In the 1990s I was fortunate enough to be enrolled on a six month course specialising in the care of the Spinally Injured patient. This was based at the Southport Spinal Injury Unit , which then had unique experience in caring for patients who had total paralysis of their bodies, including their muscles which initiated breathing.
Many of these patients would be ventilator dependent for life.
I got very close to one man who I will call Jim.
He was in his thirties and had broken his neck in a car accident . The injury was so severe that he would need ventilatory support over night but could come off the vent during the day after which he could breath for himself albeit only for a few hours. He could feel his face and talk in a whisper but had no physical control over his limbs, body and head.
My shifts were always weekday mornings with afternoons off for study, and so every morning I would take Jim off the confines of the ventilator, wash, dress and feed him and prepare him for physiotherapy
And every morning he would cry silent tears when woken with suction or the changing of his tracheostomy inner tubes.
One day I asked him about his morning bursts of emotion
And I remember so well the conversation as we were alone in the hospital gardens, Amid the raised planters, which were specially designed to be viewed from a wheelchair.
They were full of lavender and rosemary as I remember
“ Every night I dream Im flying” he whispered “ And every morning I wake to this”
And for the first time I properly realised the impact of injuries like his.
I couldn’t speak.
What could I say?
I just nodded and rested my hand on the side of his face, where he could feel the contact.
I was going to hold his cold unfeeling hand, but the gesture would have been lost,
Jim killed himself a year or so later. One of the physiotherapists wrote to me to inform me.
He had simply stopped eating and had refused escalation of care when finally admitted to a general hospital with pressure sores and renal failure.
There was no Dignitas back then and there was no where to go for a quadriplegic who couldn’t move his own hands to explore the usual methods of ending ones life.
He had to die painfully and without dignity
Which is a place no one should go.
The above clip is from a film I watched last week called The Sea Inside ( Mar Adrendro)
It is about the struggle of a Spanish sailor Ramon Sanpedro, who fought for nearly 30 years to be allowed to die after his spinal injury accident.
It’s a hard watch
This scene brought my conversations with Jim flooding back
Of his tears in the mornings
And his dream flying at night