It never rains...

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Apologies if anyone out there has been disappointed by my silence. It's unlikely, but if it is the case, I'm sorry. It's nothing personal.

In truth I have had a bit of a roller coaster ride of late, with ups and downs aligned to form the perfect cliché.

On the plus side, I have managed to land myself a regular spot with an excellent physio who has decided that my ambition of getting up in calipers more often and maybe even shuffling a few steps is not unrealistic, nor is it pointless. Cue lots of intensive manipulation to try and free up my sacroilliac joint, aiming for pelvic rotation and stretching my hip flexors (the group of muscles that run down the front of the thigh). These muscles get very tight if you sit all day. It's hard to be in a wheelchair and not sit all day, unfortunately (and while I'm on the subject: journalists, when you write articles about how sitting all day is really bad for your health and can lead to an early grave, can you please bear in mind that some of us don't have a choice in this matter. Ditto standing desk sellers. I could get a standing desk, but unless I wish to stare at the top third of the screen with the keyboard and mouse out of reach it would be pointless).

So, the inevitable effect of all this stretching and straining has been an increase my base levels of pain, a subject I have covered on this blog in some detail previously. It's a rock/hard place scenario, as it is with playing sport. If I do it, it hurts, but then it hurts less later. If I don't do it, it hurts less now but more later. Basically it all hurts, so it's just a case of getting on with it and rationalising whatever choices I make as part of my internal dialogue. A dialogue liberally punctuated with the term 'ow', and more expletive laden outbursts.

On to the rain:
Arriving at basketball training a couple of weeks ago, the rain lashing down on the car as I sat in the dark car park, contemplating whether to wrestle with an umbrella or just accept the soaking, I decided to go for the quick exit. A schoolboy error.

I opened the car door and slid my wheelchair off the back seat, but instead of putting the brakes on, I went for an express launch. This manoeuvre is fine when undertaken on level ground, but the car park at the sports centre boasts an impressive camber. Just as I was about to hurl myself at the chair, it decided to wander off, not just leaving the car's side, but making an impressive bid for freedom that involved a 180 degree spin before heading enthusiastically down the hill. Luckily, I was able to shout for assistance to a man who was crossing the car park and he kindly intercepted my errant steed about 50 meters from the car and returned it to me.

Suitably chastened, I applied the brakes and got into the soggy chair. I made my way around the side of the car to the back and opened the boot, which on our car consists of one single door that opens vertically and offers a significant area of cover. Except that the rain was coming in at the perfect angle to render this cover useless.

I dragged the basketball wheelchair frame down from the car and placed my bag on it, hoping to prevent the cushion from getting completely sodden. However, the weight of the it caused the unstable wheelchair frame to tip over and deposit my bag in the torrent that ran down the gutter, filling it with an impressive amount of water. The game was up. I thought to myself that the whole process couldn't have gone much worse, and I put the wheels on the basketball chair with an air of resignation. It turned out that I was wrong.

Remember that big boot door? It has a recess for the number plate, and this recess was now full to brimming with rainwater. Upon closing the boot, the equivalent of a large bucket full of water crashed down on my head. I wouldn't have been wetter had I decided to swim to training.

As made my way to the building I found myself musing on a well worn concept. In the American Marines they have a saying: "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast."
I like to think the English expression, while expressing the same idea, does so with a little more polish: "Less haste, more speed."

And now, before your very eyes, I shall attempt to draw these two seemingly disparate topics together.

To apply the less haste approach one has to tame the instinct to rush when under pressure. This might be weather influenced or may come from numerous other sources. The effort required to overcome the urge to rush pays dividends in the long run. Things get done right first time, and to a standard that one can be happy with.

When it comes to managing pain, the urge is to avoid the exercise or activity that triggers the pain. However, if one can overcome this instinct, the release of endorphins and the improved circulation that comes with movement, to say nothing of the satisfaction of being active, the rewards outstrip the penalties by some distance. We are made to move. The degree to which we do so may be dictated by various physical and mental factors, but the sense of well-being that accompanies any physical activity should always be valued.

To quote Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, "Keep on movin'..."


Dressed to depress.

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There are a few 'activities of daily living' that can present additional challenges to us spinal folk; tasks that require a little ingenuity, a different technique or just a lot of swearing and physical effort.

One area that continues to catch me out on occasion is what should be a straightforward daily ritual - Getting dressed. Some of the techniques we use may come as a surprise to those who have not considered the additional complications that come with paralysis. For example, did you know that we have to wear our socks inside out to prevent the seam that runs across the toes of most socks from marking our skin and causing a potential pressure sore? Or that we have to remove any buttons, studs or flaps from the back of trousers and jeans for the same reason?

In truth, the whole process has been made somewhat easier by moving to Australia, where it rarely gets cold enough to wear half of the clothing that it rarely gets warm enough not to wear in the UK. But certain items are essential for legal reasons, and the challenges offered by dressing often carry the additional complication of having to be faced in the morning, when I am barely conscious. By the way, this means any time between 7am (rarely) and about 11 (sadly more common).

In order to better enable the reader to appreciate just what is involved, I thought I would highlight a few of the more common struggles.

1. The half superhero.
This was a new one for me. Heartening that even after ten years with a spinal cord injury, I still struggle to dress myself. It happened this morning, and was certainly due to a lack of decent sleep. I began by slipping one of my legs into my undercrackers and then straight into my jeans. This can feel like a time saving sequence, and usually passes off peacefully. So far so good. However, my dressing routine was then interrupted by a howl of anguish, and the bedroom door was thrown open by a small child clutching a Lego minifigure covered in porridge. Once the crisis had been resolved, I then put my other leg into my jeans and then attempted to get the foot into my undies. It took me far too many seconds to identify what the issue was, and the ensuing tangle was far from dignified.

2. The arsey bustle.
This one will be familiar to any SCI swimmers out there. After a dip, the most practical approach is to drape a towel over the seat of the swimmer's wheelchair in order to keep the cushion a bit drier. When clothes are then applied, the dresser discovers that swimming seems to have added several inches to the waistline, and doing up the waist button and flies has become an impossibility. As you may have gathered from the name, the usual cause is that the towel has used the clamminess of post-swimming buttocks in order to invade the victim's clothing.

3. Toe jam
When applying a shoe, the dresser finds it impossible to get their heel into the piece of footwear. After much straining and swearing, the withdrawal of the foot reveals a mangled mess of twisted toes. Upon further investigation the shoe is found to contain a sock/pair of socks/champagne cork/Lego minifigure covered in porridge.

4. Sleeve it be
This is not intended as a boast, but my shoulders and arms are on the larger side these days. It's an occupational hazard that comes with being a wheelchair user, and it can make buying shirts and t-shirts challenging at times. I prefer not to be impeded by my clothing, but nor do I want to go straight to the kaftan option.

5. Off the cuff
In preparing to make a presentation/accept an award/deliver a eulogy/sit a job interview, the dresser puts on a crisply laundered and freshly ironed shirt, only to discover that in the journey from the ironing board to their body, the shirt has picked up some unspeakable and definitely stainy substance from their wheelchair's tyre.

6. Tie died
Having sponged into a smudgy mess whatever goo has populated the shirt cuff, the dresser must now turn his attention to the tie. This baffling accessory can be fraught with potential complications, even for a biped. It can end up in the soup, or over the shoulder in the slightest of breezes. Just tying the damn thing to the right length when the wearer is permanently sat usually takes about eight goes, and even then it inevitably peeks too far out of the bottom of the suit jacket (see below) like the tongue lolling from the mouth of an overheated labrador.

7. The Quasimodo
The perennial problem of formal attire. The wearer dons a suit jacket and spends several minutes pulling at the side flaps and tucking the bottom of the jacket in all the way around, only for their first push to make the whole thing to ride up and completely conceal their neck and ears, while the lapels open like the mouth of half-starved baby bird.
I have been assured that a decent tailor can make a suit that prevents this from happening, but I have yet to have a post-injury suit tailor made. Apparently, the difficulty faced by the tailor is the same as the one presented by conductors waving their arms around in time to the music.

Faced with the difficulties associated with suit jackets, some wheelchair users choose instead to opt for a waistcoat without a jacket. I can see the advantages, and I'd love to be able to adopt it, but the Mod in me just can't face the idea. It's just too... well, Status Quo, isn't it?

I'm sure there are more, but you get the general idea.

As for getting into and out of a wetsuit? That's definitely a tale for another day.

In the Guardian: on my 'legendary' status.

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So here's a piece I wrote for Guardian Australia. Strangely, many people seem to have decided I had taken offence. Not so. Not really something I do. But perhaps this interpretation says much about the lack of communication and understanding around disability...

In a different vein.

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Bus adverts. Guaranteed to have the worst strap lines, written to make the driver of the car stuck behind the bus go a funny shade of purple when there is a traffic jam.

I raise this because I had the delight of being behind a bus for a few minutes in Canberra recently. The ad I got to stare at included a line about being freed from the terrible tyranny of 'unsightly veins'.  I can't remember the exact words, but the gist of the copy was that womankind could be free to choose the clothes they liked, if only they would pop along to a clinic and have the veins removed from their legs.

Presumably this doesn't result in their feet going black and falling off, as one assumes there will be enough veins left to allow the blood to continue to feed their lower limbs, but it wasn't the medical intricacies of the procedure that I found myself pondering. It was a much larger issue, and one that permeates every facet of the media.

While my first thought was, "Is this what we have become? Are we so cosseted, so lacking in need or principal that the appearance of veins in our legs keeps us awake at night?"
But while the ad is not necessarily a symptom of impending social collapse, it does raise some issues... Yes, folks, it's time to talk body image.

Now, I'm sure there are people for whom the removal of veins from their legs has been a confidence boosting joy. I'm not knocking the whole procedure. As my earlier observations amply demonstrate, I know very little about the medical side of it. But what I do know is that there are many people for whom the veins in their legs play no role at all in their ability to present themselves as 'sightly' in the eyes of the mainstream.

In truth, very few people do look anything like the model in the ad, with her short skirt and her perfectly formed, blemish-free legs.
"Look at me," She seems to say. "My legs are so perfect they don't require blood."
The last person I met for whom that was the case was a double amputee. Is THAT the surgery this company is offering?

For most people, legs are functional appendages; load bearing and carrying the life story of the owner, from grazes, nicks or bites to scars that tell of accidents, injuries or surgery. Yet on they go, carrying us through another day. Taking us from cradle to grave (probably not on the same day. That would be a bit hectic). We may have concerns. Our thighs might be a bit wobbly, our knees a bit knobbly and our gait a bit hobbly (not a real word), but we can still put them out there can't we?

My legs tick every single box in that list. But what they don't do is carry me through the day. And their inability to do so has also led to a dramatic change in their appearance.  They have no muscle tone, and seeing as I am six foot three, there's quite a lot of them. Not in number, obviously, but in length. It took me a long time to get the confidence to wear shorts following my spinal cord injury. Looking back, I covered the event in my column for the BBC a few years back.

You've gotta know when to fold 'em...

For the most part, I don't tend to worry very much about such things these days. This is partly because I am 47. At 47, even the super fit began to look a little loose at the seams. But it's also because I have had ten years of more pressing concerns (staying well, for example). And I have had to come to terms with the fact that I don't stand up anymore. I can't look down on many people over eleven, my trousers look like they have been stuffed with jelly, my lap always has food/dust/random gifts from children on it, jackets always ride up at the shoulders, my cuffs are filthy and/or worn ragged and the down side of sitting all day is that no amount of exercise is going to make my gut look anything but 'paunchy'.


I do care about the clothes I wear. I care about having my hair cut. I have way more pairs of shoes than I could ever hope to wear out. I clean my wheelchair regularly, and I am engaged in a seemingly eternal quest for the 'perfect hat'. So I clearly care about my appearance. But I don't choose my attire to suit some kind of benchmark as to what is 'unsightly'. People shouldn't feel like their bodies are something to be ashamed of.

It's ok to fuss. It's fine to primp, to curl, to dye, to shave, to wax, to tattoo. It also ok to iron, to accessorise, to layer, to undo a button or few, to hitch up, to slip down and even to wear ironic eighties knitwear (just). But people are built the way they are for a myriad of reasons, and as a society, we could do to be a bit more accepting of that.


Words and an award

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It's been a strange few days, what with one thing and another.

Last Wednesday I had a speaking engagement in Canberra, where I was invited to address the Swedish Australian Healthcare Forum on behalf of the catheter manufacturer Wellspect.

Among the topics covered at the event was Infection control (a subject of great personal interest following my experiences in hospital this time last year), and my contribution was to provide the voice of that universal figure, the 'service user'. Of course, we are all service users sooner or later, but I am happy to share my experiences, especially if it means reminding those who help to set health policy that the numbers on the page represent real people.

My contribution was also intended to assist in a campaign to improve the funding of catheters and other continence products in Australia. My experience in the UK was informed by the support I received from the NHS, and the help and support I received during my rehabilitation.

The continence nurses at the National Spinal Injuries Centre had access to the full range of catheters that were on the market, in-dwelling and single use products, and 'the right fit' could be decided upon, purely on the basis of clinical decisions rather than economic ones.


Following my return home after rehab, I would phone a call centre and the appropriate single use catheters would be dispatched to my door, while the supplier would then contact the GP on my behalf to arrange a prescription.

Over here in Australia, catheters cost the user. This could mean finding $400 per month to pay for single use catheters. As a result, many people re-use products that are specifically licensed as 'single use only'. As well as this expense, many users have little knowledge of the diverse range of products that are available, and could be unaware of a solution to the serious health complications that can be associated with catheter problems.

And we are not talking about rare occurrences here, either. In the US, where the figures are better collated than in Australia, it is estimated that more than 13,000 people die from Catheter associated urinary tract infections every year.

It is impossible to put together accurate global figures, but the numbers that are recorded are usually in countries that have generally good healthcare provision, so it is not hard to imagine just how extensive the problem is in developing countries. It is a topic I shall return to, especially as my own health situation is far from uncomplicated at the moment...

In other news, I spent the weekend destroying myself chasing a basketball around. Slam Down Under is a local tournament that attracts teams from across Australia and New Zealand. Seven matches on Saturday and the semi-final and final on Sunday... Shattering, but my vital role as lucky gonk on the team seems to be paying dividends as the Illawarra  Eagles followed our success in the Country Cup earlier in the year by taking the Slam Down Under B division Gold. Boom. That's going straight in the pool room....

Please don't tell me what's going on Upstairs...

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One of the aspects of moving to a small town that took my by surprise was finding myself closer to God...

That is to say, closer to people who are closer to God. Or believe themselves to be. They seem to make up a larger percentage of our social circle.  I happen to think they are wrong, because I don't believe there is a God. But that's ok, because they think that I'm wrong. The difference is, I don't believe there is a God because I can find no evidence. The questions stack up pretty quickly for me (if the Bible is the word of God, how come he hasn't said anything worth writing down for the last two thousand years? etc.). But If I did find evidence or answers to my questions, then I would revise my view, that being the logical approach.

Those who hold religious beliefs, on the other hand, seem to me to thrive on the lack of evidence, and would not change their view regardless of what you put in front of them. What with them having Faith and so on. Which is fine. Mutual respect is still possible, and I don't view religious beliefs as a barrier to friendship, although I struggle to drop the topic completely from conversation.

Perhaps in moving from east London, one of the strongholds of the atheistic 'Liberal-Elite' (©every-Murdoch-newspaper-anywhere-in-the-world) makes the greater prevalence of religion here seem more startling. Incidentally, why does the Right continue to bleat about being victim to some kind of urban left-wing dominance? Enough with the siege mentality. You're in power.

But I digress. I should perhaps get to the point, as I'm sure you're wondering where all this is leading...

There are two areas of public service where I have concerns over the prevalence of religion.

Firstly, in schools. Obviously discussing religion in the context of history, art or social studies is fine. But presenting text as 'the word of God'? Do that in your own time, people. That should be a personal choice. And certainly an opt-in not an opt-out.

The other area where I would prefer religion be requested rather than proffered is during medical treatment, especially when one is a hospital resident. I speak here from personal experience. Indeed, my first night in hospital after breaking my spine involved an encounter with a nurse who 'encouraged' me to find Jesus, and told me all about a woman who had walked again after breaking her spine, thanks to the power of prayer (not sure why we were bothering with a hospital at all, really). The corollary of this notion is the same as the: 'they said I'd never walk again, but I proved them wrong through sheer determination' line, which is that the injured party needs to summon a cure through prayer or intensive exercise. Anything less than a cure is a sign of personal failure.

I have also been visited by chaplains (on both sides of the planet) who, on hearing that I am an atheist, would reply that they were fine with that and would be happy to come and just look in on me, should I feel like a chat. They never did, probably much to our mutual relief.

Recently, I heard the line that 'God only lets this happen to people who can cope'. To use a common contemporary acronym (or CCT): WTF? This makes Him Upstairs sound pretty unpleasant to those of us who don't have access to His long term strategy. If he lets it happen, why doesn't he just stop it in the first place?

Even putting aside the notion of some kind of Divine purpose, this comment upset me, because it's not true; it doesn't only happen to people who can cope. Some people can't. And watching them drown in the overwhelming torrent of loss, pain and frustration is tough for all of those close to them. Really tough.

I know that religion offers succour to many millions of people in times of difficulty. And if it works for you, that's great. I'm genuinely happy for you. But if you want me to respect your belief system, then please do me the same courtesy, and keep the mystical platitudes to yourself.

Werri Beach Art

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I know what you're thinking: Is there no beginning to this man's talent?

This week, dear reader, I am donning the 'artist' hat. A beret, of course, dappled with paint and existential despair.  Together with Penny, we are running a series of beach art workshops for high school kids from the local area.

The workshops introduce the concept of Land Art, and the objective is to make ephemeral art using found materials, and to record the process in pictures and video.  We have also introduced the work of artists like Andy Goldsworthy, Alejandro Duran and Rosalie Gascoigne.

Today was the first day of the course, and we were really impressed with the openness and enthusiasm with which our participants took to the task. There was an understandable hesitance first thing, but that quickly evaporated and by the end of day one, our charges were thinking like artists and working with smiles on their faces.

spiralshell.jpg Tomorrow I shall be hitting the sand. This has previously been impossible on our local piece of coastline, as Werri beach is very steep, and has very soft sand. However, last week I was fortunate enough to be given the loan of an all-terrain power chair by a local resident who is quadriplegic (tetraplegic). He has very generously offered me the use of the machine whenever is convenient, and I shall be tearing around the beach first thing, leaving tyre tracks and gleeful squeals in my wake (it will be me squealing. The thing is jawdrappingly efficient at getting over any terrain - even dunes).

So this week is littered with new experiences, and finding different ways to interact with the world, both creatively and physically. I can think of worse ways to spend a winter week in June....


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April 1. A memorable date for most, with it's association with pranks, high-jinx, tomfoolery.

April 1. A memorable date in this household for a different reason.
On the 1st April 2005, I fell from a tree, dropping six meters and landing on a garage roof. I suffered one injury: a displaced a single vertebra in my spine, all but severing my spinal cord in the process.

Ten years on, much has changed. My paralysis has not changed at all in the intervening years, but my life continued, and while my spinal cord injury will always be one of the most significant events in that life, it did not mark the end. Every day I face the consequences of my injury; the constant pain, the complications of bladder infections, the difficulties in accessing the beach or the mountains, the inability to lift my children onto my shoulders, the list is long.

So how to mark the anniversary? This is a quandary that all of us who have experienced a profound injury have to deal with. It's hardly a time for celebration, for while I have heard a number of people describe their injury as one of the best things that ever happened to them (usually because of what they have achieved since), this has always struck me as a strange statement.  Do they really have such a low opinion of their 'pre-injured' selves? That without a life-threatening injury and the prospect of life with a permanent disability, they would have amounted to nothing?

What I have learned is that I am capable of adjusting and adapting, and that some things that I used to consider important are not. I have also learned much about the challenges and obstacles that many people deal with on a daily basis, many of which come in the form of negative social attitudes or a mere lack of consideration.

I have also learned that my sense of self has not changed. And with this, my expectations have also remained. These expectations also form the basis of my every encounter with the social and built environments.

If your shop/cafe/toilet block is not accessible to me, why not? I hope you have a good excuse, because I have a forensic approach to what constitutes a 'reasonable effort' when it comes to universal access.

If you wish to talk over me, make assumptions about me or treat me as if my life is a matter of public record, be prepared to cop a mouthfull. It will happen. Trust me.
(This last one puts me on somewhat dicey ground, having written an 'unflinching' account of my experiences. The word was selected by my publisher, btw.)

I now have two children. My oldest is soon to be ten, so both my children have only known me with a spinal cord injury. They have taught me much.

Partly, this has come through my need to explain to them, which requires me to crystalise my thoughts on what I can and can't do, what we should be able to share, and on the role of a father.

They have also taught me through their ability to accept and move on. They know that I am different to other fathers, but their expectations generally gauge perfectly what I can and can't do. Hide and seek? Sure. Pillow fights? You betcha. Kicking a football? Less so. 

And through all of this, I have my beloved wife Penny. Her resilience, sense of humour, patience, positivity and loving support have shaped the last ten years in more ways than I can begin to describe.

So, how mark this anniversary? We decided to go for a bike ride.

Kangaroo Valley provided the scenery, my hand-cycle provided me with the transport (albeit bloody hard work. It's not the most ergonomic rig, to say the least), and we went on a leisurely 10k ride through beautiful scenery.

kv.jpgPenny then rode back to the car, sparing me the larger hills, and I lay on my back in the grass, staring up at the clouds and the trees and reflecting on the similarities and the differences between today and when I stared up at the clouds and trees after falling from one of them.

In the last ten years, much has changed. Not least the place I currently call home. In the move to Australia, I drew much of my confidence about such a big change from our ability to adapt to the profound changes we faced when I fell out of that tree.

It also taught me that things can come at you from out of the blue; profound, life-changing things; things that you couldn't begin to imagine how you would cope. But we do. Most of us do. And in so doing, we learn the things that really matter.

Fiji: Passing on the baton.

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or 'Fiji, part the second'.

Holiday over, it was time to get to work. The road trip from Nadi to Suva took around three and a half hours, and provided great window-gazing opportunities to see the sugar cane fields and to get a feel for the volcanic landscape. We also passed through some traditional villages, one of which was heavily policed as the President was making a visit. Most of the police activity seemed to be focused on the roadside stalls selling fresh cooked sweetcorn. In the car we speculated that foodstuffs were being impounded bodily as a security precaution.

So to Nadi. The main purpose of my Fiji trip was to deliver a peer to peer training programme for Fijians with spinal cord injury on behalf of Motivation Australia.

First, a little luxury.  My co-trainer Lisa Chaffey and I were booked into the Grand Pacific Hotel where we were to hunker down and plan the job. The hotel provided us with rooms at a discounted rate, and we provided feedback on wheelchair access in return. I can report that the room was generously proportioned and easy to get around The bathroom was also spacious and included a wide, folding shower seat and was laid out in a way that made transfers easy.

However, I must report that the indoor zen garden was not very wheelchair friendly, as it consisted largely of soft sand. In future, they may wish to tarmac it.

Zen and the art of wheelchair maintenance: Stay out of soft sand.

Lisa and I spent a few days with Lauren from Motivation Australia, working through the training material we would be using, and working out how best to approach the week. I was immediately struck by the contrast to peer training in the UK, where one could safely assume that participants had accessed a broadly similar rehabilitation programme in one of the thirteen spinal units around the British Isles.

Instead we realised early on that flexibility was going to be key, and that we couldn't assume that those we were working with had been exposed to even the most rudimentary knowledge about spinal cord injury. Another telling experience came whenever we travelled to downtown Suva to grab a bite or do some shopping, perhaps best summed up when Lisa asked,
"Why is that man staring at me?"
She immediately remembered that she wasn't in Melbourne, and we realised that our presence as wheelchair users on the streets of Suva was causing something of a stir. The general reaction of unashamed staring drew from me my usual response, which is to stare unashamedly back. This was inevitably met with a smile and shout of "Bula!", accompanied with a thumbs up or a proffered handshake.

Preparation over, it was time to leave the colonial luxury of the Grand Pacific (where the staff had, for some reason, decided that Lisa and I were husband and wife), and we made our way to the training venue, a theological college on the outskirts of town that was perfect for our needs.

On Sunday evening we met the participants. In the first hour I learned that one of our number was unable to transfer from wheelchair to bed without an overhead handle. In ten minutes, I taught him how to make this transfer without assistance or a monkey bar. This was the first time he had done so. In twelve years.

This example sums up the nature of our task. I have always felt passionate about my role as a peer to peer trainer, as I was fortunate enough to be given such guidance when I was going through rehab and it had a profound effect on me (it's all in 'the book', you know).

In Fiji, I was expecting a lack of resources; Fiji is not a wealthy country. But what struck me most was the lack of knowledge. During the week we spent working with ten disabled Fijians, their family members and carers, and staff from Spinal Injury Association of Fiji, we covered topics that I was briefed on as part of the patient education programme at Stoke Mandeville, including bladder and bowel management, and avoiding pressure sores.

To put this knowledge in context, these issues don't just affect quality of life, they can have a profound effect on life-expectancy.  When Professor Ludwig Guttmann founded the first spinal unit in 1944, most people with spinal cord injury died within 2 years from infections caused by pressure sores or renal failure caused by poor bladder management.

The week in Fiji was exhilarating and exhausting. We developed a great atmosphere, with everyone throwing themselves into the training with enthusiasm. As well as the sessions on health issues, we ran extensive wheelchair skills training and some sport sessions. Again, we had some significant wins, including finding a way for one of the participants to self-propel in her wheelchair for the first time since she was given the chair seven years ago.

The aim is for this group of participants to stay in touch and meet regularly to come up with some peer led activities that they can organise for themselves with a view to attracting other people with disabilities to get involved.

photo courtesy of Motvation Australia

The farewells at the end of our week were emotional, and this wasn't purely down to the kava... There was a tangible sense that our sessions had helped to widen the horizons and expectations for everyone who took part. This included the trainers as well, because we learned along the way too; that is the nature of peer to peer training.

We intend to stay in touch with our participants and over ongoing encouragement so that the course has a significant legacy. And in future? Who knows... maybe other Pacific islands could make use of our services...

On a final note, I would like to thank Lofric for providing me with intermittent catheters during the trip. It was great to have the confidence that comes with single use catheters while travelling.

Fiji: part the first

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SO, Fiji then. First came the break:
We flew out to Fiji together for a family holiday, staying at a small resort with accessible accommodation called First Landing. The flight was a few hours late in landing, so our first experience of Fiji came under cover of darkness. It is a strange experience to arrive in a new country, drive to you accommodation and check in with very little sense of your surroundings.

The heat and humidity were obvious, as was the sense that this was the rainy season (one of two seasons Fiji enjoys, the other being the dry season). The enthusiastic leaps of frogs on the paths and the darting runs of the geckos revealed the tropical nature of our surroundings, and the resort was nestled among mature trees, coconut palms and lush shrubs.

On our first morning, we swam in the pool as huge drops of warm rain fell all around us. This set the tone and pace for the rest of the week. The accommodation was well appointed, with a strong pragmatic quality to the solutions that the resort had come up with in terms of access.
The cast concrete shower seat, for example:

showr.jpg               concrete furnishings make for a sturdy accessible shower.

We did go for a couple of trips out, firstly to Lautoka to visit the food market, so that we could take advantage of our self-catering accommodation. When we arrived in the small city our travelling circus immediately turned heads, something I put down to my front wheel attachment, which makes my chair into more of an offroader, essential in a city where the footpaths are very cracked and uneven. In hindsight, the wheel had little to do with the interest we attracted, but I will return to that subject in part 2.

Having stopped for a lunch of Indian food, we headed for the market, where I edged my way between the produce piled on the ground around the outskirts of the covered market, inching along trying to avoid leaving  a river of pulped fruit in my wake.

The trip to the supermarket was a step too far, as the gradient on the ramp into the shop was 1 in 2. Instead I sat outside with my son on my lap. As we turned so many heads, I inadvertently said out loud,
"Everyone's staring at us."
This is not the kind of comment I like to make in front of the boy. At 3 years old, his capacity for shy is easily triggered, and I was worried that he would feel uncomfortably.
He clearly was, but his response was not that of a shrinking violet.
Instead he shared his observations with the crowd.
I soon became uncomfortable at the way he scrutinized people so blatantly.

Our second outing was on a catamaran out to the miniscule island of Savala, a blob of sand with a shelter, kitchen and a few kayaks on it. To walk the coast of this land mass would take about 10 minutes.

On the outward journey, we stopped above a small reef and everyone dropped into the ocean for a bit of snorkeling. This is something I enjoy very much, especially as it's an activity I can share with my daughter, so I threw myself enthusiastically into the water with everyone else. In case you are thinking, gentle reader, that this is one of those yarns where I end up flailing around in the Pacific, unable to access the ladder back onto the boat, fear not. We had already scoped out the other boat that accompanied us which had a water level platform at the back, so I knew that I could get aboard. I then got to ride on the back step as the boat tore through the water. I held my ankles tightly for fear that one of my floppy legs might slip into the water and the wake would suck me into the ocean like a child eating spaghetti. 

However, while the staff were very helpful, communication was not their strong suit, and so Penny and son were dropped off on the island while daughter and I were still in the open water. It was a nervy 40 minutes on the sand before we arrived and I was reunited with my wheelchair.

Desert islands are very picturesque places. However, they are not very wheelchair friendly. In fact, the combination of soft white sand, palm tree roots and briny water make them positively hostile to anything with greased, moving parts (oh, matron, etc). Luckily, the staff were very capable, and happy to push me around the island and haul my sorry carcass out of the ocean after I had enjoyed another swim.

Untitled.jpg           beached as.

Our week was soon over, and I left Penny and the kids to enjoy a final day by the pool while I met up with the rest of the team from Motivation Australia and we journeyed down to Suva for the business end of the trip. But that's a tale for another day...



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