Broke my neck three days ago. High-speed motorcycle crash. Boss called it a ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Accident’. I work in the music business. His description of my accident was somehow appropriate. Correction, though. ‘Used to work’ in the music business.
I’m being transferred from Bromley General Hospital to Stoke Mandeville Spinal Unit. Not sure whether I welcome this move. Family tell me it’s for the best. “They’ll know how to treat you,” my father says. The hospital specialises in spinal injury. But it is many miles away. I’m scared. For the first time in my life I do not want to be alone. The future — if there is a future — looks bleak and uncertain.
“You’ll be okay, Michael,” says the nurse who’s caring for me. “I’m going with you.” Paramedics push me into the ambulance. I’m lying on my back. Don’t know whether I’m lying on a bed or a trolley. I’m still not completely aware of my surroundings. Could be the pethadine? Or maybe it’s the fact that my neck is in traction and I can’t turn my head to the left or right?
Traction weights, supported by a wire which hangs over the back of the bed, clang against oxygen cylinders as we go round bends. Impossible to stop them swinging. Paramedics try. Don’t want the traction callipers to come away from my head. It is held in place with pins drilled into my skull. Vital that it stays in position. All the while my neck rages — rages with pain.
After a long and slow journey lasting many hours, I arrived at Stoke Mandeville. Two orderlies meet me. They are dressed in a white uniforms. One of them has a beard. I ask their names. The guy with the beard says his name is Dave. “His name’s Ron,” he says pointing to the other guy. Dave I like. Ron I am not sure about. He is a cheap imitation of Elvis Presley. Hair brushed back 50s style. I tell him he looks like Elvis. “It’s the first time anybody has said that,” he says. Dave rolls his eyes and smiles. He is a big man. In his 20s. Ron is older. Scruffy. Smells of stale cigarettes. There’s something about him that makes me feel uneasy.
Bed pushed into the x-ray room. The machine is positioned horizontally, aligned with my neck. Dave and Ron put on lead aprons. They stand either side of me. Clutching my wrists, they pull hard on my arms. “Hold it there,” the radiographer shouts. I scream with pain. The x-ray machine whirs. Dave and Ron relax their grip. It’s an hour before the pain dies down enough for me to bear it.
Neck raging. Agonising and continuous. Skin crawling. Touch is pain. Can’t touch my arms. Barely conscious of my surroundings. Everything’s surreal. Alcohol and drug come-down. I don’t realise it but I am in withdrawal. Scared. Can barely shrug my shoulders. Almost a quadriplegic. Keep praying I’ll regain some movement. Feel vulnerable for the first time in my life. Dependent on others and I don’t like it.
David and Ron wheel my bed through a maze of corridors. Fluorescent lights pass above me. We come to an opening. Above are the words: Ward 2. They manoeuvre my bed through the entrance and park me in the corner. Don’t know how big the ward is or how many other beds it contains. I learn later that the sickest or most recent patients are placed in the position I now occupy.
I struggle through the night, beg for pain relief and sleeping tablets. No sleep. Neck throbbing. Disorientated. Terrified. I’m given diazepam and a couple of Co-codamol tablets. The next day a middle-aged woman dressed in a blue nurse’s uniform introduces herself. She says her name is Sister Rose. Standing by the bed with more than half a dozen staff, she explains how they’re going to lift me off the bed, change the covers and check my skin. Four male orderlies and a nurse wriggle their arms under my body and then physically raise me from the bed. My chest rests against theirs. It feels weird, embarrassing. I can smell Ron’s breath. He reeks of cigarettes. Sister Rose stands on the other side of the bed and checks my backside for pressure marks. All the while a nurse hangs onto the traction wire, keeping the tension on my neck. Another couple of nurses change the bedlinen. They then put me down and attached the traction weights.
The next day I undergo the same procedure. This time sister Rose tells me I need a haircut. She says my hair is greasy and it could infect the traction wound site. I refuse to have it cut. She says, caustically, we are going to cut your hair whether you like it or not. Then, while I am raised off the bed, she grabs handfuls and snips it off with her scissors. It’s brutal. It’s abuse. I call her a bitch. I scream, “You fucking bastard!” But it makes no difference. She just cuts it off. Welcome to spinal injury. Hello helplessness, loss of independence.
Sister Rose should never have been a nurse. She is sergeant major material. She runs the ward like a dictator. I doubt there’s a compassionate bone in her body. That’s my first impression.
I can’t sleep and when I do sleep — which is only for a few minutes — I have maddening dreams. Excruciating pain in my neck. Won’t go away. I know it’s pointless but again I plead for drugs: sleeping tablets, Valium, pethadine, anything to get rid of this pain and help me sleep. The night nurse says he is sorry but he can’t prescribe anything without a doctor’s say so.
Dinner time and Ron is on duty. He is assigned to feed me. I study his face as he spoons food into my mouth. His eyes are narrow. His hair is jet black, smeared with cream. He has nicotine stains on his fingers. Saliva has coalesced to form white smegma-like dots in the corners of his mouth. Repulsed. His teeth are stained and he has a Rock Hudson-type cleft in his chin. Ron tells me he is a Pentecostal. He believes in God and he speaks in tongues. I don’t like him. He gives me the creeps.
Just had a dose of Senokot. They tell me I’ve got to have suppositories in the morning and then a manual evacuation. ‘Manual evacuation?’ What’s that all about?
I found out the next day. Two orderlies arrive with a trolley. They pull the curtains around my bed, then roll me on my side. One of them tucks an incontinence sheet underneath my left buttock. He inserts a suppository into my rectum, then pulls the curtains back and moves on. He returns half an hour later, wriggles plastic gloves onto his hands. “Here we go, Michael,” he says. I have a vague sensation of something moving inside me. It is his fingers. They are up my arse and raking out excrement. I’m mortified. It is the most humiliating and embarrassing process I’ve ever had to undergo. The smell is dreadful. There’s something rotten, decayed about it. “You’ve got constipation but you’ve had a good result.” I’m just about conscious, have nightmarish visions of somebody under the bed and wiggling a drumstick around in my bum. From now on I shall face this process every two days.
After breakfast — spoon-fed to me by Ron — I have a spontaneous bowel evacuation. The suppositories, or what’s left of them, have finally ended my two-week period of constipation. Stomach is so empty I feel like I’ve been disembowelled. It’s the second crap I’ve had in just a few hours, takes two orderlies and a couple of nurses a good half hour to clean me up. A nurse appears with an air freshener spray in her hand, pirouettes round the bed spraying it into the atmosphere. The patient next to me says, “Fucking hell! It stinks!” It simply adds to the embarrassment I already feel. Welcome to the spinal Ward.
Months go by. Ron’s true character slowly emerges. Like a ghost oozing from a wall, the horrible spectre of his soul slowly manifests itself. He becomes more sullen when dealing with me.
At last I am allowed out of bed. I glance back at it as I wheel on down the ward. How could I have lain in that bed for three months? Counting my six weeks in traction, I did. Now I am up and about and actually doing physiotherapy. All part of the rehabilitation process. Trying to get used to my new body, my paralysed body, the body that I will forever have to push around. Thank God I have use of my arms, albeit without tricep muscles. My hands don’t work but I can move my wrists backwards. It is an enormous advantage. I have strong biceps and shoulders. I am me. I am alive.
Eight o’clock and Ron is putting me to bed. Using the standing lift method, he pulls me from the chair and drops me hard onto the bed. I fall down with the crash. My neck is delicate, tender. I let out a howl of pain. “I hate you, Michael,” he says. I know he means it. He hates me. He is vicious piece of work. Preys on vulnerable people. He knows he has the upper hand. It’s the only time he can feel good about himself. He has no power anywhere other than the spinal unit, physically and verbally abusing people who cannot defend themselves. His behaviour is witnessed by a patient opposite. His name is John and he is an airline pilot. Correction, ‘was’ an airline pilot until he broke his neck. John is worse off than I am. “Jesus Christ,” he says. “You should report him, Michael.” Yes Ron is a nasty piece of work. People begin to call him ‘The Killer’. Whenever we talk about him we refer to him as The Killer. Even the nursing staff catch onto the name. One night a nurse asked me if I wanted to go to bed early. I asked why and she said if you don’t go to bed now, The Killer will be on duty. He’ll probably be the one to put you to bed. Needless to say I opt to go to bed early.