Why spinal injuries are not what we see on TV

Published: April 25, 2011  |  Source: independent.ie
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Spinal injuries can certainly be serious, but they don’t always have to spell an end to life as we know it

THIRTY-ONE years ago Colm Whooley came off his motorbike and broke his back. He was paralysed from the chest down and spent nine months in hospital. Today he scuba dives, fly-fishes, teaches self-defence and kayaks.

He’s deeply concerned about the latest controversial storyline on hit soap ‘Emmerdale’, which, it’s speculated, will see twenty-something tetraplegic Jackson Walsh attempt to kill himself with the help of his mother and lover.

Whooley, now the chief executive of Spinal Injuries Ireland, fears that an assisted suicide story could leave viewers believing this is the norm for victims of spinal cord injury.

But it’s not, insists the 52-year-old paraplegic who, along with three other people, will kayak nearly 50km from Northern Ireland to Scotland in August to raise about €45,000 for the organisation.

While his injury, which occurred at the age of 21, is not as severe as that suffered by Jackson, who is paralysed from the neck down — Whooley has the use of his arms — he knows several people with similar injuries to those sustained by the ‘Emmerdale’ character.

“These people are getting on with life — people are very resilient with good rehabilitation and family support.

“I’d be worried if the public was left with the perception that this is how everybody deals with such an injury,” says Whooley.

It’s good to bring public attention to the issue, according to Spinal Injuries Ireland (SII) — on average one person a week sustains a spinal cord injury in this country though traffic, sporting and work accidents.

However, ‘Emmerdale’ is overly focusing on the negative aspect of life with spinal cord injury, claims SII communications official Liz Smith, who says several members have already contacted the organisation to express concern about the portrayal of Jackson.

“The whole story is showing an extremely negative portrayal of living with a spinal cord injury.

“We realise that the producers are endeavouring to produce an entertaining and thought-provoking storyline, but they must be cognisant of the negative and distressing impact that this will have on individuals and families who sustained a similar level of injury.

“We want the producers of ‘Emmerdale’ to realise that not only are people who have this life-changing injury watching this but so are their families and friends.

“The fear and anxiety this storyline is causing is unnecessary and doing more harm than good.”

There are many people with spinal injury who have returned to work and are getting on with life, declares Whooley, who has been involved with Spinal Injuries Ireland since it was established 18 years ago. Figures show that about 25pc return to employment in some form.

“We want to make it very clear that Jackson Walsh’s storyline is not the norm,” he insists.

“There is a perception that when someone has a spinal injury they’re house-bound but if people are given the right information, support and the right opportunities they can return to an active lifestyle.”

An ‘Emmerdale’ spokesperson denied the programme was only showing the negative impact of living with spinal injury, adding that an “enormous amount of planning and research over the past 12 months” had gone into ensuring Jackson’s story was told with great care and integrity.

She could not confirm or deny speculation about future storylines.

“We have worked closely with a number of organisations and individuals who have advised us and had input into our scripts,” the spokeswoman said.

“Ultimately this story has always been about Jackson’s personal situation and feelings and not about tetraplegia itself. We are confident that it will continue to give a balanced and sensitive portrayal of his desperation and the conflict experienced by him and the people closest to him.”

There’s actually no correlation between the severity of an injury and a person’s psychological response to it, emphasises Dr Eimear Smith, consultant in rehabilitation medicine at the National Rehabilitation Hospital and the Mater Hospital.

“We’re all different psychologically. Sometimes those with more severe injuries will not be completely down and depressed. Sometimes a person with partial loss of their legs can become very down.

“People may feel very down and depressed when they realise what is happening initially but with support and a rehabilitation programme their mood improves,” she says.

“The vast majority of people who live with spinal cord injury simply do not envisage suicide as an answer.

“We have people who may have partial use of their arms and none of their legs, for instance.

“Yet they can live in the community with support from carers and return to work and can even return to driving and other leisure activities, such as wheelchair rugby and tennis. There’s always hope.

“I know people who have no movement below the neck and they’ve returned to work.

“We’re in the era of assistive technology and computers and the possibilities are endless.”

However, despite the help out there today, such a massive injury is extremely tough to confront and the implications tend to really hit home when a person leaves hospital, says Whooley.

“When you’re in rehab you’re surrounded by lots of other people who understand your needs but when you come home you could be the only person in your community with a spinal injury, which can be very daunting.

“Depression can set in. You’re very conscious of the huge change in your life.

“To some extent I understand where Jackson’s coming from. I can understand someone thinking that there’s no life after spinal injury, but the reality is that there is a life out there and it can be very fulfilling.

“I know people with a similar level of injury to him and they’re very active also,” says Whooley.

Currently one of the biggest challenges facing people with spinal injury who want to return to work is posed by the State.

“One of the biggest fears people have is that if they take up employment as a spinal injury victim they could lose their medical card,” says Whooley.

“I use a manual wheelchair which costs about €4,500. You can see someone would be reluctant to lose their medical card when expenses like that are involved.”

A substantial amount of people who have spinal injury have to use a wheelchair as well as special chairs or cushions, ancillary equipment and medication, he points out.

“From the individual point of view the medical card covers all of that.”

The prospect of losing the medical card in order to earn an income is a disincentive, he warns.

“People’s incomes can be affected when they lose the medical card because of the cost of ancillary equipment.

“We would like the Government to consider allowing someone with disability to retain their medical card to cover the specific needs of the injury unless they are on a very high salary.”

Spinal Injuries Ireland, 01 2355317, www.spinalinjuries.ie