god, she’s drunk! She’d only had a small glass of Bailey’s! By the time we’d safely made it down the road, we’d averted a fall into a bush, a stumble off a curb, and had even reassured Nan that we didn’t need to “watch out for the buses” in the quiet cul-de-sac that she’d lived in for nearly 16 years. I couldn’t stop smiling. It was good to be home.
It was during my final weeks in hospital that a friend of mine called Sharon had got in touch to ask whether I’d like to try rowing once I got out of hospital. She was Captain of the Pengwern Boat Club in Shrewsbury, and they held an adaptive rowing session every Tuesday morning. Jumping at the chance, Sharon agreed to pick me up and to take me on the first Tuesday session after the Christmas break. When the day arrived, it was a crisp winter’s morning. The banks of the river were encapsulated with frost, and the river shimmered with almost mirror like clarity. I was introduced to the members of the club who helped to organise and run the session, and to the fellow adaptive rowers. It was incredible. I watched as their boats glided elegantly over the water, and I noticed how their chairs were left unrequired on the club’s pontoon. They looked free. Once Sharon and Colin had provided me with an understanding of the basic principles required to row, I was able to set off. After a couple of awkward first strokes as I tried to get away from the pontoon, I took my first meaningful strokes. With each pull I cut through the still water. Pull. Glide. Pull. Glide. For the first time in five months I felt free. It might have looked bad, and it might have been slow, but as I rowed past the park I’d used to run through, I felt the same as I had then. Free.
“Leaving hospital is like going from the zoo to the jungle.” The member of staff who told me that was right. From the relative safety of captivity, the jungle was scary, and it was intimidating. But it was the jungle where I rediscovered my freedom, and it would be in the jungle that I would start to build a new life for myself…