We ex­plore the sci­en­tific break­throughs giv­ing new hope to those with spinal cord in­juries.

GQ (Australia) - - CONTENTS -

a space framed by fear given the ques­tion­ing, given hope’s been cast to the cor­ner. Fear’s here now. Fear’s driv­ing this nar­ra­tive. Perry Cross stares down the void as he lays mo­tion­less – a crum­pled and con­torted hu­man shape sloped across a Bris­bane rugby pitch. The growl­ing, gut­tural sounds of 30 heav­ing young men, sounds that were sec­onds ear­lier swirling across the famed Bal­ly­more field, are now re­placed by si­lence; the pad­dock stood still, as one. Cross looks to those now hud­dled above – those look­ing back, con­fu­sion lin­ing their faces. A rush of thought ar­rives. It quickly di­vides life into ‘then’ and ‘now’ – a sim­ple di­a­gram dis­sect­ing what was and what’s per­haps to come. There is no pain. Ab­sent, too, feel­ing – the hid­den surges of elec­tric­ity that power the body gone from be­low the se­cond rower’s chin. Cross, then 19, was play­ing as part of a ju­nior Queens­land rep­re­sen­ta­tive team – mix­ing it with those who’d go on to rep­re­sent club, state and coun­try. He’d long been fin­gered as a fu­ture tal­ent. But on this day in 1994, as­pi­ra­tion gave in to ap­pre­hen­sion. “I’d picked the ball up at the back of a ruck and was then tack­led and another ruck formed. I felt the pres­sure and knew I was in a bad po­si­tion and then, when the ruck broke up, I couldn’t move,” recalls Cross. “I was lay­ing on the ground and I knew – I knew I’d bro­ken my neck. I just lay there think­ing, ‘This is paral­y­sis, this is what it feels like, this is what it is.’ I mean, I’d never re­ally paid too much at­ten­tion in sci­ence classes, or to my body and how things work, but I knew right then that I was paral­ysed.” The am­bu­lance took its time. And while mates even­tu­ally found voice (“you’ll be right, Pez; things will be OK, mate, you’ll see”), Cross lurched fur­ther into thoughts about his predica­ment. “I re­mem­ber lay­ing there and will­ing my­self to move – want­ing to move and prove that, ‘Yeah, ev­ery­thing was go­ing to be OK.’ But I couldn’t. I couldn’t move. And time just dragged and dragged – even­tu­ally the am­bos came, but wait­ing for them, I mean, it seemed to take for­ever. I just kept think­ing, ‘This is my life now – this is what my life is, this is what it’s go­ing to be like.’” Cross woke from an in­duced coma in a Bris­bane hos­pi­tal a few days later. He’d been op­er­ated on, a ven­ti­la­tor breath­ing for him. It was a grey pe­riod, he ad­mits, a pe­riod of fog wrapped by fur­ther re­flec­tion about what the fu­ture held, what it would look like. He doesn’t re­call the phras­ing doc­tors used to ex­plain his in­jury – left a C2 quad­ri­plegic; that is, an abil­ity to only feel his face. “It was a groggy time, be­ing in hos­pi­tal af­ter the break. You wake up, you see all these peo­ple around you, but you don’t fully know what’s go­ing on and they’re not sure how cog­ni­tive you are and what you can un­der­stand. “And no one re­ally com­mu­ni­cates with you at that time… You’re there, feel­ing un­cer­tain about ev­ery­thing. You’re won­der­ing, ‘What am I ever go­ing to do; what am I re­ally go­ing to do?’ Ev­ery­thing looked pretty bleak – be­cause, at that point, you have no hope for the fu­ture.” The spinal cord is a group of nerves pro­tected by the ver­te­brae of the spine – its main func­tion, to send sig­nals to the brain from other re­gions of the body. Spinal cord in­jury (SCI) is dam­age to the spinal cord that re­sults in changes to its func­tion – ei­ther tem­po­rary or per­ma­nent. Such changes can mean a loss of sen­sa­tion, mus­cle func­tion and be­yond. De­pend­ing on the lo­ca­tion and sever­ity of the in­jury, symp­toms vary – from pain to paral­y­sis. About 12,000 Aus­tralians live with se­vere SCI – with 350 to 400 new cases re­ported each year. While for some the in­jury comes


as the re­sult of dis­ease – po­lio, spina bi­fida, ma­lig­nant spinal cord com­pres­sion, trans­verse myeli­tis, Friedre­ich’s ataxia – most are the re­sult of trau­matic in­jury re­sult­ing from an ac­ci­dent. Mo­tor ve­hi­cle-re­lated in­ci­dents claim 46 per cent of those, 28 per cent are the re­sult of falls, nine per cent are as­so­ci­ated with be­ing hit or struck by an ob­ject, nine per cent are wa­ter-re­lated and eight per cent are so-called “other causes” (such as that which oc­curred to Cross). The glar­ing statis­tic in all of this, be­yond the an­nual $2bn such in­juries cost, is that 84 per cent of SCI suf­fer­ers are men, and of that, in­jury is most com­mon among those aged 15 to 24. Let those last num­bers linger a lit­tle. Let them re­turn you to that age or dwell on it for a se­cond if those dig­its are here, now. Ac­knowl­edge the luck at­tached to your time run­ning through early ado­les­cence and adult­hood, with great aban­don and a pulse for finding fun at the ex­pense of any thought about per­sonal harm. Be­cause that’s what these years are about. They’re about first ex­pe­ri­ences and fly­ing a lit­tle too close to the sun. They’re about jump­ing off bridges and rocks into dark­ened waters, about bomb­ing steep roads on the loose trucks of a mate’s skate­board, about scal­ing three storeys to get in through an open win­dow on re­al­is­ing you’re locked out fol­low­ing five hours in the pub, of de­cid­ing to go for a swim and catch­ing a wave that pitched un­usu­ally, of own­ing a mo­tor­bike or run­ning out, proudly, to play a game of rep footy, yearn­ing to set in place a life that could one day mean wear­ing the green and gold of the Wal­la­bies. A very good friend of mine had his life al­tered by seek­ing out fun one day. At a set of traf­fic lights in sub­ur­ban Perth, another car of friends pulled up – en route to a day of skurf­ing on the Swan River. That day, my mate de­cided to ditch his stud­ies in favour of some wa­tery amuse­ment – it was the clos­ing months of sum­mer, the wa­ter was still warm. Why not? Af­ter a few runs on the river, he caught a wide turn and on run­ning back be­hind the boat, fell head­first. He sur­faced, slowly, face down, float­ing. While those in the boat thought he’d knocked him­self out, he was con­scious, breath­ing in wa­ter, un­able to move. He’d smacked his head on a sub­merged, shal­low and un-sign­posted sand­bank – his neck in­stantly bro­ken and feel­ing in his body lost. He’d have drowned that day were it not for some quick think­ing and knowl­edge of CPR. Like Cross, my friend spent eight months in re­hab, on a hos­pi­tal’s ded­i­cated spinal ward. He was sur­rounded by guys just like him – those who’d re­cently come to lose pos­ses­sion of their fu­ture; that is, a fu­ture of their choos­ing. Pain and fear lurked in the eyes of each of the young men on that ward – lost to those same thoughts of not know­ing, ‘what if?, ‘what now?’. Tears, mean­while, were shed, daily, by even the hard­est among them – and my mate has long re­called the howl­ing sobs some used to tire them­selves into a sliver of sleep at night. Walk­ing the cor­ri­dors each visit was trau­matic. For those un­able to do so, for the pa­tients con­fined to the lino in­te­ri­ors and acidic stench of fear and dis­in­fec­tant, things were, of course, much worse. It’s a level of pain and a sit­u­a­tion that leads many to deep, pound­ing de­pres­sion – and it’s why sui­cide rates among those with se­vere spinal cord in­jury, es­pe­cially young men, dwarf al­ready high na­tional rates. Num­bers in Aus­tralia may be blurry, though in the US the rate is three times higher than the av­er­age. Cross is quick to skip over his time on the ward. He’ll ad­mit to hard­ships, to his mind rapidly beat­ing to thoughts about ‘what’s left?’. While laid up, he set him­self a goal to be out by Christ­mas. And so he was – head­ing for a newly built home with his par­ents on Christ­mas Eve. “It was tough… yeah, it was tough. But I was adamant I wasn’t go­ing to be there for Christ­mas – I didn’t want those mem­o­ries, be­cause mem­o­ries from events like that, they stick with you. And so I got out, but things still looked bleak. And to be hon­est, it wasn’t re­ally un­til I got some mo­bil­ity [a mo­torised wheel­chair con­trolled by his chin and which in­cor­po­rates his ven­ti­la­tor so as to reg­u­late and en­able breath­ing – think Christo­pher Reeve] and was able to get out in the com­mu­nity and then en­rol in univer­sity that I was able to so­cialise and to feel some­thing. Be­cause, uni’s great, right? It’s fun – and it’s what re­ally gave me a leg up.” Cross forms those words with cheeky pur­pose. For all he’s had to en­dure – the dis­com­fort, re­al­i­sa­tion and aus­tere times at­tached to in­jury – he’s also one of the most pos­i­tive and up­beat peo­ple you could meet. Funny as fuck, too. “I was the class clown and that hu­mour, it flows with you no mat­ter what,” he says. “And I feel it’s helped me over­come a lot of the chal­lenges and things I’ve faced – some­times you can’t not look at things with a light heart, oth­er­wise it’d re­ally get you down.”

“I just lay there think­ing, ‘This is paral­y­sis, this is what it feels like, this is what it is ’”

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