Wearing only a paper gown tied at the back, I climbed onto the cold radiography table. I rolled onto my side into the foetal position as instructed.
The Myelogram procedure was awful. Not excessively painful, but dehumanising and unpleasant.
The radiographer felt for the right spot between vertebrae. To maintain a consistent volume of liquid in the spine two needles are used. As the ‘dye’ (contrast medium) is injected with one, the other draws out spinal fluid. The first needle touched nerves in my spine as it went in. My legs twitched and kick involuntarily. The same happened with the second needle.
Support staff held onto my arms and legs to stop me sliding off the table as it was tilted – left, right, up, down. X-rays were taken at each angle.
The gown gaped open as I slid around, willing it to be over. I may as well have been naked. My eyes brimmed over with tears. I’m not sure why.
The whole procedure took only 15 minutes. It felt much longer. I dropped to my knees to kiss the ground.
The results, available a week later, were not good. Severed or stretch-damaged nerves sometimes repair themselves, or be repaired surgically. The impact of the car had torn the nerves out at the base, where they connected to the spine. Mr King broke the news. For me there was no chance of recovery. The paralysis in my right arm was permanent.
We didn’t talk in the car on the way home. Permanent paralysis was always a likely scenario, but it was still a shock to hear it confirmed. My reality had shifted.
To demonstrate a ‘normal’ life is possible, Mr King introduced me to a patient with the same injury. It was an awkward meeting. I was supposed to ask about everyday tasks, problems he’d encountered, challenges he’d overcome. I wasn’t ready for this. Injury aside, I had nothing in common with this person. I was shocked by his atrophied arm. I just wanted to get out of there. I recall nothing of the conversation.
More positively, my leg was recovering well. After 2 months of hydrotherapy I was told I could remove the brace and walk with only a stick. Re-fracture is a risk for broken Femur patients, but I had passed that stage (hopefully). Alone in my bedroom, I nervously took off the leg brace. Weight-bearing for the first time, pins and needles prickled the sole of my foot. I hobbled the few meters to the bathroom. Sitting on the edge of the bath I smiled at myself in the mirror. Six months after the accident I was walking again.
We’d delayed the party to celebrate discharge from the hospital until I could walk without the leg brace. It was time. I was excited but nervous. I was skeletal. Clothes hung from my skinny frame. I walked with a stick… I was self-conscious about my arm. But to hell with it. I wanted a party.
We booked the community centre in nearby Hedon – the grandly named Elizabethan Room at Alexandra Hall – with buffet and disco. Invitations (‘You Are Invited To Pete Mercer’s Release Party’) were printed.
Some at the party hadn’t seen me since the accident. My frail appearance would have been a shock for them.
The atmosphere was celebratory. Only a few weeks earlier it had felt like I’d never leave the hospital. But here I was, back among friends. Having fun.
Each day an ambulance took me, and a few other outpatients, to the hospital for physio. Among them was a wheelchair-bound, elderly lady from Wyton. Unsteady on her legs, she used the handrail to pull herself aboard, guided gently by the ambulance men. After helping her to her house, one of them, forgetting I was still there, joked unkindly. She ‘stinks’ he said. ‘smells of piss’. Realising I was there, he turned to glare at me. ‘Don’t you dare mention this to anyone’.
After physio the ambulance dropped me at school for the first time. I was walking quite well but still using a walking stick. Noise from the sixth form common room echoed down the stairs as I made my way up, nervously. I glanced around as I opened the door, looking for my friends. The room was full. I sat down quickly on an empty seat near the door. From the other side of the room, my friends beckoned me over. I couldn’t. I froze. Instead I chatted to the group next to me. The bell rang. End of lunch. Time for classes. When the room cleared, I went over to join my friends.
They were well into the first year of A Levels. I’d missed too much to join them. I had to drop back a year. The remainder of that year was spent preparing to sit exams I’d missed back in June. I also studied AO Level Maths (intermediate level, between Ordinary and Advanced Level), a prerequisite for studying A Level Maths later. The unfortunately named Head of Maths, Mr Cochin (pronounced ‘cock in’), kindly gave up his lunch breaks to tutor me (he did a good job. I passed).
The speed and neatness of my handwriting gradually improved. Learning to write with my non-dominant hand wasn’t difficult. It just takes practice. The biggest challenge was, and still is, the environment. Writing on paper on a shiny surface, for example, is problematic. Without the other hand to hold it steady, the paper moves around. Writing in an exercise book is tricky because the pages spring upwards. These days I use a mobile phone or wallet as a portable paper weight.
An American exchange student, Mike, had joined the school while I was still in the hospital. He hung out with my friends so, naturally, I got to know him quite well too. We were sitting on the grass in the sunshine. He was teasing another friend. They chased each other around, laughing. Mike hid behind me, grabbing my shoulders. ‘Stay away! Be careful!’ he shouted, ‘don’t hurt the cripple!’ I was stunned. He didn’t intend to be mean, but it’s interesting how these things stay with you.
For the record, I subsequently spent a lot of time socialising with Mike. A group of us even visited him at home in Pittsburgh.
I’ve encountered offensive comments several times over the years. In social situations and from officialdom. Security guards manning the metal detectors at airports are frequent culprits. Barking orders to take my hands out of my pockets. I have a tactic to deal with them if they’re particularly rude. Slowly, awkwardly, pull my arm out of my pocket. Wincing in mock pain. Embarrassed apologies and offers of assistance follow.