‘I took control of my life’

Published: May 4, 2009  |  Source: theherald.co.uk
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full1100579lifeThere can’t be many men who don’t go to their own weddings. But that’s what happened to Peter Joyce on his big day in 1985. As his wife-to-be Anne-Marie walked up the aisle of the church, Peter was several miles away lying in a hospital bed. More than 20 years later, Peter tells me how gutted he was to miss the ceremony but then, with a broad grin, he delivers the punchline: “How many grooms do you know get to spend their wedding night with four women dressed in nurses’ uniforms?”

It is typical of the way Peter describes the important moments of his life, even how he ended up in hospital in the first place. Peter was only 20 years old when he severed his spinal cord in an accident while out swimming. He was a trainee with Christies in Glasgow, but like anyone his age his life revolved around his friends. In July 1983, his parents, who lived in Irvine, told him they were heading off for a camping holiday in Arisaig. Peter jumped in his car and joined them.

He remembers how that summer day panned out. “I got to the campsite, pitched the tent and said: I’m off’. I went down to the beach, my brother was already there, standing in the water, and I took a run down to the water and dived in. And that was it. My head caught on the bottom and snapped the vertrebrae.”

Peter was conscious throughout everything that happened next. There was no pain then, he remembers, only later. He struggles to recall the details of those seconds and hours, but understands what those in critical situations say about their life flashing before them. “It was like a book and you flick the pages and get little glimpses of images,” he says. “I was lying face down and my brother Gerry thought I was larking around. But when he turned me over he realised something wasn’t right and got me out of the water.”

Peter was taken to hospital in Fort William. He doesn’t know when he realised what the consequences of that summer dive would be. There was only a gradual realisation. For eight months, he lay in hospital. It’s obvious as we speak in the front room of his house in Stevenston, Ayrshire, that Peter’s default setting is cheerfulness, but even he struggled sometimes to be upbeat during those months.

“I’m from a big family who always kept me up,” he says, “but there would be days when I would be down and there were days when I was p***** off.”

As a tetraplegic, he has no movement below the chest; all four limbs are paralysed and he cannot lift or move his fingers, so the house had to be adapted to his needs. His mother and father reacted in different ways. “My mum would put holy water on my hands and arms and feet and say: You never know’, despite me being a devout atheist. But if it helped my mother, it was ok.”

Peter’s dad on the other hand coped differently; a father and son who used to spend little time together now sat and watched movies together and bonded.

It was at this stage that Peter and his wife-to-be Anne-Marie, pictured below, got together. Anne-Marie had been his girlfriend before the accident and came round to see him more and more after it happened. They were engaged in 1984 and set a date for 1985. A few weeks before the wedding, Peter had an operation then a few days before he started bleeding and was taken into hospital. The day before the wedding, the consultant was honest with him: “You’re going nowhere.”

“We decided the wedding would go ahead,” says Peter. They were married in an office at the Victoria Hospital in Glasgow and Anne-Marie went up the aisle herself for a blessing. The reception went ahead too. “They tell me it was a very good night,” says a grinning Peter.

Peter, who is 45 now, and Anne-Marie had two children, Lise, who is now 18, and Megan, 15. Eventually, the couple separated in 2003. “You stagnate for a while and that can creep into a long time,” he says. “Life had become routine. I took control of my life.” Peter attended a meeting of Spinal Injuries Scotland, the organisation that offers support to people with spinal cord injuries. From there, he became a volunteer and is now a director. He regularly goes into the spinal unit at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow and speaks to people with similar injuries.

“We see a range of reactions. Some people do not want anything to do with us; others really appreciate our input and being able to talk.”

Peter’s house in Stevenston is open-plan on the ground floor so he can get around easily in his powered wheelchair and he has four carers who look after him. Four years ago he advertised for a new carer and Maggie Crawford got the job. “I was working for an agency and was employed to go into homes and do care assessments,” she says. “One day my boss said: There’s somebody I want you to meet.’ ”

Maggie, 44, got the job and about a year later she and Peter became partners. “We’ve been together for four years and I’m still Peter’s main carer,” she says Last week, they went to London to try to get action on an issue they feel needs addressed. Peter believes those with spinal cord injuries should be entitled to the winter fuel allowance. “With a spinal injury, the thermostat is bust,” he says “you have no control.” However, the allowance is only payable to the over-60s. In an effort to get change, Peter and Maggie met Jonathan Shaw, Minister for the Disabled.

“He didn’t say no, but he didn’t say yes,” says Peter, but he feels there was progress all the same. He is hopeful he and SIS can marshal their arguments for the next stage of the campaign.

In the meantime, Peter is committed to the work he does week in, week out for SIS. “I have almost found my niche in life,” he says. His latest project is working on converting a farm in Milngavie which has been bequeathed to SIS; Peter hopes it will provide a place of respite for those with spinal injuries and their families. He might even get a chance to stay there himself. He deserves it.

Where to get help

Around 3000 people in Scotland live with spinal cord injury and Spinal Injuries Scotland offers help and support to them, their relatives and friends.SIS provides an information service at their office in Govan, Glasgow, and representatives contact all those who request assistance. SIS also has a legal and welfare rights advisory service through Digby Brown solicitors.

SIS does not offer medical advice, but deals with information, advice, support and education for people with a spinal cord injury and their carers.

To coincide with Spinal Injuries Awareness Day on Friday May 15, SIS is holding the second Spinal Injuries Scotland Awards at the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews.

Visit www.sisonline.org.