(Or “Just when you least expect it, just what you least expect!”)
When I was 15 years old an unexpected side effect of a successful treatment I underwent as a baby for a cancer caused my spine to collapse at the L1 vertebrae. After two surgeries, a spinal decompression and a spinal fusion, and nine months of total bed rest, I left hospital as I full time wheelchair user.
No one told me straight away that I was going to be permanently paralysed, but after years of unsuccessful physiotherapy, I kind of knew the answer when I asked my surgeon;
“Will I ever walk again?”
He tried, as gently as he could to break what he thought would be terrible news.
“No. I’m afraid the nerve damage is too great. We tried our best but I think you must start planning your life in that buggy of yours”.
The weird thing was by then I already saw going into my wheelchair as the best thing that had ever happened to me. Before the chair, I had spent my life being the good, studious son. I did well at school; already had a series of job offers for after me exams without even knowing my results and had a very conventional life stretching out before me. But this was not the life I dreamed of.
I wanted to be a musician, play in bands, dye my hair and rebel BIG TIME! It was only the shock of being so ill just as I readied myself to enter the big wide world that woke me up to myself. You see everyone thought I was going to die this time. So as I lay there in my hospital bed all I could do was list the things I would never do.
“Never dye my hair, never go to a nightclub, but worst of all… never have sex!”
So the first thing I did after I wheeled my chair through my front door for the first time was dye my hair. I taught myself to play piano while I was convalescing, and promptly formed a band when I was well enough. I soon met a lovely girl and I lost that pesky virginity. My life was getting better and better at a time when most people would expect me to be at my lowest.
I continued to enjoy my life, living each day as if I was back in that hospital bed, thinking I was dying. My musical career blossomed, and I toured Europe with acts like Gary Numan (my teenage hero) and then went into TV presenting on kids television. One of the shows I presented, Beat That on C4, even won an Emmy and got a Bafta nomination. Things finally started to enter the realm of heavenly when I met a wonderful lady who is now my wife.
Then, in early 1999 I was involved in a massive car accident. The ever increasing amount of back pain I had afterwards led me to visit a hospital.
“Well it appears your spinal fusion has cracked,” the doctor told me.
Yes I’d broken my back… again!
By this time the pain was so unbearable I was taking Morphine all day everyday just to get out of bed and so it was decided surgery was the only way out.
My surgeon, Mr Ben Taylor at the Royal National Orthapaedic Hospital (RNOH) Stanmore, was one of those guys who filled you with confidence. He knew he was good, and made sure you knew it too.
His plan was to take out the damaged L1 vertebrae entirely and replace it with a titanium ring supported by two titanium rods.
“It’s a big job, but don’t worry you’ll be right as rain afterwards”
It was only after the marathon 15-hour operation that he admitted;
“This was the first time I’ve ever carried out this procedure.”
Anyway, first time or not, it worked. The pain went almost immediately. However throughout the six months I had to spend confined to my bed, something felt weird. It was only when I sat up and put my feet on the floor for the first time that I realised I could feel my feet again, after 25 years of nothing. Soon movement started too and so I returned to RNOH to find out what had happened.
No one could believe it, but after lots of tests I was informed;
“Yes Michael, it appears that you have regained a significant amount of sensory and motor function. I can only imagine that your nerves were not severed when you were 15 but were trapped in scar tissue. This last surgery has freed them.”
It also became plain that there might be a chance of trying to walk again. But the 25 happy years in a wheelchair had left its mark. My right hip had worn away and my bone density in my both my femurs were so low they might not carry my weight.
“We can replace your hip, and then replace your knees and ankles if you need it,” my surgeon told me.
And so that’s my dilemma. While I seemed to have been cured by mistake, can I truly say that I miss walking so much I am prepared to undergo years of operations and physiotherapy or do I say enough is enough and carry on enjoying my life as a wheelchair user?