It happened in slow motion. Once I felt myself stumble, I moved my arms to try and rebalance but the elbow crutches restricted my movement. I aimed for the bed, but I was too far away and knew I wouldn’t make it. So I did the only thing that made sense. I called for help from my favourite Superhero.
Superman was standing beside me. We were in the middle of a physio session and he’d been teaching me to stand with crutches. I’d done it a few times in the gym and my balance had been good. There was no reason to worry. That may be why he stood a few metres away from me when we tried it out on the ward, arms folded as he chatted merrily. I interrupted him by shouting his name in utter panic.
Obviously, I used his real name. I was not so far gone that I was calling the name of a fictional character to come and save me. I can just imagine that incident report form.
I needn’t have called him at all. He was already in motion. He wrapped huge arms around me and broke the fall, guiding me towards safety. I was a bit mortified if I’m honest. Even in my moment of panic as I dangled from him, my mind drifted into wondering how in the name of god he was going to manage this one, huge arms or not. I’m no waif.
I want to say that I helped by clutching on to the end of the bed somehow and twisting into a seated position. I want to say it, but it would be unfair to Superman. It was teamwork of sorts. I’d say it was 80/20 his work. Or 90/10. Or… well, let’s just say there were two of us in it. I think.
Between us, I ended up perched precariously on the side of the bed, arms twisted around the crutches. Superman looked confused.
“What was that?” He asked.
I’d been ready. I’d just told him how much easier the crutches were than I’d expected.
“Piece of piss,” may well have been the exact words I said just before I launched myself into nothingness. I don’t know if I’ve invented that memory, but I definitely claimed that things were under control.
“I thought you had this.” He was genuinely surprised. I’m not usually one to fail.
I tried to analyse what had gone wrong. I’d stood from my wheelchair to the crutches exactly like he’d shown me. Had I leaned too far forward? Had I not leaned forward enough? Had I not positioned the crutches correctly? We ran through it and pieced together exactly how I had over-shot my sit to stand as he checked my hands and arms until he was satisfied that he’d be leaving me back in the condition he found me. It was only the next day that I discovered the bruises on my belly where I must have fallen on the crutch handles.
(Sure what’s a bruise or two to a Spinal Injury patient?)
“You won’t do it again.” He told me.
I wondered. Barely a week had passed since I’d had a pretty nasty fall out of my wheelchair and I’d caused massive damage to my pride, if nothing else.
I certainly wasn’t going to let it stop me from trying again. Back on the horse and all that. Superman had the same idea.
“Come on.” He tapped on the back of my wheelchair. “Let’s try that again.”
I positioned the crutches, shuffled forward on the bed and I got myself ready. Suppressing the pang of fear somewhere deep down in my guts, I leaned forward – just enough – and rose into a standing position.
Superman exhaled. It might have been the first time since my fall that he’d really taken a breath.
He tapped the wheelchair again. He was not tolerating any hesitation. I manoeuvred myself, nano-step by nano-step into position to sit back into my chair.
I repeated the sit to stand. Left crutch positioned by my left side. Right crutch reaching forward. I engaged my core and sat tall. I leaned forward. I pushed up through the legs.
There’s a lot more than you’d think to standing up.
The stand was good. I brought the left crutch forward and found my balance.
“That’s how I meant to do it the last time.” I joked.
He didn’t say it, but I know he’d had a fright. His face wasn’t usually so pale. He wasn’t usually so quiet.
“I’ve never let anybody fall.” He told me later, “but that was a close call.”
Even though it seemed to happen in slow motion, it was also a total blur. I tried not to focus on it. I wouldn’t scare myself. There was too much to learn still and I didn’t want to waste any time by being overly cautious in my physio sessions.
It turned into one of the best sessions yet. We walked all around the ward, me trying to control my twisty left hip which likes to pop out on every step with the right foot. It’s hard to focus on something so much while also trying to control knocking knees and hyperextension. Then there’s also carrying the bulky brace that keeps your ankles, feet and knees aligned, (because you just can’t do all of that yourself). Oh, and add in the fact that you can’t actually feel the feet you’re stepping with. I felt further off the ground than Michael Flatley mid-Riverdance.
Floating on this particular river of ward corridors, I was the Lord of my dance. I mightn’t have been, though, if I didn’t have Superman behind me, fully alert for any more signs of a stumble.
We wandered into the bathroom where I tried out my new sitting and sit-to-stand techniques on the toilet and the shower chair. Then we realised that wet surfaces, crutches, carrying things and wobbly me were not the best combination for successful morning care. I would have to stick with transferring from my wheelchair for now.
We walked to the day room: the ward hotspot and social Mecca. There were a few people buzzing about and we chattered happily as I tried my hand at sitting and standing with the chairs and sofas. Chatter or not, Superman wasn’t moving more than a few inches from me, his super-hero-physio eyes scanning every little movement.
Then back to my bed.
“Will I sign you off?” He looked for my notes to let the rest of the staff know that I was now free to wander the corridors at will – or, in his opinion, in the company of one member of staff. I racked my brains to think of someone else who could catch me. I visualised the fall and replaced him with each of the nurses and healthcare assistants on duty that day. In each scenario, most of them ended up squashed like cartoon characters into a two-dimensional version of themselves. Some of them are already much closer to being a waif than I will ever be.
“No.” It was the first time I’d ever said it to him. I’ve grumbled (probably far too much) and I’ve had hissy fits (well that foot was just not going to get into that strap), but I’ve never before said no.
I think he knew I was making the right decision. I wasn’t ready. Not just yet.
“Will we try this again?”
I nodded. I was disappointed with myself as Superman took the crutches with him back to the gym. Worse that that, though, was the nagging worry that after such dramatic improvement in such a short space of time, I might have reached a plateau. I couldn’t bear the idea that I may have come as far as I’m going to come for this most important part of my rehabilitation.
3 months ago – though it feels like a lifetime – I listened to Hot Doctor tell me that there were a lot of things I may never do again. Well, I half listened. If you remember, he was far too distractingly handsome to actually take in what he was saying. Don’t worry, I read over the notes and asked a far less attractive colleague to repeat it to me once the shock had worn off.
Liz, my physiotherapist at the first hospital repeated it.
Complete Spinal Cord Injury.
I had to face a future that included a lot of ‘never again’s – it was too early to determine any likely outcome but they prepared me for the worst. The chances of walking were slim to none.
They were right about a lot of it. There are parts of me that won’t ever be the same. I’ve overdosed on bitter pills. I’ve come to terms with the loss of bowel and bladder function. I’ve learned to care for my failing skin. I’m still wrapping my head around plenty more.
I may always have a twisty left hip and knocking knees that hyperextend. I may always need to wear the braces that keep all my parts in line. I may never be able to actually feel my feet on the ground, but I’m working on making them stronger and I’m learning different methods to assure me that they are, in fact, in exactly the right place.
“I’m going to fall again, amn’t I?” I asked Superman a few days afterwards, when both of our heart rates had stabilised. “When I get out of here and I’m on my own?”
He nodded with certainty.
“So many times.”
I listened to him tell me that we’ll practice more multi-level transfers so I can get back up off the ground. He talked about the low likelihood of fractures and how to check myself for damage. I know it’s all part of the Spinal Cord Injury package. If a few falls are the price I have to pay for getting the use of my legs back, then I’ll pay it a thousand times over.
One thing’s for sure. I said it to Hot Doctor and to his less attractive colleague. I said it to Liz and anybody else who tried to break bad news.
I will walk.
Superman believes it too. He has from day one. That’s why I’ve come this far.
So whatever walking is going to look like from here on, and no matter how wobbly it may be, I’m determined that it’s going to happen one way or another. Those crutches are coming back out and this time I’m keeping them.
And if I fall, I’ll just do what I’ve always done. I’ll dust myself off and get right back up again.