Caused by disruption or injury to the spinal cord between C1 and C7 quadriplegia, also known as tetraplegia in Europe, is a traumatic life changing event. I’m Graham, founder of the Mad Spaz Club. At 26 I knew little about quadriplegia. That was all about to change. Laying in a hospital bed I remember thinking of all things I would never be able to do again. Now after living in a wheelchair for 16 years, I’ve found with determination and help from friends, there is little you can’t do. Quadriplegia is a life changing condition but it’s no barrier to living a full happy positive life.
Before Living with Quadriplegia
Like most young Australian blokes I was into motorcycles, surfing, fishing, 4×4 camping, and travel. I owned and ran a successful electrical contracting business turning over $128K/year. I had ridden a Katana 650 around Australia with my brother and two mates and spent five months on a Kawasaki 650 twin riding across USA on my own. I was athletic handsome and worldly wise.
Growing up on my loving parents beautiful farm with three sisters and partner in crime brother, I’d rolled cars, jumped cars, brother even ran me over with a car. I had been shot, blown-up, electrocuted and damn near drowned, typical Aussie bloke stuff. I was soon to find my biggest challenge when early one crisp sunday morning riding my beloved Suzuki Katana 650 motorcycle home. My life changed forever in a split second.
My Spinal Cord Injury Accident Scene
It was five o’clock Sunday morning on a northbound corner of the Gateway Arterial Highway near Nudgee, Brisbane Australia. I slipped off the highway at 100 kph (60 mph). Spearing head first toward the southbound lane embankment it flashed through my mind, “You’ve done it this time Graham.” The impact was sudden and brutal. Unconscious my limp body slid to a stop. There I lay, lapsing in and out of consciousness.
My cheekbone was smashed into 6 pieces, broke nose, mandible (jaw), orbital (holds eye in), clavicle (collar) bones, three fractured ribs, and four shattered teeth. That was with a quality $300 Shoei full face helmet on. I would recover from all these but not the badly broken cervical vertebrae C5-C6 in my neck. The vertebrae ruptured my spinal cord which leaked spinal fluid, stripping myelin sheath off nerve endings, causing quadriplegia (tetraplegia).
X-rays later revealed the full extent of impact on the C5-C6 cervical vertebrae. It was so severe it more than crushed my spinal cord. Shards of badly broken bone sliced my spinal cord open in several places. Some shards were embedded in my spinal cord and some were still floating around in my neck. C4 was also not in it’s correct position. Swelling along with these meant that my quadriplegia would be severe. I would live the rest of my life in a wheelchair paralyzed from the chest down. Never again would I feel fresh cut grass under my feet, bubbling surf around my hips, or the warm delicate softness of a woman’s body pressed against mine.
You would think being thrown around like a rag doll at 100 kph I would have left the motorbike behind. But no, the hot exhaust came to rest on my left hand and I was unable to pull it away. Watching the smoke rise from my burning hand my brain was sending, “Pull your hand away” messages. Problem was, they couldn’t get from my brain, past the damaged section of spinal cord, to action my arm and hand muscles.
I was totally paralyzed from the neck down and on the brink of life or death. The hot exhaust burnt all four fingers on my left hand to the bone. I lay on my back motionless staring at the sky for what seemed to be an eternity. Having dated a nurse for ten years, and knowing a paraplegic friend in wheelchair, I knew I would most likely be a quadriplegic for life.
Angels On My Shoulder
Thankfully two men in a vehicle behind me noticed I had suddenly left the road and pulled over to check on me. I told them I had broken my neck and suspected quadriplegia. Between unconscious lapses I asked them to lift the motorcycle off my hand, and to not remove my helmet, touch me or move me. To take my mobile (cell) phone from my belt, phone emergency services, then phone my parents. Not wanting my mother to find out I requested they ask for my father, but due to urgency Mum was told first. Mum later told me her heart sank, knees went weak, and an overwhelming feeling of sickness washed over her. I’m sure my father suffered the same.
A strong quiet man, my father phoned my brother, hitched the 6×4 box trailer onto his car and headed for me. A policeman I would later come to know as “Dave the motorcycle copper” arrived at the scene. I recall answering his authoritative voice with, “I’ve done it this time Dad.” Apparently he fell to his knees, he had children of his own. Around this time my best friend being close by had heard of my accident and shortly arrived on scene with his wife, a nurse. My best friend was left frantic and alone on the highway until my father and brother arrived at the accident scene. Because quadriplegia is so serious his wife had accompanied me to hospital.
During the ambulance journey to hospital I complained to the young rookie paramedic in the back with me that I felt like my head was resting on a steel bar. He told me to shut up and lay still. The senior paramedic driving knew full well I had quadriplegia so couldn’t move and scolded the rookie. A spinal injury specialist doctor later confirmed the incorrectly fitted stiff collar had lacerated the back of my head. I know every quadriplegic goes through feelings of “what if” but the fact is, if that idiot rookie had fitted my collar correctly I may have more function today. Stabilizing the head and neck correctly is very important.
I was taken to the Royal Brisbane Hospital (as it was policy to go to closest hospital) where a doctor took a quick look at me in the ambulance, before ordering I be taken to the Princess Alexandra Hospital Spinal Injuries Unit. This delay and further travel was of not of benefit to my spinal cord injury.
First Day in PA Hospital Spinal Injury Unit
In the Princess Alexandra Hospital Spinal Injuries Unit the surgeon warned, “You may feel a bump here.” I opened my eyes to see him swing a large surgical steel mallet, whack! Two pointy surgical steel bolts were hammered into either side of my skull just above the ears. Curved scissor like tongs fix to these bolts and 7.5 kg (16 pounds) were hung from a rope running over a pully wheel attached to the bed head. With early quadriplegia stretching the neck vertebrae apart relieves pressure on the spinal cord lesion and limits head rotation that can cause further damage. Injections were given to reduce swelling and for pain etc.
It isn’t so much the broken spinal column vertebrae, but the amount of damage to the actual spinal cord itself (inside the spinal column) that matters. The greater the spinal cord damage the greater the resulting paralysis, loss of function and sensation, quadriplegia. By testing what you can (or can’t) move and feel a diagnosis of level and complete or incomplete quadriplegia can be given.
The wonderful nursing staff and support from my family and friends pulled me through some very dark days. Humor and love are great coping mechanisms. After a month in the acute ward I was diagnosed with C4 incomplete quadriplegia. The leading spinal cord injury specialist in Queensland at the time, Dr. Vernon Hill, suggested an operation to stabilize my neck. This would involve removing the shards of bone and replacing the badly broken cervical vertebrae C5-C6 with a shaped block of bone taken from my hip. All fixed in place with a titanium plate and screws.
Removing the unstable C5-C6, bone fragments, and locking C4, hip bone block, and C7, together would stabilize my neck. Making me more robust should I suffer another abrupt impact, fall or blow. Considering my wheelchair thrill-seeking lifestyle I opted for the operation. Taking ten hours it was a complete success and of huge benefit to me. During a recent annual check-up at the P.A. Hospital Spinal Injuries Unit I had the privilege of catching-up with Dr. Vernon Hill and thank him for saving my life.
3 Months in PA Hospital Spinal Injury Unit
My girlfriend left me, it was hard on her and my lack of will to live with quadriplegia didn’t make it any easier. I believe you need to love yourself before you can let anyone else love you. I didn’t love me as a quadriplegic. She had a gorgeous 18 mth old daughter. I sobbed, “I’ll never be able to run down the beach, pick her up when she falls or walk her down the aisle. Go find someone who can.” She did but we keep in touch.
I was moved from the 4 bed Acute ward into the nearly full 48 bed Spinal Unit. I started learning how this new life with quadriplegia might work. Overcoming the “just let me die” stage and so sick of counting dots on the ceiling, it took a few weeks until I could sit up in bed without passing out or throwing up. A wide elastic waist band helped. I began sitting in a wheelchair for 2 or 3 hours before pain and exhaustion sent me back to bed.
With no arm movement and little sensation rehab was slow. Aided by Physio and Occupational Therapists stretching muscles, weight machines, hydrotherapy, splints, sticky tape, paddle pop sticks and fish tank tubing all held new purpose with quadriplegia. I set small goals like signing my name, sitting up for 4 hrs 6 hrs, taking more food and less pills. My nights were filled with horrific dreams. Given over 900 injections in those first three months my stomach was a patchwork of bruises.
6 Months in PA Hospital Spinal Injury Unit
I regained some limited, weak arm movements, enough to push myself one length of the Rehabilitation room. Quadriplegia is weird as no two quadriplegics turn out the same. Some with “incomplete quadriplegia” may regain a little movement and/or sensation whereas others with “complete quadriplegia” none. In rare and often inexplicable cases they actually walk out of hospital. I can say, don’t push or expect them to perform anything, all you need do is let them know you love them.
Just as blind people develop an amazing sense of hearing, and can feel the difference between a $10 and $20 dollar note, losing the use of my legs and hands sharpened my other senses. I could see hear smell and taste all the little things others wouldn’t notice. Quadriplegia had turned the volume up on my life. Feeling the sun on my face would fill me with warmth, the nervous tone in a friends laugh would make me grin all day (or maybe that was the medication lol).
My father would smuggle in a six pack of beer on wednesdays. We sat in the sun at the end of the spinal unit drinking them. Mum brought fruit and flowers, great to bribe the nurses and trade with other wheelies. But the best thing they always brought me was their love.
I had a Supra Pubic Catheter (SPC) installed. It’s a permanent silicone tube inserted through the lower abdominal wall to drain the bladder. I chose the SPC for ease of cleaning and sexual reasons. My friends were all getting married and after 16 weekend weddings in a row it became painfully obvious with my level of quadriplegia I would never regain enough strength to push a manual wheelchair around in the real world. Marriage… first I had to find someone even willing to love a quadriplegic.
9 Months in PA Hospital Spinal Injury Unit
As C4 incomplete quadriplegia left me with no finger movement or wrist extension I test drove a couple of power wheelchairs. Of course chose the fastest one. It turned out to be my best wheelchair ever. After rewinding the Quickie P200 electric motors it does near 30 kph. Being compact and turning on a dime I can easily navigate “normal” households. Also important to me, it can be broken down for transport in a standard car. My modified P200 with Jay 2 gel cushion etc. was $9500.
We had a ramp put on the back door of my loving parents home, modified my room, shower, toilet and installed an air-conditioner (with quadriplegia we can’t regulate our body temperature). We don’t sweat much so the extremes of heat and cold knock us around. The CRS (Commonwealth Rehabilitation Service) was excellent and even paid for the home renovations back then.
12 Months Post Injury Returning Home
Home again I spent most days sitting in the sun contemplating what I was going to do with my life of quadriplegia. I followed up job leads in accounting I’d started in hospital. Bought a van with a hoist in the back. Began teaching myself how to use a computer. And built working balsa-wood model planes with my four year old Nephew as therapy to tune fine motor skills.
My incredibly supportive family encouraged me to venture out. They didn’t see my quadriplegia as a disability. They didn’t see the wheelchair, they saw me as a man, their son, their brother. Early one morning I had an accident in bed. We call it a, “Kinder Surprise” (a diet chocolate egg with toy inside). It’s brown, tastes like crap and you never know what you’ll get until you roll me over. Being a real mess my mother seated me in my power wheelchair and I ventured out into the garden.
In the early morning sunlight watching my father gardening a bee landed on a flower right in front of me. It was another turning point in my life. The bee didn’t care if I was dead or alive, or that he would only live a few months. His purpose in life was to collect pollen and he was busy doing it. Should he not, he would no longer be useful to the colony, and the colony would no longer be whole for the loss, of that one bee.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee. — John Donne
How could this tiny creature overpower me. Touch me so deep it would effect the rest of my life. It was just another “little thing” yet so incredibly beautiful. I was alive and there to see it. I realized then, I had purpose in life, a destiny. And only I could fulfill or waste it. On this planet I too am just a tiny creature, with the same massive potential. I felt a tear slip away and grinned at my father who was now watching me.
Life in a Wheelchair Living with Quadriplegia
Having lived with quadriplegia for 16 years now I can say, it took two years to come to terms with my new life and think, yeah I’m doing ok, have self esteem, confidence, contentment. Then at the five year mark I caught myself in the mirror and smiled nodding, “Now you’re really doing ok, and have accepted life as a quadriplegic.”
Shortly after that day I rounded the corner into our living room to find my mother with her head in her hands crying softly. When I asked what was wrong she replied, “nothing, I’m just tired.” She quickly wiped her eyes and went on with her day. It was me, the enormous strain of quadriplegia and being my primary carer had taken it’s toll. It hit me like a sledgehammer, that one person who would love me as a quadriplegic had been beside me the whole time, my incredible mother.
I applied and lobbied the government for a place of my own and permanently funded carers. My father was instrumental in cutting through bureaucracy and red tape for me building a case file three inches thick. Community groups friends and contacts made over the years all pulled strings for me. In 2002 eight years after my accident I moved into my own three bedroom quadriplegia and wheelchair friendly home.
I currently work part time in Accounting and Internet Technology. I enjoy creating graphics like the wheelchair heros one above. I have four excellent carers who assist in my day-to-day needs from showering to gardening, 41.5 care hours/week.
I am an advocate for the disability sector playing a keynote role in securing $4.3 Million in non-recurrent funding for the state over four years commencing 2005.
Early in 2009 I became an Ambassador to White Ribbon Day to end violence against women. A common reality kept all to silent amongst the disabled and their circle of charges.
There are many stereotypes and physical barriers ahead for those with a spinal cord injury like quadriplegia. Worsened by a lack of disability funding, public awareness and support. Hence The Mad Spaz Club. A little corner on the internet where we can get together with like-minded people to share our experiences combine our voices and problem solve.
Education and funding in the disability sector is increasingly enhancing the lives of disabled people. Find out what it is you want and don’t stop until you achieve it. You have a voice so make it count. Get out there smile bright and enjoy your life. Keep your eye out for us wheelchair users and all the “little things” along the way.