EVERY Thursday, Keira Procter makes a 60-mile round trip, by car and ferry to visit patients in the spinal injuries unit at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow.
Keira, who lives in Dunoon thinks nothing of giving up her own time to help others – one of the reasons she has been named as Spinal Injuries Scotland Volunteer of the Year.
Since she broke her spine at the age of 19, Keira has let nothing get in her way – learning to drive, following motorsport, going to music festivals and even offering to abseil down the Hilton Hotel.
Dougy Johnston, peer support manager at the unit, who broke his spine in a motorcycle accident says 27-year-old Keira is worthy of the award.
“For Keira to give up her own time and for the other volunteers to give up their own time is a wonderful thing,” he says. “We can understand the rehabilitation process whereas most able bodied have no idea. There are dignity problems with spinal injuries. Being in a wheelchair is one thing, but there are incontinence issues and major issues around skin. If you can’t feel your skin you can develop pressure sores.”
Spinal Injuries Scotland say there are 3,000 people with spinal injuries in Scotland, with an average of 180 new cases a year. Many of those affected will spend time in the Southern General – a flagship treatment centre for patients with spinal injuries. As well as 48 beds, including 12 high dependency places, there is a rehabilitation unit where patients can learn mobility skills and practice independent living. The unit also has accommodation for families who have travelled to spend time with injured relatives.
Johnston says there are many misconceptions about spinal injury: “Everyone thinks spinal injuries are caused by traumatic events – like road traffic accidents and rugby accidents. That is not the case – the most common cause is falls.”
In Keira’s case, she broke her spine in a car crash
She explains: “I was wearing a lap belt and I was asleep in the car. I was thrown forward. Straight away I knew something was wrong because I couldn’t move my legs.”
At the time, Keira was an active, sporty girl and her dream was to go to sea with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary. Instead, she was to spend her 20th birthday and the next five months in Inverclyde Hospital.
The lap belt had snapped her spine and severed her spinal cord, and Keira also suffered a perforated bowel and two blow out fractures on her face.
Her internal injuries were repaired, a metal plate was fixed around her damaged vertebrae and she had several plastic surgery operations on her facial injuries.
“More or less from day one I was told I wouldn’t walk again,” she says. “I remember how it felt. I don’t think that is something you ever forget. You think ‘I’m not going to be able to do anything again’. You think your life is over.”
Coming to terms with the accident was also hard for her family and friends: “My mum and dad had to put a ramp and decking around the house so I could get into it. We are just the sort of family who take what’s coming to us and who get on with it,”
When the house had been fitted out for Keira’s needs she was able to return home, but the rehabilitation continued: “Everything is different, cooking, showering, getting your balance is difficult,” she says.
Keira enjoyed a massive boost when she learned to drive and became the owner of specially adapted car: “That made a huge difference. Now if I want to do something I can just get in my car and go.”
After just over two years at home, Keira decided she was ready to live on her own. “Now I’m completely independent,” she says. “I can’t change a lightbulb, but I can do just about everything else. I live on my own I look after my dog. There isn’t much I have not been able to do over the last seven years.”
In 2003, Keira volunteered to abseil down the Hilton Hotel to raise money for Spinal Injuries Scotland, and since learning to drive she has developed a passion for cars and motor racing.
“I’ve done so many things since my accident. I’ve done abseiling, sailing, motorsport. I went to the first Connect Festival I went on the McRae Gathering – the convoy in tribute to Colin McRae. We broke the world record for the most number of cars in a still photograph.”
It means a lot to her to show others that a spinal injury, while it makes life tougher, is not the end of the world. “I often end up talking to the younger lads because they are into their cars. They don’t realise they will be able to drive so that is a big thing for them. It is good to know you have made a difference in someone else’s life.”
Keira will receive her award at a ceremony at the Old Course Hotel in St Andrews on 15 May, which is also Spinal Injuries Awareness Day. Although she is delighted to have been given the accolade, Keira refuses to see herself as anything special.
“I just get up every day and get on with it,” she says.
By Claire Smith