“Life Without Limits” #3 (Adjusting)

Getting used to my new surroundings were going to take some time…and toll..

It was not easy, living in a tiny one bedroom flat, in a reasonably confined space.

It was a matter of trial and error, more error than trial.. not only did I have to get used to doing everything from a wheelchair, but I had to contend with neighbours wanting to “pop in” for a “cuppa” and a chat.. luckily this was mostly during the day whilst my wife was at the hospital. I was still feeling pretty washed out so didn’t care for too much conversation, but eventually we got into a routine and things were flowing along nicely.

Then along came Christmas, up went the tree and the gifts under it. I recall it being in the corner by the kitchen bench and a couple of times, went close to knocking it over, but.. thankfully that never happened. The wheelchair I had, was ancient by today’s standard and cumbersome and barely fitted through the doors, again..somehow we managed.

Getting in and out of the unit was tight, but the ramp installed at the front entrance worked and served the purpose just fine. This gave me the freedom to explore the surroundings and I did more and more as the days went by. I knew that the time was coming to start my rehabilitation process, something I was not looking forward to, as the stories that I had heard, were less than welcoming.

The day duly arrived and I was picked up by the ambulance. No hoists in those days, lifted in on the gurney and chair folded alongside. There were other people in this vehicle, none who spoke, they just glared!!

Yep! I just knew this was going to be an interesting and challenging time.

That it was, right from that first glance at the building, an old prefab army barrack with rotting timber, netting on the rafters to hold the pigeons at bay, and keep the rats and mice out..or in in this case.. Grey drab and downright degrading, is probably the politest way to describe this facility, the forgotten building, the one no one wanted to work in. Thankfully rehabilitation centres today are a far cry from this.. The depressed looks on the faces of staff, patients and anyone that had to visit this place, did nothing to make me feel great.

So, I decided I was going to change this! for starters, I could not abide by the fact that everyone was shouted at, talked over, and generally denigrated.

Not for me!! I rebelled.. the first orderly that shouted at me, I let fall on deaf ears. I totally ignored him.. He was starting to lose his patience and was becoming louder and more and more aggressive ! Then he lost it and I swear, if one of the social Workers had not been observing this interaction between us, he would have wacked me!

In a calm and collected voice, I quietly suggested he not should and raise his voice..he might just get a better response from people.

How dare I question his authority? well, I did.. I was taken into the office and read the riot act.. too bad, I will not be treated like a second class citizen.. Digging my toes in was not hard for me, again it comes down to that thing called “ATTITUDE”.

I started talking about the challenges that one would have to face, and how shouting was not going to get anyone anywhere, I suggested that patients be spoken to as the staff would want to be spoken to, not shouted at or talked across while they sat in the room. They too were real people and had the god given right to be treated with respect.

I really did not like the times that I had to endure their insults and at every opportunity, I questioned the methods being used. To be told that I had no idea what it was like to have no legs by someone who had two!! just made me more determined to dig in and rebut their every word.

My independence was not going to be taken from me by anyone and I guess it was about this time that I made a promise to myself, that I would never lose sight of two things, I had been given a second chance at life, and I would never lose my Attitude. Remaining positive and gaining more and more confidence as each day passed, I would not let anyone talk down to or over me and above all.. I would be their equal in every way.. I would just look different!

I guess over the years, this philosophy has paid dividends.

Sitting in meeting rooms, out and about with friends and family, in my daily life, people have never treated me any different.. I am just another person in their circle for what ever that reason.. so much so, that people who I met very quickly overcame their fear of looking at someone in a wheelchair with no legs. They were more embarrassed when inviting me to a function or after dinner speaking engagement for forgetting that I was this guy in the chair with no legs that might have needed a ramp to get into the building.

It never once bothered me….

“Life Without Limits” #2 (Going Home)

I guess adjusting to life without legs was never going to be easy..

But then hey.. I was “ALIVE!!”

I was married and just like any other young married couple in the 70?s had big plans.. buy a house, settle into a routine plan for a family and pursue a career.

My wife of 2 months was about to graduate as a registered nurse. This had not been easy, given the circumstances of recent weeks, but she did graduate.

I am getting a little ahead of myself here. Time had come for my discharge from the hospital, being the impatient person I was, I began counting down the hours about 3 days before hand.

In fairness, I would not consider myself as a “role model” patient!! I was pretty much over needles and enema’s! (nasty things back then, still nasty today!) Long rubber tubes thrust where no one should dare to venture, it was not human!! The procedure carried out with military precision. A team of stern-faced matron like nurses, all gowned up. Rubber gloves fitted, masks on and a stainless steel surgical trolley wheeled in ahead of its army of assistants and onlookers. The dish of hot soapy water and long stainless tube, like a metal apparatus that just seemed to magnify and glare at me like an animated character out of a Dr Evil comic-book! I fought them every inch of the way, but alas, it was to no avail!! Over powered and unable to kick and clench my cheeks, it was a lost cause. I just had to resign myself to the fact that this form of primitive water torture was going to happen..”ready or not”.

At long last, the time had come to depart my home of the last 8 weeks.. yes, just 8 weeks from the day of the accident to discharge, some said this was unheard of, never before had a person with a double above knee amputation been discharged so quickly.. (maybe they just wanted to get rid of me!!)

Or, maybe it was due to the brilliant young intern that had the foresight to pump pure oxygen through my entire body for a week. A method used regularly these days.. as I said in my earlier post, he wrote the book on this treatment and I for one, will be forever in his debt!

I guess, it would be fair to say at this point, that I won a special place in the hearts of the medical and nursing staff.. Young, fit, in the prime of his young adult life, cut down by a cruel twist of fate, about to be married and both legs crushed beyond repair. (Over the years, I have been asked many times to describe this accident to the many groups and organisations I have spoken to.. I simply put it like this, “If you give a young child an ice-cream in a cone and he or she crushes the cone, the ice-cream and cone meld together as one, it becomes a very sticky mess!) You get the picture!!

At this point, I will digress slightly.. At the accident scene, there was very little blood loss, simply because, being as fit as I was and having rather good solid thighs, the muscle and sinew twisted and formed their own natural tourniquet. This ultimately saved my life, this and many other contributing factors, the rescue teams involved, the incredible team of Doctors and nurses, and my will to live.

So, here I was ready to depart this hospital. I had lost a mountain of weight and was warned to take it very easy, as it would be a long slow adjustment. I needed to be careful as I raised myself in my wheelchair and to be mindful of the bandages still applied to my stumps.. all this advice really fell on deaf ears, as I was going to one of my old flatmates’ wedding and I had made a promise to him that I would be there, come hell or high water.

The ambulance officer arrived at the door of the day room in the ward ready to take me home. It was at this moment that the panic and the reality set in, I was no longer in a safe comfortable secure environment.. I was going out to a cruel uncertain future, for a fleeting moment it scared me!

Riding in the ambulance through the city streets to the church, allowed me time to reflect on the past, the present and the future. I had absolutely no idea of what lay ahead.. Here it was, Saturday December 7th 1973, just over 8 weeks from that fateful day. How would I manage in the tiny flat that we were to live in. How would I get in and out? what about the bathroom, the kitchen the bedroom?? all these thoughts raced through my mind like a missile being launched at a thousand feet a second.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and relaxed.. The adrenalin kicked in, along with the excitement of the wedding, seeing my wife and being comforted in the knowledge that I was “GOING HOME!”

“LIFE WITHOUT LIMITS!” #1 (October 3rd 1973)

As they say… “Every story has a beginning” mine is no different!!

I guess life changed on October 3rd 1973, when I lost both my legs above the knee in a horrific train accident.

Like most other 21 yr olds, I was “Six foot tall & Bulletproof” well.. I was actually.. 6’1? and fighting fit, loved the outdoors, surfed, cycled, played sport, did all the things one does at that age. I had taken a job working on the railway, shunting trains – dangerous work, but well paid. I had decided to give University a bit of an interlude and go make some “real” money.. I could always continue my studies at a later date, or so I thought. I was to be married on October 20th and life was good!

It all came crashing to the ground at around 4:20pm on that fateful Wednesday afternoon..

I had started work at around 5:30am and was asked if I wanted an extra shift… Not wanting to turn down the dollars, I said yes..so here it was, 4:30 in the afternoon on this hot Spring day and I am laying under a railway wagon, thinking “this is going to be ok”..Well, it wasn’t ok. I did not know the extent of my injuries at that point in time, I figured I had broken my leg and was pissed that I would be in a plaster cast when I walked down that aisle. Little did I know!!

Once I saw the emergency teams arrive, I figured this might be a little more serious. “If I have broken both legs, I am going to be REALLY PISSED”!!

Finally through the heroics of one of the fire crew at the scene, I was pulled from under the wagon. I do remember that hurting somewhat!! and like every young blooded male, all I wanted to make sure of was that I had my “jewels”.

As I was wheeled into the Emergency Department at the hospital, I recall the nursing team cutting away my trowsers, I remembered my mothers words.. “Always make sure you wear clean underwear.. you never know when you’ll be run over by a bus”.. Ok,so a train is not quite a bus, but still I was glad I heeded her warning.! I could hear the bits of scoria being picked out of my mangled legs and dropped in the sterile kidney dish..

Next thing I remember, is one of the nurses letting out a bit of a “OH MY GOD!!” she had gone to lift my foot on to the gurney when it came away in her hand, boot and all. By this time the morphine was more that doing its required job and it was “goodnight nurse”.

I woke some 18 hours later in the Post-Op room with a bunch of doctors & nurses standing over me with somber looks, some with tears.. I remember as clear as I sit here now, writing this.. saying “What’s the problem?” no one was prepared to say a word… “WELL!! what’s the bloody problem?” I think my language may have been a little more colourful, but finally, one of the surgeons spoke.. He just said..”I’m so very,very sorry!” (yeah ok, sorry for what?) at this point the thoughts were racing like a jig saw on a time limit…. “You have been in a horrific train accident and we have had to amputate your legs”…. I just replied..

“Yeah, ok.. I’m alive!!”

At this point one of the social workers in the team muttered something about me being in shock… post trauma shock…and that they should just keep me heavily sedated….

I guess it was at this point that my belief in “ATTITUDE” kicked in… you see, I have always held the belief that Attitude is everything… I did then and I still do now…. “ATTITUDE, ATTITUDE, ATTITUDE”. HELL, I HAD JUST SURVIVED A HORRIFIC ACCIDENT and am here to tell the tale.

I guess there is such a thing as a “second chance” at life and I had been given it.

The next 48 hours were the most painful, a gamer of “cat & mouse” was being played out unbeknown to me.. I knew what had happened, my family had, or were in the process of being told along with my fiance (after all, I was due to be married in 17 days!) so as it went, they didn’t know that I knew that they knew that I knew. I just really wanted to get on and get out of this place.

Unfortunately things took a bit of a turn for the worse. Infection had set in and at some point, I was given about a 10% chance of making it through the night. That was, until a young doctor, an intern, came up with the idea of putting me in the hyperbaric chamber and pumping pure oxygen through my body. It was a LIVING HELL for the next 5 days, but it actually worked!!

This young man pioneered the technique and as they say, “the rest is history!!”.

If I had a dollar for every conference, every lecture he attended talking about this treatment, I would be a wealthy man, but, I guess he saved my life by taking a chance. For this I will be ever grateful and I thank him for his belief!

October 12th 1973

Brian Portland
October 12th 1973
Life just got better from that point and by October 12th, I am sitting up in my bed planning the wedding that was to go ahead on October 22nd in the day room of the hospital, despite many many protests from parents, priests and friends, apart from the only one that did not want it cancelled – my fiance.

So, like the script for a movie, the fairytale wedding took place in the day room of the ward (ward 7) not with the hundred plus guests, but a mere handful which included family and one or two friends, along with doctors & nursing staff, oh, and the reporter from the country’s National newspaper! It was a long tiring day, I had not really sat in the wheelchair provided, but managed just fine.

Now, you must remember this is 1973.. People with disabilities were still considered as “social outcasts” Cripples, Handicapped and some what not the full quid!.. So, when it came time to get into the chair to go to the day room, I had a sheet placed over the front of the wheelchair, “Don’t want any one to be alarmed or frightened!” as the Ward Sister put it. I could not have cared less, all I wanted to do was marry my sweetheart.

The nursing staff, orderlies and doctors had made the room as nice as they possibly could..after all, it’s not often you get to have a wedding in your ward. Let alone with someone that should not have “made it”.

To be perfectly honest, I could not tell you too much about what took place as I was still pretty well sedated, but, I do remember the most important bits – saying “I DO” and the words spoken by the Priest..who, not a week before, he had administered the “Last Rites” as I mentioned. I was not supposed to make it through that night.

As they say, “the rest is history” some photos, a TV reporter gathering comment for her story, glass of bubbly, and cake, along with other little treats ended the day, but not before my new bride and I had some private time. When I reflect on this time in my life, I’m reminded of the strong “Faith” she had, the belief in me and that somehow she knew we would get through this… together!

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