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.
In Mick’s sixth blog out of eight, we see him through university, travelling and starting out in his first job in law…
Having been paralysed from the waist down six months earlier, and somewhat incredibly, I was back “to normal” by late 1989. I still had a bit of numbness in my legs but everything worked – and that’s all that mattered to me.
The large retail company I worked for as a trainee manager were still paying me and I had taken out a policy when I bought my car to cover my income – which paid out – and meant that for 18 months I had more money than when I was working. That was a fun time.
For almost a year I lounged about “recovering” and deciding what to do next.
I had an examination by Occupational Health at work. They decided my back was “knackered” (they may have used a more medical term) and that I could not reasonably return as a retail manager. It was agreed that I would be medically discharged from work and that I’d try to get into university, returning to the firm in summer 1991 (after my first year of uni) as part of the summer graduate internment process. They also gave me a small bursary during my first year at uni which was nice.
I subsequently worked at head office for three months in summer 1991 and I felt I did quite well, but I think the spectre of my condition hung over me like the sword of Damocles and I was finally let go thereafter. I can understand that. In the end I’d only actually worked for the firm for seven months and then been off for over twice that long – on full pay, and been given a bursary, and a summer placement, and I was obviously going to pursue a career in law anyway. So we parted on good terms.
Beforehand, I can still remember applying to university in early 1990 whilst still on the sick. This was late in the year to apply for anything – let alone the subject I was interested in – Law.
I had a few interviews and was eventually offered a place at a newly formed course in Middlesbrough. This was relatively close to home and I accepted.
This was fine, but in all honesty wasn’t where I’d wanted to be. I wanted to be at Newcastle Polytechnic (Now the University of Northumbria) and hatched a plan to call them every day to see if I could take the place of someone who’d dropped out and switch.
Eventually – surprisingly – this plan worked and halfway through the second week the admin staff in Newcastle finally managed to shut the guy who called every day up. Someone left the Law course in Newcastle and there was a space – as long as I could be there to register the very next day. Which I was.
I therefore did four years of Uni in Newcastle. I lived at home. I kept my Newcastle United season ticket going and my life was very much back on track.
Unfortunately, my AVM was still there. It hadn’t gone away. Several times over these four years I experienced small bleeds in my spine. Each time this happened I was flattened for a month. I had sickness, photophobia, pain and weakness which recovered each time.
At one stage I was sent to the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in Queens Square, London, for tests to see if anything could be done to help or stabilise me. They took a look at my back at steered well clear.
This was a bit of a nightmare – but was manageable.
It meant that I was unable to film popular 90’s television programme “Blind Date” however.
This was a hugely popular show at the time. Having successful applied, I was six days away from filming it when my back went on one such occasion and I had to pull out.
They asked for me to come down to a show on the next series and be the standby – in case someone pulled out as I had done – which meant that I had to travel to London in 1992.
I turned up at the offices of LWT (London Weekend Television) which were – ironically – almost next door to the very same offices of the company I’d used to work for.
I remember sitting in the room with the four other lads who were to be on the show. The lads who were part of the three “pickees” were being prepared for the show and had been given the questions of the one female “picker”.
The TV producer asked the lads the following question “I am an underwear model – would this bother you?”
I asked if I could help – which the lads agreed as they were having trouble with their answers.
I said “No, this wouldn’t bother me at all – as long as you brought your work home with you”.
One of the lads used that one – and another devastatingly witty response to another question I can no longer remember.
The producers were impressed by my answers and told me so, but they didn’t call me back for another show as they were concerned about my back.
They had written to my GP and asked him about me. He told them enough about my condition to frighten them off ever using me. That was disappointing.
Eventually my time at university came to an end and I graduated initially with a 2:1 In Law and then a Commendation in my Legal Practice Course. The latter is the one year ‘solicitors’ course taken (at vast expense) after my initial degree.
I had a job lined up as a trainee solicitor at a niche Personal Injury/Clinical Negligence firm in Newcastle, starting in September 1994 and again, the future looked promising.
Realising I would have time to kill between my last exam in May and September 1994 I looked for something fun to do. I heard about BUNAC (The British Universities North America Club) from some fellow students on my course. They’d done it the year before and were wanting to do it again. To do so they had to ‘organise” the club at the Uni which meant they were looking for recruits.
There was a problem though. I had to declare I was physically fit and also declined to mention my past history. What if my back “went” again whilst I was in America? I would be in real trouble given the cost of health care treatment over there.
You can criticise the NHS all you like but I’d much prefer it to an enormous bill.
Being young and daft I decided to take a risk and ended up on a plane to New York in May 1994.
I’d got myself a job in “food operations” at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. This was, so they said, the largest rollercoaster park in the world with a number of ever larger coasters situated on a small Island on Lake Erie, about 70 miles to the left of Cleveland.
Having spent a day in orientation talks in New York – and a few days wandering round the city – I travelled by plane over to Cleveland and then got a bus to Sandusky.
I can still remember turning up on my first day and walking into the “food Operations” office.
To be clear there were three large divisions within the park. One covered ‘park operations’ – such as the tickets, parking, infrastructure etc. A second covered the ‘rides’ – and dealt with the various “crews” who operated the attractions and rollercoasters themselves.
Food Operations covered, as you might imagine, everything from restaurants to hot dog stands.
When I turned up I explained who I was and the lady at the desk flipped through a box of cards and eventually pulled one out which appeared to relate to me.
“Ah, yes. Mr Laffey, we have a job for you here at the hot dog stand under the Magnum XL-200 Rollercoaster.”
Now, I’d been told by everybody that the best job to get was that of a waiter. Americans called them “servers” and they were the chaps who got the most tips. Everybody told me to try for such a position if I wanted to earn money – which I did.
With this vital information in mind, I stood up as tall as I could and said the immortal line….
“Oh no, no, no. I’m a waiter. I am here to wait tables”.
When asked what experience I had I said, somewhat memorably, in a Geordie accent,
“I have just finished an assignment for the Queen as a butler at Buckingham Palace, London, England.”
Standing there in my jeans and football shirt I gave the lady in the office an indignant look.
She looked back and looked again at her box of cards.
She flicked through them again and eventually found one which she pulled out and said…
“Well, we have a job here at the Breakwater Café – the best restaurant at the park – as a server – will that do?”
I said it would have to.
As such – and though sheer neck, I obtained a job at the best restaurant at the park. I got a ticket to go to ‘wardrobe’ (I am not kidding) to get two uniforms (both of which included blue trousers and a Hawaiian shirt) and off I went.
There are so many stories I could tell from this time but they are barely relevant, though I did drive coast to coast across America using a lot of Route 66 and going to Las Vegas, Dallas, The Grand Canyon, Mexico (for 20 minutes), Los Angeles and Elvis’ house in Memphis amongst other locations.
My back took a hammering as I was on my feet all day as a server but I earned an absolute fortune. I was useless, but English, and managed to get out of mistakes by telling them that “the Queen likes it differently” and generally just being an eccentric Brit. They absolutely lapped it up.
I had a few twinges over this time but again, held out well. Maybe I’d be ok after all?
Upon my return to Newcastle in September 1994, I started work and was doing well until around the sixth anniversary of my original AVM in Spring 1995.
I remember walking back from lunch towards to the office in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle. Everything was fine when, suddenly, it felt like someone had “switched the pressure off” in my back. It’s hard to explain but suddenly it just felt like my back wasn’t working any more. There was no pain, just an immediate loss of control and balance.
I managed to stay standing upright but had to hold onto one of the poles holding a button and crossing light for a zebra crossing. This was at a crossing across a busy road only about 100 yards from my office. I immediately thought that I wasn’t going to make it. What would I do?
Having held onto the pole for a few minutes I thought I was going to just have to go for it. I waited for the next green light and slowly stumbled back to the office, which was slightly downhill. I think I did this on muscle memory alone and it was very difficult.
Again, what would I do? I phoned for an appointment at hospital. It immediately felt very serious.
I’d just started a new job, as a trainee. How could I work? The office was incredibly disabled unfriendly. It was all stairs. Just beforehand a reporter in a wheelchair had attended our offices to speak to the Senior Partner about the repercussions of the “Disability Discrimination Act 1995”. Somewhat embarrassingly for all concerned, he couldn’t even get into the building. Which may have actually been his point.
My back had indeed “gone” again. I had had another bleed. This one was not painful at all, but it was absolutely devastating as I never, ever, walked normally again. Writing this 28 years later I can still remember how I felt.
It was very much all downhill physically after this.
But it wasn’t the end of my story. The best was yet to come.