I got out.
It must have been the good behaviour. After 9 weeks of rehabilitation and almost 15 weeks of hospitals since my Spinal Cord Injury, some innocent soul in the NHS decided it was safe to unleash me onto the streets of London – and hopefully soon the backroads of Leitrim.
Watch out world.
I GOT OUT!
It was such a massive mix of emotions. 15 weeks may sound like a short time in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re living and breathing a Spinal Cord Injury, with a singular focus on recovery and surrounded by others doing the exact same thing – well, there was something about being in that little bubble that felt like forever.
It’s not that I was miraculously cured all of a sudden. I didn’t just rise up out of the wheelchair and start dancing a jig. No, my dancing days are still far off, but I was content, for now, in the knowledge that I had improved enough and learned enough to be able to finish this phase of my recovery.
As excited as I was (and I was excited), the idea of leaving wasn’t the celebration I might have expected. In truth, there was a lot about facing the big bad world as a disabled person that terrified me.
I’d joked with friends in the early days of my rehabilitation that the hospital wasn’t going to get me. It would take a lot more than set meal times and colour coded uniforms to institutionalise me.
Well, it got me.
The idea of leaving filled me with a strange kind of dread. I was going to be on my own. I wouldn’t have all the support I’d gotten used to. What if I got overwhelmed? What if I hit rock bottom?
But then I thought back to rock bottom. 15 weeks ago, immobile in a hospital bed when I cried bitter, bitter tears. I remembered being told I wouldn’t walk again and the panic, the pain, the doctors, the drugs, the devastation, the psychiatrists, the grief. All of the things I couldn’t write about back then. I remembered the funny shaped crack on the hospital ceiling that I stared at for those first 11 terrifying days.
Then I remembered the first toe twitch and the first leg rock. I had made a decision that I was going to pull myself back up. Rock bottom was in the past. A little thing like leaving hospital was nothing compared to what I’d been through. I could do this.
Or could I?
My thoughts volleyed back and forth like a replay of the Wimbledon Men’s semi-final. It seemed like it would never finish.
The hospital experience ended much as it began – surrounded by amazing women (and one or two exceptional men). The days of the Misfit Musketeers felt like a lifetime ago, though we were in regular contact and we’re planning a catch up very soon. In the same way that those ladies brought a smile to my face during the worst of times, the women I befriended during my time in rehab were the best part of the experience – aside, of course, from getting back on my feet.
I shared a bay for the final few weeks of rehabilitation with Donna and Julia. We talked a lot about our mutual worries. We advised and helped where we could. We calmed and soothed, but not as much as we giggled and grumbled. Between my laugh and Donna’s, there was somehow a feeling of contagious good humour in the bay and it transformed life on the ward. It made it bearable.
Eye-rolls became our mode of communication. You know you’re on the mend when you can spend your days moaning about incompetent kitchen staff and the fact that your dinner was cold, late and had the suspicious look of roadkill about it.
I’d managed to get free of Super Chav a few weeks earlier. It had taken 6 weeks of unpleasant days and torturous nights, but when she was finally moved into another bay, everyone immediately felt happier. Although there was still plenty of batshit crazy doing the rounds, the intensity of the drama settled a little. Hers was a story filled with mayhem and madness that might have made for brilliant blog material if it wasn’t so tragic. I decided that I’d had my fun. As unbelievable and exciting as her soap opera life was, it wasn’t right to squeeze more entertainment out of it. I left it to her.
Almost as soon as the sanity levels in my bay had returned to relative normality, it was time to leave. I’m pretty sure the crazy-o-meter flatlined the moment I exited the building.
It wasn’t just the girls in the bay that I’d miss. It was the hodgepodge of weird and wonderful characters that had populated the unit throughout my stay. Only something as dramatic as a Spinal Cord Injury can unite the most varied group of people and forge unlikely friendships. On my last night, I sat around a table clinking glasses of pineapple juice with new friends of all ages, nationalities, backgrounds and ethnicities. A writer sat with an ice-cream van man. A banker chatted with a rapper. An Essex boy laughed at the jokes of a West Ham fan. We had only one thing in common. We’d been through this shit together.
Now I was coming out the other side.
On Tuesday, the day before discharge, reality started to settle in. My Occupational Therapist Fran (who I, quite rightly, call Frantastic) introduced me to my new wheelchair which had been supplied by my local wheelchair service. I couldn’t take home the one I had been using. I couldn’t zip around any more in the chair I had somehow, despite all it’s flaws and my reason for needing it, come to love.
The new chair was hideous. NHS bargain basement crap. It was huge and heavy and generic. It slumped too far backwards and the footrest was uncomfortably high. It pulled at my shoulders when I self-propelled. And it was going to be a month before I even had my meeting with wheelchair services about getting something better.
I tried to stay positive. Fran was more disgusted than I was – at first. I think it took an attempt at playing basketball in it before I truly understood how limiting the bulky chair really was.
I mentally swatted away all thoughts of the wheelchair while I got through my last ever session. Of course it was a physio session with Superman. And of course, it set me off. What would you expect?
As we talked about future plans, I felt it. The panic that had been brewing for days started to bubble. Even though I’ll be back from time to time for out-patient appointments, the next phase of my rehabilitation is going to be back in my local community in South London.
No more Superman. Not really.
There was a finality to our conversation. For the first time, I fully realised that it was all up to me from here on. He had carried me as far as he could. I tried to mask my terror. I don’t know if I succeeded all that well. And I realised that I had come to depend on him. I had latched on more than was probably good for me. I think he knew it too, and I think that’s what he was trying to tell me as he explained the next steps of my rehab.
It was time to stand on my own two feet.
The tears didn’t fall until later, right in the middle of the basketball court when my hideous wheelchair was hurting my shoulders and barely moving. I couldn’t join in with my team. I realised how many challenges lay ahead. Nothing was going to be easy.
I’d been introduced to wheelchair basketball about two weeks into my rehab as part of the physio sport programme. I loved it. So when I stumbled across some ladies in the Aspire Leisure Centre, I jumped at the invitation to join their team. These were women who lived locally and met at the Leisure Centre twice a week for practice and chats. Some of us even managed a coffee on non-practice days. They weren’t part of the hospital, so being with them felt like an escape. Because the spinal unit is connected to the leisure centre and uses the facilities, I’d been lucky enough to see them practice one day and struck up a conversation. I knew I’d like them from minute one.
It’s kept me sane. Here were a group of women who have all been through their own battles and have come through it, still swinging. Each of them are strong and courageous and inspirational. They’ve been a lifeline to me. I was never a patient to them. I wasn’t someone with a disability. I was just another one of the girls.
So when I broke into tears on the basketball court, they did what all good girlfriends do. They wheeled around me. They listened to my blubbering and empathised and supported.
They got it.
They’ve been the silver lining to my Spinal Cord Injury and I’m going to do my best to cross the city once a week to play with them – if I have a wheelchair that can join in – or even make the journey.
Wednesday was a different story. Maybe I was all cried out, but I woke with a sense of giddiness.
I was getting out!
I had a final swim in the pool, did my exercises and went to my last meeting with my care team. It was like an out of body experience. I was jittery and excited and I just wanted to go. The world was waiting. I jabbered my way through the meeting, with no idea of what I was actually saying. I think I even cursed. Nothing new for me then.
Final tests. Final paperwork. Final goodbyes.
Kayleigh, the rehab assistant who was taking me to my new flat, packed up all of my things as I jabbered some more.
And then it was time to leave.
In the early days of rehab, in a state of some distress, I’d told Superman that I couldn’t face life in a wheelchair. I knew I’d need one for most things, but that couldn’t be my life. When the time came to face the world again, I needed to be able to walk out those doors. I didn’t care what sticks or braces I needed. It didn’t matter if my hip twisted or my knees buckled. I needed to be upright and get out those doors myself.
I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen, I’d told him. And I did. I followed his every instruction, completed every exercise regime, reached every little goal along the way. I’d been single minded and I’d had the best support I could have had.
So when the time came, I slapped on my new AFOs (Ankle Foot Orthosis) and picked up my crutches. I sent my wheelchair on ahead to the car. I didn’t need it for this part. I walked through that door with the biggest smile I could ever have smiled. The feeling of freedom was immediate.
As Kayleigh pulled out the gate of the hospital, a wave of pure joy washed over me. There was something else in that wave; something cleansing. The institutional fog lifted. I left the hospital behind and turned my mind to the future that lay ahead. It was bright and filled with hope and opportunity. I unlatched.
I know that this is not going to be easy. In many ways, the biggest challenge starts now. But I love a challenge, so come on world. Let’s be havin’ ya.