Over the coming weeks our Legal Director Mick Laffey, from our Medical Negligence and Serious Injury Team, will be sharing his own personal experience of spinal injury and how at the age of 19 he was diagnosed with a rare condition called AVM and had to begin using a wheelchair.
In his own unique and inimitable way, Mick will share some of his emotional journey, as well as his practical journey, in the hope that it might be of help to those just starting to manage their own life with a spinal injury. Here he begins his story...
I’d left school with reasonable A Levels but instead of going to University I’d started work as a trainee manager with Sainsbury’s in Sheffield. This had two big plusses for me. Firstly, I earned what, to me anyway, was decent money, and with good prospects. Secondly, three of my mates were at University in Sheffield so I could tag along with them and enjoy the student life as they’d sign me into the Student Union – which was only a few hundred yards from my subsidised digs. This meant I could live the “life” of a teenage student with money in my pocket and in comparative luxury. The only downside being I had to go to work five days a week. Despite this inconvenience, I was really living the life. I’d bought my first car and my life seemed set to take a particular course. Honestly, everything was great at the time.
The lads had got tickets for a Newcastle United away match in London. At Wimbledon of all places. This was handier than it sounds because another one of the lads was studying at St Mary’s College in Twickenham and had invited us down. I arranged to meet two other ex-schoolmates at Kings Cross station on the Friday evening after finishing work and the three of us got the tube over to our digs for the night. The four of us went out to the college’s student bars that night and retired to our host’s one bed student room in halls, somewhat worse for wear, a little later. I had to sleep on the floor. This was not a problem – though uncomfortable – and the next morning we all put our Newcastle tops on and set off to the match.
On the tube on the way over to the game I felt a twinge in my right foot. It was a bit sore and numb. I thought it may be to do with sleeping on the floor the night before and that it would wear off. Instead of wearing off it got worse. By the time we got off the tube and went to a local hostelry for a pint I was limping and I did not feel right at all. We decided to get into the ground and walked over to the turnstiles. By now I was having trouble walking. One of the lads thought I was suffering from cramp, so I laid down on my back whilst they stretched out my leg and foot. I got back to my feet and found that this had not helped at all. The lads literally had to help me through the turnstiles and onto the terrace behind the goal where the other Newcastle fans were. I sat down and thought I’d be ok.
I was deteriorating rapidly. The pain in my feet (both by now) had got worse and it was rising up my legs. It was like being slowly dipped into a vat of boiling oil -that’s how painful it was. I was starting to panic now as I had no idea what was going on. The lads couldn’t understand it but realised that something was not right and asked the stewards and the police for help.
The date of this incident – 29th April 1989 – is very relevant to the story. Keen football fans will recognise that as being exactly two weeks after the Hillsborough disaster. They’ll also remember that the week after the disaster rightly saw all games cancelled and that, therefore, this was one of the first round of matches post-Hillsborough. As a result – both sides were showing respect by engaging in a minute’s silence which was impeccably observed – by everyone except me. I was in extreme pain. I remember people telling me to be quiet – so I bit my tongue until the silence was over. The further irony of this is that, on the night of that disaster, I was in Sheffield. My digs were right next to the Hallamshire Hospital and the local radio and TV was asking if anyone could accommodate any Liverpool fans who wanted to stay over to be near their mates in hospital. So I walked up to the hospital, with the same green and yellow striped Newcastle top I was wearing at Wimbledon, and offered room for anyone who needed it at my place. Nobody came, but I remember walking through the corridors of the hospital which contained so many Liverpool fans in their football shirts. For the weeks thereafter the local pubs were full of others who had made their way up to the hospital to see family and friends. It really affected Sheffield as a city as well as Liverpool.
Back at Wimbledon, the St John’s Ambulance brigade had turned up with a stretcher. I was taken down to the pitch and carried around behind the goal. One of the lads came with me, the other two having been told to stay on the terraces. I suppose I was lucky being at a football match – with the St John’s Ambulance chaps being on hand. Please remember however, that medical facilities were not as they are now. One of the recommendations of the Taylor report post Hillsborough covered the poor access to medical facilities so it was all pretty primitive. I was taken to a hut round the back of the stands and sat up in a chair.
I still had no idea what on earth was going on. The pain was up to just above my knees. By that point it felt as though my legs were on fire and that, as I’ve said, I was still being slowly dipped into a vat of boiling oil. The St John’s Ambulance lads decided it was probably wise to get me across to hospital as this was out of their comfort zone. They had no idea what to do – which I can’t really blame them for. They got me into the back of an antiquated ambulance and I remember laying down on the stretcher in the back. By now the pain was up to my belly button. And I mean my belly button. It felt as though two cars had been tied to my legs and they were driving in opposite directions. It truly felt as though I was being torn apart through the groin. Imagine that for a moment. It was absolutely horrific. I can barely describe how painful or scary it was. What on earth was going on? If it got any further up my body I thought I’d die. But it didn’t – not that I knew that it wouldn’t at the time.
It was so bad that I was screaming at the ambulance lads to tie my legs together as they were being ripped apart. I asked them several times and with such vigour that they actually did it. I remember looking down to see my legs tied together with bandages.
I have always hated gas. When I was very small I remember having gas at the dentists when I was getting a tooth out. To that end I always paid extra to be injected instead for future extractions. I hated gas that much. In the back of the ambulance they asked if I wanted gas. Instead of saying “No thanks” I virtually ripped the mask out of the chap’s hands and stuck it over my face. I breathed as deeply as I could. Later, when they said I’d had enough I wouldn’t give then the mask back. I held it over my face with my right hand and was hitting them with my left. I wouldn’t let them have it back. Eventually they got it from me and instead I held onto the bars on the ambulance with my dominant right hand and my mate’s hand with my left. I was screaming by now. The pain was ridiculous. I remember my mate shouting at the ambulance to tell them to go faster. The driver turned out to be a trainee and was not used to the ambulance. So we slowly tootled along to St George’s Hospital.
When we got there I was transferred straight away into a room. I think they gave me something for the pain. It’s a bit hazy now. I remember that I was lying on a bed in a cubicle with my trousers off wearing a Newcastle away shirt and also, for some reason, the corresponding green and yellow football socks. The pain wasn’t so bad now thank the lord. I just felt nothing. My mate had had to ask someone to look at his hand as he feared I’d broken it as I’d squeezed it that hard and for that long. To get his own back, he told the nurses for a laugh that I was Newcastle striker Frank Pingel. They’d heard that someone had “come in from the Newcastle match” with an injury, and there I was lying there with the away top and socks on. I remember nurses popping in to see this “celebrity guest” having bought his story.
After being prodded and poked and examined by half of the staff of the hospital they admitted they had no idea what was wrong with me and decided that the best place to send me to was Atkinson Morley’s – a specialist neurological centre not too far away – in Wimbledon ironically. The other two lads had turned up at hospital by now – having been brought over by the Police post-match. The four of us were reunited and it was explained that they were going to take me by ambulance to Atkinson Morleys. The ambulance lads were great and said that they’d drop the lads off at the tube station on the way. So off we went. The lads later explained that they’d quite liked the scene of three young blokes in Newcastle tops being dropped off by an emergency ambulance in front of a group of local youths at the tube station. Especially as they were all wearing loud Hawaiian shorts too.
I was taken on to the hospital where some clever people assessed me and were a little perplexed. They were working under the assumption that I’d slipped a disc. “You can do that stepping off a kerb” they said. They brought a phone on wheels over to my bed so I could phone my parents and let them know what had happened. I knew it was bad, but even at that stage I had no idea what was wrong with me or what was to happen next.
That’s for part 2.
Oh, and by the way, the day got worse when I discovered Newcastle had lost 4-0.