We explore the scientific breakthroughs giving new hope to those with spinal cord injuries.
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
IN THE VOID LIVES DARKNESS,
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 ’”