What Can be done with Paralysis?


Yesterday I came home from my afternoon walk with Jolie my lovely black lab, a regular routine for me once my helper has got me set up for the day and gone on her way. I have much more independence now than I did earlier when I first became paralyzed 8 years ago. Initially I had to have someone feed, dress and literally do everything for me, except think and dream perhaps! Now I have most of them helping me little, except in the case of dreams and they help me a lot with mine now – which is to help heal the travesty of paralysis.

As I made my way into my apartment with Jolie my noble service dog opening my door, I couldn’t help but notice my neighbor Woody’s door wide open, on a nearly freezing Vancouver day. He will often leave his door open – to air out the cigarette smoke from his apartment, however I’ll usually smell smoke and oddly I didn’t notice it. In any case my hands were freezing from my 40 minute walk and my apartment felt warm and cozy, and I was, as I always am – excited to get out of my chair and onto my daybed and to stretch and relax.

I use a common piece of equipment to get in and out of my wheelchair known as a mechanical lift, it has a sling which I wear around me like a belt and together with a remote I can get up and down. This “sling” has been a godsend, and given me a world of options and independence, something all humans need. It was one of those innovative things I’ve been supported in doing by my ‘dream team’ in this case my occupational therapist. As I settled in, I became more aware of Woody’s voice, he seemed to be calling for someone. Woody has quadriplegia like me, and has had some tough health challenges lately. He relies on 24-hour care, as he is much less mobile than myself for instance, and has a catheter and pressure sore issues.

I listened intently now, to Woody’s calls attempting to distinguish who he was calling. He belongs to a service, which provides 24-hour care, and it seemed he was calling one of them. I wondered after several minutes of listening though, what was going on, as the calls became more and more distressed; and knowing that my neighbor Woody is also like me – a quad but less mobile and confined to a power wheelchair, not able to get up and around nor deal with the situation if he got into trouble very well, I became increasingly concerned. Any number of things can happen for a quad in a power chair, we are a sizable mass with not much control behind a joystick, graphically speaking.

My hands were thawing out from our walk and my body was glad to be out of my chair for my afternoon routine, yet I couldn’t help but notice that the shouting and calls of distress continued, and in fact seemed to be more frequent. I soon got it and realized, I had to get up and go help Woody. Quickly I managed to put myself back into the sling and over to the wheelchair, Jolie by my side balancing my swing and drop. I was feeling urgent as his calls became louder and louder. I got up and out the door and into Woody’s house in minutes, with the help of Jolie.

I came around the corner into Woody’s living room only to be met with a seeming disaster, stuff strewn about the floor with Woody in the middle of the room, his table wrenched up around his neck and his legs under his wheelchair in an skewed position. All of the stuff that had been on his table, spread about the room, the doors and the windows wide open, and Woody sitting there totally in shock -dysreflexic getting sick and obviously very traumatized. After inquiring what was going on he told me that he’d been calling for his helpers for over three hours.

His helper had left Woody to be with his guests and said would come and check on him, as he should do every two hours. Unfortunately for whatever reason and knowing that this is probably a common thing, they hadn’t been back to him for over four hours. His leg bag, which drains his catheter was absolutely overflowing everything in this house was cold, dark and upset; there were no signs of any warmth or welcoming. I set about to help his immediate need but he was too far gone medically with dysreflexia (a paralyzed body’s alert system) and I also could never free him from how his new power chair had wrapped him around his table. So off I went immediately to find his nurses and his aides.

I came upon the staff room and all four of them were sitting in there watching a movie and making popcorn. They seemed to be very nonchalant about the fact that Woody was in trouble and dysreflexic as well as being absolutely freezing cold in his apartment, as I explained the situation. I then said abruptly “You need to come now! You need to come and help Woody.” Again their casualness appalled me as they slowly walked out grabbing their blue gloves they wear everywhere around the complex and followed me to Woody’s place.

I literally had to talk them through how to undo the table off of Woody so that they would avoid hurting his legs while pulling the table out. They seemed to have no concern for the fact that he had legs under there – even though they are paralyzed. Apparently they thought they could just pull this table off even though it was wrapped around his legs, without any thought to the fact these were actual legs that were attached to a person. So I suggested once, then insisted that what we need is to take the table apart to get it off and around him and out-of-the-way. They sighed and moaned and said “Oh why not just push it here?” “No you need to realize that this is a person and although he can’t feel, these legs are still real and attached to a person. So after amateur monkey wrenching we managed to get Woody free and then getting his leg bag emptied and setting him up, so that he was more comfortable.

I went back to my apartment to gather hot-water bottles and blankets and brought them back over only to be met with their boss. As I encountered him I said, “Here, here’s some hot water bottles you can use them to him get warm. His boss said: “Don’t worry he’s fine, he’s fine, this is independent living this is what it’s all about he wants to be on his own what’s your big problem lady.” Shocked, angry and absolutely appalled I went back to my apartment feeling once again the frustration of the realities of spinal cord injury and the lack of knowledge and understanding of the real issues that face the people with this very tragic outcome.

The world of paralysis is often a very desolate, lonely and excruciatingly difficult world to deal with physically, mentally and emotionally. Demeaning, isolating, confusing, traumatizing, devastating, discouraging, are some of the adjectives I’ve heard from others. Notwithstanding the psychological, physical and social counterparts that are affected by losing your mobility, it’s really ones’ independence and capacities to fend for one self, and be absolutely autonomous, that is the hardest blow. Being paralyzed isn’t what most people think. Paralysis is not just the loss of feeling, or a loss of movement – or for that matter- the loss of physical function & processes; it’s actually a distorted nervous system within the whole body. And as such there are so many complications and so much within that paradigm that we don’t understand and that we often misconstrue.

As a matter of fact 1 in 20 Canadians are afflicted with paralysis, but according to an extensive survey commissioned by The Rick Hansen Institute, most Canadians, including many in health care have very limited knowledge – if any about the realities of paralysis from a SCI (spinal cord injury).
In a wide-ranging survey conducted by Angus Reid public opinion, Canadians were asked to estimate the annual costs associated with spinal cord injury (SCI), the unemployment rate for Canadians with SCI, and their opinions on continued investment in related healthcare research and best practices. An estimated 86,000 Canadians have an SCI, with more than 4,300 new cases reported each year.

• Despite the widespread lack of knowledge about SCI indicated by this poll, The majority of those polled (87%) vastly underestimated the cost of SCI on our society and healthcare system, guessing the figure to be no greater than $100 million a year (around 3% of the actual figure of $3 Billion)
• Only 7% were able to identify the approximate number of Canadians who develop paralysis each day from stroke and spinal cord injury (estimated at 60 Canadians each day).
• More than half of Canadians (52%) underestimate the impact on employment for those who have spinal cord injuries. Chronic unemployment – estimated at more than 60% for people with SCI — contributes to the overall cost of spinal cord injury.
• Approximately 36% of respondents incorrectly believed that once a spinal cord injury was sustained, its effects were permanent. (While damage to the spinal cord can result in permanent paralysis, there are varying degrees of paralysis and recovery of function following a spinal cord injury.)

Summarizing the findings, Bill Barrable CEO from RHI, acknowledges what he surely encounters while heading up the country’s largest non-profit dedicated to improving the quality of life for those affected by SCI. And he states:

“Several results from the poll are indicative of the general lack of knowledge about SCI in Canada and suggest we still have much work to do when it comes to education, research towards cures and advocacy for people living with paralysis from a spinal cord injury,” Bill Barrable, of the Rick Hansen Institute. “Few traumas are as permanently devastating and expensive to care for as SCI. Spinal cord injury continues to be one of the most expensive initial and ongoing health care costs in the entire medical system, yet most Canadians are largely unaware of SCI’s impact on individuals and society as a whole.” Rick Hansen Website

Canadians still attribute high levels of importance to finding a cure, however that doesn’t account for the services, facilities, and help needed for the 100,000 individuals already afflicted. And the crazy thing is, it can happen to anyone-at any time, usually without warning. This is a condition that is desperately misunderstood, commonly generalized into an archaic old medical model for diagnosis and for the most part assumed static and non-negotiable.

I have experienced and know different, and with regular exercise and therapy this condition responds amazingly, keeping in mind the goal is simply quality of life and some independence. Somewhere along the way it seems the BC Coastal Health and government of the day has lost track of the needs and human rights mandate for persons with disabilities, as GF Strong pares down its service and the Rick Hansen/Blusson Spinal Center remains for the most part, an empty shell.

Woody ended up coming down with the flu, and I haven’t seen him for a few days now. This is not surprising, knowing the effect that type of trauma can have on a compromised system. Woody like many is victim of a incongruent system with relation to best practices and care for SCI individuals. We perhaps can’t change someone’s physical affliction but we can change much of the external conditions, and offer more humane and current choices for care, rehabilitation and recovery – to help these people lead an more enjoyable and productive life.

Published by Mary-Jo

I am passionate about diversity, inclusion, sustainability and community. Having raised my children in a small B.C. town as a single parent, I relied on the community, my resourcefulness and the land to sustain us. We developed a market farm,built a cafe and catering business that utilized the produce, local farmers and families to thrive. As a Waldorf school parent I became experienced in biodiversity, edible landscapes and community engagement. I gained substantial skills in leadership, facilitation, project management, communication through teaching yoga and running various business's. My role as a facilitator and trainer to individuals seeking to become a yoga teacher- whom never thought that they could stand in front of a room and speak in public, gave me insight into human nature and coaching. In addition to designing and building businesses - cafés, yoga studios and national training programs, I am a student of Social Development & Social Psychology and understand the complexity and importance of social engagement. I can handle with grace most any situation, having encountered a disability later in life. Consequent to becoming disabled and through advocacy and providing peer support I have trained and acquired extensive exposure and understanding of UN principles on disability, The Human Rights objectives, theories and principles of Universal Design and the various challenges and obstacles for those affected and the relationship to various stakeholders. After 30 years of teaching yoga, my spinal cord injury and subsequent sabbatical has allowed for the integration of my yoga and more in-depth study of the Healing Arts. I have had the fortune of working with some of the best in the field of rehabilitation, Somatic Experiencing and manual therapy including Emilie Conrad, Mark Finch, Judy Russel, Rod Stryker, Carolyn Myss, Ana Forest, & Tim Miller, Susan Harper, Mariah Moser, Herta Buller and Nature.