First night in the hospital with a spinal cord injury.
(This blog is part of a series of seven blogs. Please click here to commence reading at the first blog.) I had a conversation with Wendy, a church minister in the Salvation Army. I’ve known her for 25 years. I was confused, as her children were never enrolled at Cedar College, yet Wendy was attending the sports day. She explained that we were at the Royal Adelaide Hospital and I had been hit by a tree. I didn’t believe her as I felt great. Even to the point of feeling fantastic. This is my only memory of events after the accident, and the next 2-3 weeks were ‘fuzzy’. I had ‘anterograde amnesia’, whereby I struggled to create new memories and retained old memories. Around 8:30 pm, over nine hours after being hit by a tree, the surgeons commenced an operation to relieve pressure on my spine. I had a spinal cord injury. After arriving back in ICU at 5 am, my wife goes home to sleep.
30 days in ICU.
I slept for the majority of each day. Often I was in pain and required assisted ventilation for weeks due to the injuries to my chest. No wonder there was bruising to my heart. Pneumonia started developing on the third day, and during my time in ICU there were regular suctions performed to remove fluid from the lungs. The procedure felt as if the nurse was killing me, but when it was finished, I felt wonderful as I could breathe more easily. A breathing tube was required for eleven days and finally replaced by a tracheostomy. However, the procedure failed, and CPR was performed for three minutes. It wasn’t until three weeks after the accident that my family could spend any time together, and they visited a cinema and watched the movie ‘Up’. They deserved to have a few laughs.
Many sensors were attached to my body, and they fed information to machines that made continual noise and the occasional loud alarm sound. Each time I heard an alarm, I thought I was about to die and waited for it to happen. I was the star of the new television program ‘Man vs Tree’. Guess who won? Me so far, but it was a close finish. My mind was struggling with the spinal cord injury, the future and the drugs. One night I awoke and stared at the ceiling. There was a vast arm suspended from the roof that held multiple pieces of equipment. It was terrifying to think that the arm was going to fall on me. I could not talk, and the room was empty, and I sat there in fear for hours hoping nothing would happen.
I became aware that I hadn’t eaten, defecated or urinated for some time. Eventually, I realised the nurses were assisting my bowels to operate, and there was a brown bag of liquid hanging above me, connected to my nose via a feeding tube. As for urinating, I took a look down below, and there was a tube coming out of my body. I now had a complete picture of the various substances that flowed in and out of my body. None of the ICU staff would talk about my future, and I assumed there was an unhappy future ahead of me. My leg, ankle and collarbone remained broken three weeks after the accident, as the doctors gave priority to other parts of my body including the spinal cord injury, heart and lungs.
When I first viewed x rays of my body, I was shocked at the amount of metalwork. It affected the scanning ability of smaller MRI machines, and I made a mental note to change my will. I should be taken to a scrap metal merchant when I died. My mouth contains four gold crowns, and the will should provide them to my children, on two conditions. 1) I am dead. 2) It occurs after the funeral is over. I find that humour helps with stressful situations.
One of the happiest moments in ICU occurred unexpectedly when Jasmine and friends from Cedar College entered my room. They sang a few songs, and I fell to sleep that night with a smile on my face. Talking was impossible as there were tubes in my throat that were constricting my vocal cords, and this was frustrating. Due to a broken collarbone, I wrote left-handed, which was ineligible, so I pointed to letters of the alphabet. Doctors couldn’t keep up with my finger pointing and had difficulty in deciphering words, although my family managed well. Staff regularly came to my room and removed chairs, only to return them a few hours later. The seats were used by visitors to sit by the beds of other ICU patients as they passed away. It was terrific that family and friends would do this. It happened too often, and I kept an eye on the staff, to ensure they didn’t place chairs from other rooms next to my bed.
Regularly I was emotional during my time in ICU. A tsunami hit Samoa on the 29th of September, and I wondered why God would allow this to happen, and why he let a tree hit me. Preventing a disaster or accident should be easy for an omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient being. I had plenty of time lying on my back looking in the direction of where I thought God was, to come up with a few conclusions about God, the tree and the school.
God created the universe and included a set of laws, and we need to understand these laws and act appropriately, to avoid harm. Trees fall over, particularly after a dry summer, and on a day with high winds, inviting people to stand near the trees is stupid. Really Stupid. Maybe the school had prayed about tree safety, and took little action? Can’t blame God for the actions and inactions of Cedar College.
Only close family members were permitted to visit me in ICU, and maybe this was the reason why no one from the school had visited. 30 days after the accident I was transferred to the RAH hospital ward and expected the visits to start.
Royal Adelaide Hospital Spinal Cord Injury Ward.
A few of the patients were older and suffered from dementia, and they spent days sleeping and nights screaming. The lack of sleep made me angry, and I don’t enjoy sleeping near other people, such as shared public hospital wards. I asked the nurses to move my bed closer to the screamers so I could stuff items down their throats. Given the nurses refused my request, I attempted shouting at these patients during the day while they were sleeping. However, my voice wasn’t loud, and the staff didn’t like it. Various friends and colleagues from work visited, and I continued to wonder when people from Cedar College would visit.
As I continued to lay flat in a bed, no one talked about my future, I assumed this position would be how I spend the rest of my life. My assumption was wrong, and the physiotherapists had me sitting on the bed with my feet on the ground. I progressed to sitting in a chair for up to two hours at a time. A few weeks later I was ready to be transferred to the Spinal Ward at Hampstead Rehabilitation Hospital. They were leaders in the field of rehabilitation of people with a spinal cord injury. They were located in Northgate. The same suburb as Cedar College.
Hampstead Hospital Rehabilitation Hospital.
The rehabilitation was a challenge, as it included hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, gym and having to eat hospital food. It involved learning how to take care of the morning routines of toileting, showering and dressing. I slept from 9 pm until 7 am, and each day I felt exhausted. It was great to get my own wheelchair and the freedom to push myself around.
When tragedy strikes, it is a good indicator of the quality of your friends. They would help by visitations, gifts, phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, prayer, and assistance to my family. There were also friends who went AWOL – absent without leave. There was one friend I regularly contacted each week, and after the accident, we spoke about three times. A few years later I made contact with him over Facebook, and he didn’t reply.
Contacting Cedar College.
I knew the school leaders and the staff, all felt bad about what happened. They were praying for me, and taking action to help my family in various ways, such as financial gifts, food parcels, gift baskets, waiving school fees until later, and counselling for Jasmine and Ben. I felt the need to contact Cedar College and ask them the obvious questions. Why did the tree fell on me, and the reasons for their lack of contact? My lawyers advised against this action, and I did what I was told. When the tree fell on me, my son and father were near me and were both fortunate they didn’t get hit by the tree. My thinking changed from ‘why did this happen to me’ to ‘why did it almost happen to my son’. As a parent, I have the right to ask questions about the safety of my children. The legal advice was the same. How many other parents asked questions along these lines, or did they only think ‘Thank God it didn’t happen to my family’?
So I waited for the school to visit. And waited. WWJD? The phrase about Mohammad and the mountain is appropriate at this time, and I went to the immovable mountain. On December 10, 2009, I attended the graduation of Jasmine and Ben held at Cedar College. Various school leaders wished me well, and there was no time for any meaningful conversation. Early in 2010, my wife shared a few impacts of the accident, and it included …
‘The issue I have is that since the time of the accident NOT A SINGLE REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SCHOOL HAS BEEN TO VISIT MY HUSBAND. Need I say more, this is a complete insult to him and me. It’s one thing to have a tragic accident occur on your property, but not to acknowledge it or even speak to the person who has been hurt, is either saying that you deny it happened, or even worse, that you couldn’t care less. The fact that the principal has referred to John in his school newsletters, giving the impression that he is up to date on John’s progress just makes it all the worse.’
Year one anniversary in flowers.
My family gathered at Cedar College on September 11, 2010, at the site of the accident. They picked flowers and arranged them in an image of a person in a wheelchair, a clear symbol of people who have received a spinal cord injury. School leaders walked past, and I am sure they started a conversation and mentioned kind words. I doubt my family listened nor cared about what they said. It was a time when the family were questioning the values of the school and their leaders.
Chronic Pain and going home.
One Saturday morning in October 2010 I awoke from my sleep. I was only aware of one thing. Pain. Intense pain in my back. I started shouting…
‘help me’, ‘I need help’, ‘I am dying’.
No one heard me, and I grabbed the nurse’s call bell and pressed it continually. Similar to people who think that continuing to hit the lift button would get the lift there more quickly. A nurse promptly arrived, and I shouted the same message. After 100 questions and multiple examinations by many physicians, the cause of the pain was unknown. Pain levels decreased only slightly after taking a hefty dose of pain relief. I was progressing well through rehabilitation and was due to be discharged soon. The pain has never ceased. It is centred around my level of injury on the sternum and back as if there is a pole stuck through my body.
The MRI scans indicated I was suffering from Syringomyelia, a spinal disorder that only affects 1 out of every 10,000 people. A cyst (or cavity or syrinx) forms within the spinal cord, and it grows more significant over time, destroying the spinal cord. It is a serious condition as it may result in pain, paralysis and weakness. It only affects around 1 out of every 10,000 people, and my cavity would drain via a series of catheters, tubes and valves. All of which would remain within my body. There were three separate operations over a period of a few months, and the pain persisted. I was taking large doses of strong pain relief, as often as I was legally permitted to do so. Having Syringomyelia is a bigger issue than having a spinal cord injury.
I was discharged from the hospital in January 2011 and rejoined my family at home. As you may have guessed from the title of this blog, there were no visits from Cedar College during the entire 16 months in the hospital.