I was a healthy physiotherapist cycling to work when I was hit by a car – and suffered the injuries I used to treat
In November 2008 I was cycling through Greenwich Park as part of my daily commute to the Royal London hospital. I saw a car suddenly turn in front of me and I knew I couldn’t miss it. Time froze for an instant as I prayed for a miracle to save me. That is THE moment that changed me, no other moment has had such a profound impact on my life.
When I came to, I was underneath the car. Pins and needles raging through my four limbs. My neck was twisted, my breathing shallow. In vain I tried to move first my legs and then my arms. Nothing. As a physiotherapist who worked with trauma patients, I knew what this could mean: spinal cord injury, possible permanent paralysis. I asked the paramedics earnest questions: “What are my blood oxygen saturations? Blood pressure?” Strangely, I wasn’t in pain.
Firemen eventually hydraulically lifted the car off me. The air ambulance couldn’t fly due to inclement weather, so I was blue-lighted to the Royal London major trauma centre by an emergency ground ambulance.
On arrival I had x-rays and CT scans that showed the full extent of the impact: a crushed fourth vertebrae and damage to my spinal cord – the vital neural structure which relays both sensation and muscle commands to my arms and legs. The only option was to operate. Five hours after the accident, I was under general anaesthetic having bone taken from my hip and placed into my neck to reform my vertebrae.
I woke up in the trauma ward where I had spent the previous year working and treating patients. In a surreal transformation from healer to victim, I found myself looking up at my colleagues, now my carers, and hearing the gurgling of phlegm as I breathed. This time I was vulnerable: unable to move, feed or wash myself. As night fell, I waited for the nurses to come and help move me: please come, I whispered. The loss of control over basic body functions was terrifying. But I was determined to survive.
I thought: so this is what my patients go through.
The following day friends and family gathered. Bringing gifts, cards, well wishes. It was overwhelming to be on the receiving end of so much affection and compassion. In two days I was transferred to a rehabilitation unit at Stanmore spinal cord injury unit. Over the next 10 weeks I was put through the arduous physical rebuilding I used to help my patients with. I was now the focus of goal-setting meetings and exercise regimes. I felt oddly out of place and yet desperately needy.
As muscle activity slowly returned, my sense of self also started to return, but it was a version of me different from the original. I had scars. I felt weakness, pain, tiredness, anxiety, fear, dependency. My body had morphed into something I wasn’t sure I could ever rely on again.
It was over these weeks of hospital rehab that I came to accept that a physical job such as physiotherapy would be difficult – if not impossible – for me to return to. Five months after my accident I did attempt to return to work. I was assigned administrative duties and then some aspects of clinical work. But I crumbled, physically and emotionally.
In my hurry to return to work, I hadn’t processed the full emotional trauma of the accident. These feelings were made worse by my experience as a court witness of the Crown who were prosecuting the driver of the vehicle that ran me over. The Crown lost. I then wisely took a break from looking for work to process what I had been through.
And so what now? How changed am I? When people first meet me, they see someone who still looks fit and healthy. But if you followed me over a week, you’d spot the physical remnants of trauma: spasms, fatigue, pain, weakness, trips on pavements, slowly ascending stairs, standing unsteadily on the Tube platform, fighting back a panic attack.
Eventually, I found a way to stay in the profession I loved but not on the frontline. I have morphed into an academic, teaching the physiotherpists of the future at the University of East London. I miss helping patients of course, but I love inspiring students in a clinical practice which is essential to helping trauma patients rebuild their lives. And I share the insights I gained both at the hospital bedside and in the hospital bed!
By Alison Lyddon
Read more about Alison’s story and the experiences of other trauma survivors on AfterTrauma, a website with information and support for people recovering from traumatic injury.