How does it feel to be told that you will never walk again? How does it feel to realise that you’ve done something for the last time, without even knowing the significance of those final moments? How does it feel taking that first step, long after you’d given up hope of ever walking again?
A black and white image was projected onto the screen at the front of the dark room. The surgeon’s figure cast a shadow on the screen as he gestured and pointed at the image behind. This was the first time I had seen the X-Ray taken at the Major Trauma Centre from the day of my accident. As I sat, staring transfixed at the screen, a dawning sense of reality swept over me. I had tuned out of the running commentary from the front of the room. I could see just how extensive the damage had been. It was six weeks since the day my world had been turned upside down and I was about to ask the most important question of my life…
“What is the likelihood I will ever walk again?” I asked anxiously, not sure if I wanted to hear the answer.
“From what we’ve seen with similar injuries, none” came the immediate response. Concise and clinical.
The short distance back to the ward that afternoon felt like the loneliest journey of my life. All hopes, dreams and prayers for a full recovery came crashing down around me. It was time to accept this new reality. I’d never walk again.
The memory of that day had long since drifted into the subconscious. Life had moved on. As the dream of walking again faded, new ambitions and hopes had risen in its place. In the two and a half years since my accident, life had taken me on a truly incredible journey: one of emotional, physical and spiritual healing. I had shared the story of ‘Strength Through Adversity’ at conferences, festivals and schools across the country; I had surfed in the warm waters off the coast of California; and I had continued life’s great adventure with friends and family closer than ever before. Like pages turning in a book, as one chapter closes, another begins.
My weeks were split between training as part of British Canoeing’s Paracanoe Development Squad and holding down the ‘day job’ with Shropshire Council – albeit on a part-time basis. Driving the four-hour round trip to Nottingham three days a week was tiresome and expensive but totally worth it for each moment spent on the water, come rain or shine….but mostly just wind! There were two clear goals in my mind for the year: to put myself in a place where I could race internationally and to buy my very own bungalow and to live independently once more. As I was about to find out, it’s not necessarily just the dreams you are focussing on that can come true…
It was a busy Tuesday morning at work, much like any other. The office was a hive of activity, accompanied by the usual buzz of conversation, discussion and people dashing to and from meetings. Sat at my desk, in the middle of the office, my mobile started to ring. I looked at the number, before looking quizzically at my colleague sat across from me.
“01539? Why is someone from Cumbria trying to call me?” I asked rhetorically.
Unsure whether to answer and lacking the patience to be polite as I was potentially about to hear from a cold caller those words “Hello Mr Edwards, I’m calling about the road accident that you were involved in last year…” (and not for the first time), my first inclination was to ignore the call. Yet, something told me to answer and it didn’t take long for me to register that this wasn’t just another scam caller. The well-spoken gentleman on the end of the line formally introduced himself and was, in the space of five minutes, about to change the trajectory of my year and my life.
“My name is Paul Adorian and I am a businessman from Cumbria. I have just finished reading your ‘Strength Through Adversity’ blog, which I have also forwarded to my good friend Chris”. It wasn’t until later in the call that Paul revealed that his ‘good friend Chris’ was none other than mountaineering icon Sir Chris Bonnington (a personal hero of mine).
“Darren, the reason for calling today was to let you know that my wife Ruth and I have set up a foundation for helping those living with disabilities.” I sat at my desk unsure how to respond initially. Paul continued, “Ruth and I have seen these incredible machines, which I am sure you have also come across? They are called Re-Walk Exoskeletons?”
He wasn’t wrong, I’d seen one of these incredible machines up close at a conference the previous year. Like something out of a sci-fi movie, a futuristic robotic exoskeleton enabled those living with spinal cord injuries to walk independently. I’d even had the opportunity to very briefly test one out myself. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, to be stood proudly back at 6ft once more and to take my first Bambi like steps in over two years. Yet, at the same time it was one of my saddest moments. Bittersweet you could say. With each device costing over £80,000, it felt like a cruel taste of something I’d never experience again. Uncertain about how this conversation was going to play out, I looked up to see the quizzical and puzzled expressions of colleagues sat near me as they mouthed the words “who is it?”, “what’s it about?”.
“Well, how about it? What would you say if we were to buy one of these machines for you?” came his question. Surely, I hadn’t heard him right. Because it sounded like a total stranger had just offered to buy me something costing £80,000!
“Sorry Paul, I don’t think I heard you right just then. What did you say?” I responded in a state of slight confusion.
“How about it. If we were to use some of our money to buy you your very own Re-Walk Exoskeleton. What would you say?” came his response for the second time of asking!
Bloody hell! I had heard him right! I stuttered and tripped over my words, not quite sure what to think or how to respond. Was this for real? By now intrigue within the office had reached its peak.
“Paul, I don’t know what to say.” I responded scratching my head in a state of disbelief. Was this just a friend taking a joke a little too far?
“How about ‘Yes’?” came Paul’s voice over the phone. Now completely lost for words, all I could do was offer an emotional and still slightly confused “yes” in response.
“Fantastic! Leave it with me and I’ll be in touch soon. Take care for now.” The phone call had ended. He’d gone. I sat at my desk utterly perplexed, not sure what had just happened or whether it was all a figment of my imagination. It couldn’t be real, could it? When asked by my colleagues what had just happened, my first response was, “I’m not sure, I think someone has just offered to give me an £80,000 gift.” It’s safe to say that this raised a few eyebrows across the office.
Following that phone call from Paul, I hadn’t told many people about what had happened. Above all else, I hadn’t wanted to get everyone’s hopes up, including my own. in case all this come to nothing. To those I had told, I’d carefully used the non-committal words ‘potentially’, ‘might’ and ‘possibly’ for risk of not tempting fate. Two days later, another unfamiliar number flashed up on my phone. Answering the call, I was greeted by, “Isn’t it fantastic? I bet you couldn’t believe it when he called you?” It didn’t register at first whose voice it was on the other end of the phone but then it hit me, this was Stephen Russell, the sales rep from Re-Walk Robotics who I’d met at a conference the previous year. It was Stephen who had forwarded my blog to Paul Adorian knowing that he was looking to find ‘worthy causes’ from across the country and had without my knowledge made the whole thing possible. As he talked me through the process of the delivery of my exoskeleton and the training I’d be given to become competent, the immense magnitude of the whole scenario started to sink in. The dream that I had given up on over two years ago would be about to come true.
The following weeks passed in something of a dreamlike state. At times I would momentarily forget the significance of what had happened, only to feel the overwhelming rush of feel-good endorphins coursing through my veins as I remembered my unbelievably good fortune. I found a genuine sense of pride and joy in telling anyone and everyone that would listen about the incredible generosity of Paul and Ruth from the Lake District. The response I would hear most often, “There really are good people in the world after all”. At a time in which our society had become fractured, polarised and dominated by negative news in the media, it was an incredible privilege to be able to share this good news story with those around me.
A little over a month since I first spoke to Paul, my Mum and I were making the short journey to Stourbridge where we would be meeting Stephen from Re-Walk to take delivery of my very own exoskeleton. As we parked up across the road from the training centre, I’m not sure which emotion best described how I was feeling in that moment. Disbelief, excitement, nervousness, or perhaps just overwhelmed. Stephen would be joined by my physio Peter, who I had worked with over the last couple of years. Entering the room, I saw my exoskeleton for the very first time. I was transfixed. My eyes explored each bolt, buckle and curvature of the machine. I couldn’t quite believe this moment was finally happening, even now I still had to remind myself that this wasn’t a dream. Looking up, it was hard not to notice the broad smiles beaming from both Stephen and Peter.
“I bet you can’t believe this is actually happening?” joked Stephen as he readied the device into the seated position for me to transfer straight into. He wasn’t bloody wrong!
I positioned myself alongside the exoskeleton, before transferring across and beginning to tighten the series of straps and buckles that secured the knees, thighs, waist and finally the torso. Stephen crouched next to me checking that I was secure and comfortable. As he did, he told me about the process we would go through in order to get me stood up. He strapped the device’s smartwatch to my wrist and passed me the two crutches I would need to help me stand up and maintain balance whilst walking.
“Okay, so once I press the ‘stand’ button on the smartwatch, the device will beep three times before it stands you up on the fourth beep. As it does so, you need to push up with your crutches to help the device bring you vertical. I’ll be in front of you to make sure that you don’t fall forward. Ready?” Stephen said as he moved to stand opposite me.
“Yep.” I muttered in excited anticipation for what was about to happen.
Stephen selected the button on my smartwatch. The machine whizzed and whirred before it made three clear ‘beep’, ‘beep’, ‘beep’ sounds. I readied myself for the fourth beep. ‘BEEP!’ Fixing my sight at a point on the ceiling ahead of me I pushed down on the crutches as hard as I could. Within seconds I was stood bolt upright, my heart beating furiously to pump blood up to my brain. Taking a deep breath whilst I gained my balance, it was only once I looked up from my feet that I could see the emotional smiles of Mum, Peter and Stephen. Suddenly, I was the tallest person in the room!
“Remember to breathe.” Came a reminder from Peter.
Shuffling my crutches in front of me, it took a couple of minutes to feel totally comfortable as I teetered at 6ft. Stephen continued to provide his calm, concise and reassuring tuition as to how we would make the device walk, and how I would need to subtly shift my weight right and left in order to maintain balance. The scary part, I would have to lean forward in order to initiate the first step. It suddenly occurred to me that I feared my own height! For the past two and a half years I’d grown accustomed to life and the way I perceived the world at 4ft 3”. I remembered Peter’s instruction and took a deep breath.
“Here goes nothing!” I joked with a slight warble of nerves in my voice.
Allowing my body to lean forward onto the crutches, the exoskeleton made a distinct robotic ‘Zhoop’ noise as it began to lift my right leg at the knee before swinging my foot forward and planting it securely on the floor. I shifted my weight to the right. My left leg began to lift, swing and plant on the floor. I shifted my weight back to the left. ‘Zhoop’. I shifted back to the right. ‘Zhoop’. Before I knew it, I had taken the most significant three steps of my life. The robotic noise of the device echoed in the empty rehab studio, almost becoming reassuringly rhythmic as I found my stride and confidence after those first few nervous steps. Soon, the blank white wall of the end of the studio beckoned, and it was time to stop before careering into the wall on my maiden journey. Now came the other scary part. I had to lean forward in an accentuated manner which would scuff my foot on the floor and stop the device.
“4, 3, 2, 1…” Stephen counted me down as I prepared to bring the device to a stop.
“Lean forward, lean forward, LEAN FORWARD!” Stephen said with increasing urgency as I failed to scuff my foot as instructed. I tried desperately to lean forward but had momentarily lost my balance. Now merely inches from the wall, my right leg lifted and swung forward. THUD! I had kicked the wall! Thankfully, the device saw this as reason enough to stop walking. The whole room breathed a sigh of relief as Stephen and I looked at each other before breaking into laughter. I could feel the sweat on my brow, and a little lightheaded from unintentionally holding my breath as I headed closer and closer to collision point. A little shuffling and spinning on the spot later, I was facing back into the room toward Mum, Peter and my wheelchair. It was an incredibly surreal moment, to be looking at my empty wheelchair from across the room. I was looking at something that had been an indispensable part of my life and of my independence for nearly three years. I had truly given up on ever walking again, until now.
“Come on Julie, come and give your son a big hug” beckoned Stephen.
Mum approached cautiously, I could tell that that she was anxious not to knock me off balance and to send me flying backwards for Round 2 with the wall. Wrapping our arms around each other, I cradled my head down to rest against the top of her. Another surreal moment…bending down to hug! As we joked and laughed stood next to each other, Stephen took what would become one of my favourite pictures of Mum and me. In many ways, it was like the last few years had never happened.
For the next hour I stomped up and down that small room, building confidence and pride with each step. Sitting back down at the end of the session, totally exhausted, I already couldn’t wait until I could walk again.
Thanks to the generosity of two total strangers, the steps I took that afternoon were to be the first of thousands and thousands more. Life’s adventure had taken an unexpected but exciting turn. Miracles really do happen…
Dedicated to the memory of The Honourable Ruth Adorian (1932 – 2019)