Well this has been a rather busy summer. I have been sailing, fishing, cycling, swimming, and driving. I went down West to Baltimore, and thanks to my courageous and determined friends we managed to haul my paralysed ass up to the Beacon. I have gone wake-boarding, had sex and I even ‘ walked’. It seems it has been like any other summer, but it has been much different. Of course there have been times when it has been extremely difficult, extremely frustrating, extremely sad, even depressing. You just want to give up and stop and wish this had never happened. I think about where I would be if this hadn’t happened, how great my life was before all this, how happy I was, and sometimes I just want it all back. I just want to be able to get out of bed when I feel like it, without having to wait for someone to help me. I just want to get up and walk down the road, a road I have walked effortlessly before, and stretch my legs. Go one day without having to ask people to do things for me. I don’t want to have to ask for help, just do things, basic things. Open a window, tie a shoelace, fill up a bottle of water, make a dinner, pick blackberries, connect up the zip on your jumper, not have to go the long way around to use a ramp, just hurry up the steps, jump in and out of the car effortlessly, cut up a nice rare steak, the list is endless and it’s just basic things.
At the beginning of the summer I decided I had to be as fit and as strong as possible which would enable me to become more independent, improving my quality of life. I had to find a sport that would enable me to become strong and fit in a way that I could enjoy and push myself. I decided I would do the Crosshaven triathlon. At first, I thought I would manage the cycle only, then as I began to learn to swim again, I thought I would be better off doing the swim only. But as time went by and as I got stronger and stronger I realised that I could do both. Along with spending three days a week in the gym, I cycled and swam weekly. I had a lot of help, and friends were always willing to help me in and out of the water, and in and out of the bike. Doing the triathlon alongside able-bodied people felt good. And actually beating some people in the swim was the highlight. The cycle was slow but next year I’ll be quicker.
I applied to do a masters program in the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. It is a one-year course in Medical Device Design. The course director however, has allowed me to do the course over two years which will make things more manageable. For the first semester I will be in college just once a week doing theory modules. The first day was extremely daunting for me, as I was going into an environment where nobody knew me before my injury. None of these people have ever seen me walk or even stand. They didn’t know the person I was before, and now they’re going to get to know me as I am in a wheelchair.
In August I went to Cambridge to a physiotherapist to undergo further treatment and to see if I could bring any of these exercises home. It is renowned for being exceptionally good with a greater understanding of spinal cord injuries and how best to get the person stronger. As it turns out (and not that I was in any doubt) the exercises I’m doing with Colin are indeed the best way to go, and I am on the right track. We did bring one or two exercises home but otherwise it is pretty much the same. They do, however, have advance equipment that unfortunately is not readily available in Ireland. There are two pieces of equipment, one is FES (functional electrical stimulation), which I use on a much smaller scale at home. The other is an exoskeleton, which is a robotic device which allows paralysed people to stand up and walk. Problems of paralysis get more complicated over time because we do not stand and we do not walk.
I mentioned earlier that I “walked”. I was lucky enough to get two opportunities this summer where I was able to use robotic legs to put me up into a standing position and move in a walking motion. I think all in all I took close to 35 steps. It’s not much but it was good to experiment and I have managed to form a strong opinion in favour of robotics from the experience. The wheelchair is an ancient device which is very effective and allows us to get around. However, I think in this day and age we can start to do better than this. We can look to technology and robotics for another effective solution. It may not replace the wheelchair completely but provide an alternative option. Over the next 30 years as the technology advances people should be leaving rehab with an ability to use robotics to complete certain tasks. In the meantime, while we wait for this break-through, we need to keep our legs and bodies in the best possible shape so that we can benefit from such technology. The longer we sit and wait the less chance we will have of benefitting from any further developments. It’s time to get people who can’t walk up and moving. I’m not saying that robotics are going to get people actually walking again, but what it will do is enhance blood flow throughout the whole body, retain bone density, reduce muscle wastage, promote better bladder and bowel functions, and at the very least give the user a sense of enormous well-being.
This equipment is costly but we need it available to all of those who wish to use it. It will save the health service money in the long run as people will be healthier and fitter, with less complications and improve their quality of life. It will be based in the community for all to use after an initial assessment by a trained physiotherapist. It will be affordable so anyone can use it and follow a specially designed training programme unique to each user.
Unfortunately, people who have been wheelchair bound for a long time may not benefit from such a device. It will be more effective for recent injuries and the unfortunate ones to come.
Last week it was revealed that we are indeed on the brink of a break through for a spinal cord injury cure, let’s be ready for it.
Oh, there is one difference between this summer and others. I didn’t climb a tree!!