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. 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 from 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 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 can be repaired surgically. The impact of the car tore the nerves at the base, where they connected to the spine. 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 awkward. 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 could remove the brace and walk with only a stick. Re-fracture is a risk for broken Femur patients, but I had passed the high-risk stage (hopefully). Alone in my bedroom, I took off the leg brace. Nervously. 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 – with buffet and disco. Invitations (‘You Are Invited To Pete Mercer’s Release Party’) were printed.
Some people at the party hadn’t seen me since the accident. My frail appearance would have been a shock to 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 in the back of the ambulance, 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. I glanced around as I opened the door, looking for my friends. The room was full. In a self-conscious panic, I found an empty seat near the door. My friends beckoned me over, from the other side of the room. I couldn’t. I froze. Instead, I chatted with 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. I just needed practice. The biggest challenge was, and still is, the environment. Writing on paper on a shiny surface, for example, always tricky. Without the other hand to hold it steady, the paper moves around. Exercise books are difficult too. The pages spring upwards. These days I use a mobile phone or wallet as a portable paperweight.
An American exchange student, Mike, had joined the school while I was still in the hospital. He hung out with my friends so I got to know him quite well too. Sitting on the grass in the sunshine, he was teasing a 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 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.