Previously, on “How I Broke My Neck”:
“It was a huge relief when the helicopter touched down in Brisbane. A team of medicos ran out with a trolley. As they wheeled me through the big glass doors I sucked some more oxygen through the mask and thought, maybe, I’m going to be OK…”
It was now five hours after I broke my neck in a slow, awkward, unspectacular fall off my bike in the forest near Byron Bay.
My riding friends, the Mullumbimby ambulance officers, the Brunswick Valley Rescue Association, and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service had all done a magnificent job in getting me out of the mountains to safety. Now I was in the hands of the doctors, therapists, nurses and staff of the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. I was going to say “at the mercy of”, but that would be unkind, and the Mercy is actually the name of the hospital just down the road.
So. They wheeled me through the big glass doors into what I presume was the Emergency Room. It’s a bit hard to tell when all you can see is the ceiling, and a great big bottle of morphine hanging over your head with a tube going straight into your arm. Well, perhaps it wasn’t actually morphine, more likely saline, or glucose, I’m not sure, but I was actually feeling quite good at this point. So there was definitely morphine involved, somewhere.
Next up was a lot of Tubes, and a lot of Tests. I had lost 99% of my feeling below my neck, and 99.9% of my movement, so I am not 100% sure of what was actually going on. Let’s just say that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my Normal Bodily Functions for a long, long while, and for the time being I would just have to get used to Tubes. And Bags. And Drips.
Some of the Tests were not surprising. Lots of pins, needles, and little hammers.
Poke. can you feel that? No. Prick. Can you feel that? No. Whack. Can you feel that? No.
And then there were the surprises. A doctor pulled on a rubber glove, and stuck his finger Up Where The Sun Don’t Shine.
“Can you feel that?”
“Yeah, well actually I can.”
“OK, can you squeeze down on my finger?” (Patient grunts.)
“Mmm,” says the doctor,”very good, very good!”
Now I don’t know what the doctor wrote on my file, but that would be only the first of many, many rubber gloves over the next three months. Honestly, sometimes I thought they were using me as Auxiliary Storage Space.
“Where can I keep my car-keys so I don’t lose them? I know, Norval’s bum.”
“Where can I hide my new iPod? I know, Norval’s bum.”
“Where can I keep my golf balls warm for the big game this arvo?”
OK, OK, enough frivolity, I’m sure you get the picture.
Of course, with a celebrity injury like a broken neck, there are going to be photo opportunities. I think the first were the X-rays.
This meant another transfer. When you are unable to move from bed to bed under your own steam, a transfer is required. What basically happens is that six or seven nurses or staff very carefully and expertly lift you up, slide a frame under you, and lift you across to the X-ray bench (or whatever). Transfers are a little bit exciting, because you actually get to move somewhere, but also a little bit scary, because you don’t want to damage your spinal cord any more than it is already.
Further down the track, transfers often involve a hoist, or small crane, but I digress.
My X-rays were very, very good.
“I’m happy to tell you, Mr. Watson, that there is no damage to any of the bones in your spine. No breaks, no fractures, no cracks, but possibly a slight realignment.
“Also, there is no damage to any of the other bones in your body. As you have no sensation below the neck, you would not be feeling any pain from a broken leg, for example.
“We shall have to run further Tests. I shall book you in for a CAT scan.”
The neurologist seemed pleased and walked away.
Well, that was odd. I had done something Really Bad to my neck, and there HAD been a Very Loud Crack, but it was not actually broken. Hmmm.
I’m not quite sure what CAT actually stands for, in fact I haven’t a clue. It may be Cacophany After Trauma, because it is a very noisy machine. Or possibly Claustrophobic And Tight, because there’s not much room to move around. That is, if you can actually move, and I, of course, could not. That’s why I was lying there, in Emergency.
A CAT scan machine is like a tunnel, and they roll you in on a sliding bench. This big death-ray thing on a rotating collar moves up and down and all around, and after a while, they roll you out again.
The CAT scan results were also good. My organs seemed fine, they weren’t about to send me up to oncology, and I was definitely not pregnant. Despite the DRE.
The neurologist was back.
“The Tests are inconclusive. We’ll have to send you for a MRI.”
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is an acronym that I DO understand. If the CAT machine was claustrophobic, the MRI was like being buried alive. Which was a feeling I was going to have to get used to, in any case.
Before they rolled me in, the operators asked me if I would like to listen to some music, because the MRI was going to take some time.
“What have you got?”
“What do you mean?”
“Music, what sort of music have you got?”
“What would you like?”
The daggy operator frowned.
“I’m afraid you can’t have any metal in the MRI. It’s like a gigantic magnet.”
The cool operator whispered in the daggy operators ear.
“Oh I see, metal MUSIC, like, er, heavy metal…?”
“Yeah – Tool, Sabbath, Metallica, Maiden – got any metal?”
“Er, I’m not sure, er, how about – The Rolling Stones?”
As it transpired, they couldn’t get the headphones over my ears due to the large, chunky neck brace I was wearing. So I had to do the MRI bareback.
Being in the MRI is like being in a concrete mixer full of rocks with 15 men using jack-hammers on the outside. That thing is LOUD. And TIGHT – the roof of the tunnel is about an inch from your nose. After about 45 minutes I’d had enough.
“How much longer?”
“It’s OK, we’ve just finished, and we’ll get you out of there right now.”
After a while the neurosurgeon came striding in again. Much later, I was to discover that all the neurosurgeons wore moleskin trousers and elastic side boots. For the time being, I couldn’t see anyone, unless they leaned over my trolley, because I couldn’t move my head.
“I suspected as much all along. You have a bad case of CCS.”
Well, of course, that explained everything.
CCS, or Central Cord Syndrome, can happen when your spinal cord has been squeezed, bruised or squashed.
My cord had been squished between a bony spur on one of the vertebrae in my neck, and the ligaments pulling in from behind when my spinal column was partially dislocated when I fell on my head. It’s like when you squeeze a bread stick between your thumb and your fingers.
The nerves at the center of the cord are affected more than those to the outside, so the strength and sensation of your fingers and arms are affected more than the feeling and movement in your legs.
The doctor was very pleased that there was no severing of the cord. Certainly very severe bruising, but there was the strong possibility of significant improvement over the coming months. Some patients with CCS had eventually regained limited mobility, and the virtually complete quadruplegia I was experiencing was unlikely to be permanent.
“I can’t tell you if you will ever walk again. I can’t even say that you will ever regain enough strength to use a wheelchair. You may be restricted to a powered chair. But I can tell you that, in some ways, you have been very, very lucky, and we are looking forward to working with you, to help you, in whatever way that we can.”
He bid me goodnight, and was gone.
After a while someone came along and wheeled me up, down, and all around, until eventually we reached the Acute Ward of the Princess Alexandra Hospital’s Spinal Unit. I lay there in semi-darkness, with machines gently whirring, patients making patient-type noises, nurses padding softly about, and wondered what would happen next.
Coming soon, when I get a big fat publishing deal: Two Months and Twenty-Nine days in the Spinal Unit
And, eventually: Rehab is a Five-Letter Word