I owe Mr Fry a debt of gratitude although he will be completely unaware of either my existence or of how he helped me survive lonely nights in my first hospital without going stark, staring bonkers. I had actually met him twice in the years before the accident – once when I randomly found myself standing next to him in the lunch queue at my university college where I played it impossibly cool by completely ignoring his presence and another time in a professional capacity when we were invited to a filming of QI in my days of working in advertising. However, his real usefulness to me personally came without him actually being there at all.
One of the hardest parts of being paralysed, especially in the early days in my first general ward but still when I was almost entirely immobile, was waking up in the middle of the night. This occurred with monotonous regularity for a variety of reasons as hospitals are not restful places. Someone else in the ward might have a problem or just be snoring loudly, the drugs from early evening can wear off, nurses on night shifts tend to behave exactly like the ones on day shift – lots of chattering and laughing coming from the nurses’ station – or you are actually physically woken to be turned. It’s not good for the human body to rest in one place without moving and pressure sores are a danger that stalk paralysed people. We are vulnerable to getting them and, once they appear, due to reduced circulation, it takes a very long time for us to heal. Scrapes and cuts that would close up in a few days on a normal person can take weeks or even months to do the same. Therefore all the patients in the spinal wards who are unable to turn themselves over in bed have to be physically turned by the nurses at four hour intervals.
Since I spent a lot of time sitting on my arse, bedtime usually involved staying on my side to give my bottom a break from the pressure and, since I was unable to maintain that balance on my own with just control of my head and shoulders, I had to be manhandled and ‘arranged’ into a secure position to stop me flopping over onto my back. Every four hours therefore nurses carrying torches would pitch up at my bedside and, like some covert shop window arranging operatives, would whip out a large number of pillows and bolsters and literally turn me from lying on one side to the other. As the proxy shop mannequin in these scenarios I had little control over how I was posed. Had the nurses decided to dress me in a ridiculous outfit and hang me from the ceiling there would have been little I could have done about it. Luckily, if unimaginatively, they contented themselves with crossing my top leg over the bottom one to give me a prop that stopped me rolling forward, pulling out my bottom arm so it did not go entirely numb over the four hour stretch and tucking a load of pillows in behind me to stop me rolling back. Two more pillows were put under my head to raise it slightly, my new top arm was left lying on top of the covers and, as swiftly as they had arrived, the nurses would depart leaving me in the dark. This was an efficient and necessary system but it had one major drawback. It wasn’t comfortable and, once the nurses had departed, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. By this point I was breathing on my own (HUGE hoorah!) but my diaphragm was still paralysed and my lungs only partially working. I couldn’t cough or shout for example and I couldn’t either operate the nurses’ call button or the TV remote by my bed. So I was trapped in the dark for the next four hours until the nurses returned for my next modelling assignment. This is not a mental or physical recipe for peaceful sleep; in fact it’s a surefire recipe for gibbering to oneself quietly (I did quite a lot of that) all the way through to a full blown panic attack. Tally of panic attacks in my life before the accident = 0. Tally in hospital = 4, all of them at night.
Another aside – I don’t know if you have ever had to watch TV whilst having lost the remote control but another fine test of my patience was being left to watch the TV over my bed without the ability to change channels. Breakfast TV was initially a real treat after the sensory deprivation of being cut off from the world in the ICU and High Dependency wards but it is designed for viewers who dip in and out as their different morning routines dictate, not for people who are literally stuck motionless with the screen a few inches from their head for the full 6am-9am stint without relief. My delight and thirst for news rapidly waned after the third or fourth loop of the same headlines and, particularly, the exact same weather report. The latter was especially ironic given the weather was utterly irrelevant to me, plonked in a bed inside a hospital as I had been and would be for weeks. I’m sure that there are far more inspirational tales of those who have recovered function from paralysis motivated by a higher purpose but for yours truly the spur for working really hard on my hand mobility at this time was entirely motivated by the desire to be able to operate the bloody remote control. Or, alternatively, perhaps this is an apt 21st century motivator. Back in the early 1900s anyone unlucky enough to get a severe spinal cord injury was placed not in a bed in hospital but into a coffin since that is what they were expected to shortly require, so limited were their chances of survival. Anyway, I digress.
Back to Mr Fry – or, more precisely, enter another genius idea, this one from my mother – audiobooks. She turned up for visiting hours one day clutching headphones and a little MP3 player onto which could be loaded stories. Demonstrating my sophistication and literary bent, I passed over all the classics and chose to have the Harry Potter books downloaded and piped into my ears as narrated by the mellifluous and familiar tones of Stephen Fry. At lights out in the ward the headphones would be added to my night-time outfit and the ‘play’ button pressed for me. I would drift off to sleep, high as a kite on my various drugs as quidditch matches played out and then, when I awoke in the dark, in those early hours of the morning when everything seems terrifying, Stephen would be right there chatting about whomping willows and flying cars. True, he had usually patiently told me all about the goings on of twenty chapters or sometimes the whole rest of the book whilst I’d been ungratefully unconscious but since I had actually read all the novels, this did not bother me in the slightest. The comfort factor of having something to anchor me and to take my mind off the discomfort and the fear was priceless. For two weeks we worked our way through the Potter canon in probably the most random fashion due to the nurses and I struggling to remember which chapter or book we had started or finished on and my habit of falling asleep regularly in the middle of it but I can tell you that it is impossible to panic with Stephen telling you a story.
After a few weeks of much better sleep and remote control motivated hand therapy, I had regained enough movement in a few fingers to be able to press buttons or, as sometimes was necessary, to hold something whilst I used my nose or chin. This now meant I could now operate the call button at night and this small piece of independence and ability to make myself known to the nursing staff even from the far, darkened corner of my ward, meant that the night-time fear receded significantly. But still, from the bottom of my heart, thank you, Stephen Fry.