Spinal Cord Injury
Spinal cord injury is not something I would wish on anyone. In life, mistakes and fate are inexorably linked. One may make a small mistake, and pay a huge price or, one may make a big mistake and pay a small price. However, on a sunny Cairns day in 1991 I made a big mistake, for which I would pay a huge price. To quote Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) in the movie Goodfellas, “I don’t know what else to say. I know I fucked up.”
The first day of December 1991 saw the destruction of so many of my dreams and aspirations. This day would determine what my future could hold and what it could not. I had no reason to expect that this balmy Saturday morning held anything out of the ordinary, yet my life was about to be changed dramatically and irreversibly.
Having taken up running in the afternoons and going to the gym 3 or 4 times a week, I was in the best physical shape of my life. There was a motive behind my fitness drive, I wanted to be in top shape for my wedding, which was only 3 weeks away. Jenny and I wanted to look good and to be fit for our honeymoon in Tasmania, where we intended to make up for all the food and alcohol we had been denying ourselves over recent weeks.
Jenny had recently started accompanying me to the gym, highly motivated to fit into her wedding dress to look good on her big day. I remember when I used to tell Jenny that I loved her, she never seemed totally convinced, often she would make a joke of it and say something like “I know you will marry me, because you don’t want to miss out on the honeymoon.”
However, the 1st of December was designated to be a day of rest. Jenny’s father, Andy, had organised a trip on his small sailing boat and I was looking forward to it. We arrived at Jenny’s parents house and around 11 a.m. and headed to the boat ramp. Andy’s 21-footer was his pride and joy. I had never been one for boats, but it seemed a relaxing enough way to spend the day. After a few minutes launching the boat we were at sea, sailing out of Trinity Inlet.
I can’t give a reason as to what happened after that. It was certainly hot, and that may have had something to do with it. We all do things occasionally without giving much thought to the outcome, decisions we later realise we were wrong, but in a fraction of a second, I made a decision that would change the rest of my life more than I ever could have imagined.
God knows I had done a lot of silly things in my life, but I had never come off too much the worse for wear. Terrible things just did not happen to me. I stood and I dived out of the boat. I remember the water was muddy, so I attempted the shallowest of dives. As the boat was still moving I reasoned there had to be a fair depth of water, but on the whole, I guess I never gave the matter much thought before diving off.
When I entered the water I felt the top of my head hit something hard. The impact felt no greater than a solid whack. There was no great pain involved. Initially I thought I was just stunned and would recover in a couple of seconds. However, I floated face down in the water, staring at the sand bar below me, unable to move my body.
I quickly realised I had sustained a spinal cord injury, as I could not feel any part of my body below my shoulders. Try as I might I could not roll over. It seemed sure to me I was about to drown. The world had been my oyster. That all ended the second my head struck the densely packed sand that lurked underwater just yards from the boat.
As the magnitude of what had happened to me set in, I remember thinking that I wanted to die and I prayed that it would happen quickly. Then, suddenly, Andy’s hands lifted me out of the water, and I filled my lungs with air. “Damn you!” I thought, “I wish you had let me drown!” Then, as if he could read my thoughts, Andy slowly lowered me back into the water. Apparently, this was done to see if I was pretending. The second my face re-entered the water my attitude changed completely, ‘for God’s sake lift me up or I’ll drown’, I thought. Death can sometimes seem the easy way out, but a desire to live is usually the strongest human emotion.
Realising my predicament Andy rolled me over. I was now floating on my back. I was not in any pain, the only discomfort I could feel was the salt water stinging my eyes. I tried to move my right arm, but I could not feel it.
As I looked down I saw my arm lift out of the water. It rose up but as I lifted it higher it folded and my hand landed on my face and I could not move it. I could feel my hand on my face, but I could only feel my hand with my face, there was no sensation coming from my hand or fingers. It was the strangest feeling to have my hand feel like a foreign object. It was like it was someone else’s hand was connected to my body. The best I can describe it, is like the feeling you get when you have slept on your arm for a while and it has gone numb. That was how I felt, except I felt that way all over.
“I’m fucked Andy”, I said. Andy, who had worked as a fire and safety officer for various mining companies around the country, remained silent. He must have known the truth of my statement. Finally, he said, “Don’t you worry about that, just concentrate on making sure you give me a couple of grandchildren to humour me in my old age”. Then Jenny and her mother arrived, and I could see they were both upset. As I saw Jenny crying I can remember feeling incredibly angry at myself for putting us in this situation. Sure, I was scared, but mainly just plain angry at my own stupidity.
My anger was tempered by a sense of fate. For months previously, I had been having feelings of impending doom. I would be doing something and suddenly, I would break out in a cold sweat, with a sense of my coming demise. I remember getting an AIDS test (despite not being in a high-risk group) and having chest pain and being assessed for a heart attack (which was hardly likely). So as I lay in the water with my neck smashed I thought, “so this is what it was all about”. To this day I believe some things are preordained and at least to some extent, our script has been written.
At this stage I was floating in about half a meter of water. Luckily the sea was calm but every now and then the warm salty water would splash across my face. “Just hold tight Rob, there is a sand bank a few meters away, we’ll get over there and get your head out of the water.”
Andy grabbed one arm and supported my head while Jenny grabbed my other arm. They carefully floated me along the surface of the water until I could feel the warm sand bar under my head. “Here we are mate, this should keep the water out of your face”, he said. “Now I will just go and see if I can get some help to get you back to shore.” Andy tried without luck to get a response on his hand-held radiophone.
Most of my body was still in the water, with my head and shoulders on the sandbar. I could feel the water begin to lap at my shoulders. “Hey Andy, is the tide coming in or going out?” I asked. “It’s coming in” he replied. I knew that the sand bar was only slightly above sea level. There was no way my three companions could lift me back into the boat. “We have got to get help”, Andy said, “there’s no way I can lift him up and this sand bar will be underwater before long.”
Andy and Dianne grabbed the sail from the boat and folded it in the shape of a V. This is widely recognised in boating circles as a distress flag. They climbed aboard the boat and held it aloft and attempted to wave down any other boats in the area. By this stage I could feel the water lapping at my face again. Jenny sat beside me to stop the water splashing into my face. My eyes were now burning, from a combination of the salt water and the hot sun shining brightly into my face.
Many boats just passed on by, oblivious to our situation, but a local man Barry O’Brien who was out fishing with his son, saw us and came to our aid. Together with Andy and the girls they lifted my body back onto the boat from which I had so foolishly dived a couple of hours earlier. As we made our way back to the jetty Barry had gone ahead of us to arrange an ambulance.
On the way back to shore Jenny and her mother took turns at sitting beside me. The ambulance was waiting to greet us. The ambulance ride to the hospital was much more enjoyable than my trip to the jetty. This was due to the gas they administered to me on the way. I don’t know what it was, but I can remember laughing and joking on the way to hospital. Bearing in mind I had just sustained a spinal cord injury, it must have been powerful stuff.
When I awoke in the spinal injury unit in the Princess Alexandria Hospital in Brisbane it was really like entering a different world.
The spinal cord injury I had sustained had damage to the spinal cord to the extent I would never walk again. This meant a loss of muscle sensation and function in the parts of the body below the level of my spinal cord injury. My level of injury was high and the damage permanent, resulting in a total loss of sensation and muscle function.
My clearest memories of the following week are of nightmares. Every night I would dream, and in the start of the of the dreams I would always be walking along the street enjoying myself, and some tragedy would befall me. A truck would either hit me from behind, or in one dream I was attacked by a street gang and hit in the back with the blunt end of an axe.
The dreams would always end with me motionless on the ground, not being able to move. I would awake from these dreams not with a feeling of relief, but with a feeling of sadness. The dreams may have been imaginary, but the result was reality. I was on my back motionless, and I would never be able to walk again.
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