Our Legal Director Mick Laffey, from our Medical Negligence and Serious Injury Team, continues his story 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.
He’s sharing 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 we join Mick for his first few outings in a wheelchair and encounter what is to become his “constant nemesis”. This tale involves a hill and a rosebush…
By now I was stuck on a ward in Hexham with a load of other similarly injured people. I say similarly injured – they were all wheelchair users yes, but the difference was that I was making small, noticeable, improvements week on week. I was very lucky in that regard. I had gone from someone who couldn’t move either leg to someone who was starting to get around the ward on two elbow crutches.
They were very impressed, as was I to be fair. How much better would I get? Does this mean I’d keep improving and get back to normal? Things were feeling increasingly positive. Certainly more than they were at first. The physio was a nightmare – but with each improvement my desire to get on with it increased.
They started allowing me home on the weekend too. That was an experience in itself.
There’s a lot to be said for the first time your mates decide to take you out following a spinal injury. When I was still at Atkinson Morley’s in Wimbledon a group of lads from home came down for the weekend. They were all the same age as me. The doctors said that they could put me in a wheelchair and take me for “a walk”. I’m sure they knew fine well that we’d “walk” to a pub. And that’s exactly what we did.
When we got to a nice-looking pub nearby I faced, for the first time, what would become a constant nemesis over the years. A flight of steps leading up to the entrance.
How do you push a wheelchair up steps?
“Don’t worry” said one of the chaps. “we’ll carry you up”. And so they did, two of them carrying me up the steps with one of them under each arm. Now picture the scene. A twee local pub in one of the more affluent areas of London, literally down the road from the All England Tennis club. The doors burst open and in come a group of noisy young Geordie males. One of them is clearly already so drunk he has to be carried in by his mates. The looks we got were stinging. As I was being carried in, my feet dragging along the ground, the locals looked at us with such disdain.
I was really conscious of this as this was my first outing “In public” as a newly injured spinal patient. I clearly remember their faces changing when another lad pushed the wheelchair in and the lads sat me down into it. The faces changed from disdain to that “Oh God, we are terrible people” look instantly. Some of them clearly felt so guilty about their misjudgement that they immediately came and cleared away some chairs so we could get to the bar in a very British and overly apologetic way. It was like that scene in “The Inbetweeners” at Thorpe Park but for real.
We had a laugh that afternoon. We had a few pints. I felt a bit rough from the medications I was on, but it was great to be out in a social situation with the lads again. They pushed me back up to the hospital later.
The wheelchair was one of the hated “small wheels at the back” jobs that you can’t push yourself. That meant when they got me back to the front of the hospital and left me there, I couldn’t stop myself when they left me on a hill and I rolled into a rosebush.
I promise you this is all true. It was like a poor-quality sitcom. Everyone thought it was hilarious – even me.
That was the one and only time I escaped the confines of Stalag Luft Atkinson Morley’s in the month I was there, apart from a trip in an ambulance for an MRI scan.
When I got home and went to Hexham I had the Torch club I’ve mentioned before. A club for disabled people. That was magnificent. It was so disabled the barman only had one arm. He was a great lad and I loved the encouragement he gave me every time he saw me as he could see the improvements I was making. When I started coming down on crutches he couldn’t believe it. I was very proud when he said I was “the first patient he’d ever seen walk out of that place”.
When I was allowed home at weekends the lads were desperate to take me out to get me back into it. They just wanted to help and I was delighted to get out of the house. I can still remember the first time I got to our local pub in a wheelchair.
By now I had the sporty self-propelled wheelchair my physiotherapist aunt had acquired for me. I remember rolling through the main door and turning right to get into the dividing doors into the bar. They had, however one of those split doors, both of which could be opened or closed, and only one side was open. So I bumped into the door and crashed, again, in my wheelchair. This was becoming a common theme. Worse still was that everyone looked over and made me feel more self-conscious than I already was as the lads fumbled to open the second door and pushed me in for my grand entrance.
That aside, its great being back in your local for the first time. Sometimes people were a bit over effusive whilst others were a bit standoffish – as if they think they’ll catch “wheelchair” from you. It’s a real mix of emotions and the alcohol helped.
Adjusting to your new normal is bizarre. Everything changed in a split second. You wonder if you’ll ever get into your favourite nightclub again as it’s upstairs. As we now know, there were no disabled people in the olden days as they were only invented by the DDA Disability Discrimination Act in 1995.
It certainly seemed like that as you would not believe the number of shops, pubs, restaurants etc. I came across which I couldn’t access for one reason or another. My attitude was to roll on past and go to the next place that was accessible.
The point is, I decided from a very early stage that being able to get out in a wheelchair is very much a glass half full situation. The alternative, taken by so many, is to become a recluse. I don’t like the phrase “wallowing in self-pity” as that’s not quite right. Some people just don’t feel the same after an injury and don’t want to go out – but it helps to make the effort if possible. Or they think it’ll be too difficult. It won’t as long as you avoid hills, snow, ice, steps/stairs, drop kerbs, cobbles, broken glass, puddles, mud, dog waste, rope bridges and sand.
My view is that you have no option - you either go out and live your life on wheels or you don’t. As I often joke – I can’t click my fingers and make everything right as I’m a bit sick of the situation. It’s the wheelchair or the couch and that’s it.
And that’s where having a good wheelchair (or three) is crucial. But more of this later…