My experience of temporary spinal paralysis
After looking forward to it for weeks, the day finally arrives: an old friend has come to visit. We were studying at different universities back then, and despite regular contact we rarely saw each other. But tonight would be an exception: a few drinks at a bar, followed by a concert at the students' union. A chance to catch up.
As the evening approaches I begin to get ready. I arrange my clothes neatly on the bed and decide to take a quick shower, but something's not right. As I climb out of the shower and step onto the tiles I suffer from a sudden dizzy spell. It doesn't last long, but I make myself something to eat to keep me grounded. The idea of drinking alcohol tonight suddenly becomes unappealing, and as I finish a small snack I begin to feel weak at the knees.
Reluctantly, I call my friend to let him know that I'm unwell. I tell him to go to the concert without me, but to report back every detail the next morning. I pull the clothes of my bed, turn off the light and try to get some rest.
The next day I feel worse. The dizziness has reached a stage where I have difficulty focussing on the objects in my room, and I'm suddenly terribly weak. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, so I begin to feel worried and call my parents for reassurance. They sound fairly reasonable and objective on the phone, and offer to visit me where I'm staying. As they live only half an hour or so away, I don't object, but I'm hoping they arrive as fast as they can.
I can still remember the look on my mother's face when she saw the way I was moving around. I opened the door to let them into the house, which I was sharing with four other final-year students, and hobbled along the corridor. With every step I took I was unsure of my footing, and felt a terrible weakness around my knees and thighs. By this time I started to have difficulty urinating, and I began to worry that something was seriously wrong. My parents both decided to take me to hospital and have me checked over, helping me step-by-step into the back of the car.
After a lengthy wait in the A&E department, we were introduced to a nurse who made an initial assessment of my case. I remember feeling that I was in good hands, and felt only a twinge of embarrassment about my inability to urinate. By this time, it was simply a relief to be among professionals, and I would have told them anything if it meant getting better faster.
I was referred to a doctor who recommended I stay in overnight for observation. I was placed on a bed and given a catheter to relieve my discomfort. After a series of diagnostic tests, I was sent to a ward to get some rest for the night. The next day I was paralysed from the chest downwards.
My first feelings were of ugly shock and disbelief. Here I am in a hospital bed and can no longer feel or move my legs. The doctors that visit me that day warn me of the problems that may lie ahead.
After conducting a lumbar puncture procedure at the base of my spine, I'm diagnosed with a spinal infection. It has travelled as high as the T4 vertebrae, and the doctors are concerned it could travel higher and possibly begin to affect my lungs. I am told this by a friendly young doctor who is careful and considerate with her words, but I cannot take my eyes off my toes. They are at the foot of the bed, and no matter how much I will them to move they refuse.
I start to feel disconnected from the rest of my body. I can still speak, move my head and upper torso, and I can move my arms - for now, at least - but the rest of me feels like someone else. I try to catch up on some reading for an English Literature module I'm taking, but my mind always returns to the same worries and the same concerns. In just one day, with no warning to speak of, my body had begun to fail me.
I was never told exactly what caused my spinal infection, and to this day it remains a mystery to all involved. I was treated with a course of medication which is thought to have halted its progress, and after a few weeks in a hospital bed I began to make my first steps around the ward. My blood pressure was extremely low at this time, so standing up straight induced nausea and fainting. I remember one incident alone in a hospital bathroom when I collapsed while splashing water onto my face: I can still see all the colours of the water as it swirled towards the plug, and I remember thinking I had never seen such colours before. Little by little, I was able to increase the amount of time I spent standing and slowly became mobile again.
Learning to walk again, as though from scratch, was the strangest experience I'd ever had. At first I was still unable to feel my legs, which made walking on them a mental rather than intuitive and physical act: with each step, I would have to tell my foot what to do, and watch that it acted correctly. It was as though my hips were balancing on jelly, or even on water, the sensation was so strange. As feeling began to return, it was as though my body could not interpret tactile sensations and overacted to everyday stimuli. There was one occasion where cold water was spilled onto one of my legs, and I felt what I can only describe as an electrical jolt. It was agonizing.
I found my friends to be my most valuable asset through the whole ordeal. Initially, many were shocked at my state, the weight I had lost, and the unsightly catheter bag hanging out of the side of my bed. Conversations began awkwardly, and I sometimes felt as though I had become someone else in their eyes; but once we began to talk, no matter who it was, the tension would lift and the atmosphere would become relaxed.
I think it was the support and sense of humour of my friends that ultimately helped me through that difficult time, that made it bearable, and that made it possible. I later finished my degree, a year later than the others, and everyone moved off in separate directions. But we're still in touch.