Aging with a Spinal Cord Injury


Ageing – it’s a fact of life. Curtis Palmer
is a little worried about getting older with a spinal cord injury. Sholto, Grant, Tiffiney and Gabrielle have
each been in a wheelchair for more than 18 years. Like me they were young and sporty
when they broke their spines, they’ve simply got on with life but now the years are catching
up. This is my 18th year in a chair and I’m starting to freak out about what my next 20
years will be like. Just 60 years ago people with my level of spinal injury only lived
a few weeks beyond their accident, many people died of something as basic as a urinary tract
infection. Now they’ve pushed out life expectancy thanks to new technologies and new medicines. For me life after a spinal injury hasn’t
been too bad, all this considered I’ve been pretty lucky – I work out, I lead an active
lifestyle, I’ve got a great job but I still have to be careful. If I don’t take care of myself I could end
up with all sorts of medical and personal issues but what freaks me out the most is
losing my independence. Can I go now? Ahhhh I don’t know how she got here. Ok
I’m going to need some help! Grant Aitken broke his neck 22 years ago;
he’s what you class as a veteran. There’s no question the ageing process is now taking
its toll, Grant used to push himself around in a wheelchair, a loss of general strength
means he now relies heavily on his partner Harriet. It’s a fact that a spinal cord
injury combined with normal ageing means the body wears out faster. Probably 10 years ago I never would have seen
myself like this, I probably can’t last as long up in a chair as long as I did back
in the day, I used to go to bed at 11 or 12pm feeling relatively fresh but these days I
probably don’t last as long with age and weariness. The whole process of getting up
doing a day and then going to bed is still fairly substantial. And then there’s the plumbing, even 20 years
ago kidney failure was the big risk for people with spinal cord injury. Urinary tract infections
can do big damage but Grant has found a solution to that. I had a Supra Pubic catheter put in so that
gets changed monthly and you make sure you keep drinking fluids and every now and then
you get an infection which knocks you around but so long as you’re smart and careful… The good news is the progress we’ve seen,
take Zita (the mobility dog), these dogs weren’t around 20 years ago. Curtis: Hi mate Grant: Curtis/Zita Curtis: Hey Zita. Grant’s partner Harry has been his main
caregiver for 20 years, in that time Grant’s gone from being mostly independent to increasingly
dependent on her support. We met 20 odd years ago I guess, we’ve been
together all that time so she’s a special woman, if something happened to her I’d
be in dire straights not only physically but emotionally, we’re a pretty good team and
have got a pretty good understanding. I try and do as much as I can but the reality sets
in and you’ve got to think well am I going to sit here or not and accept these things
or rely on the help, that’s probably one of the toughest things you need to come to
term with I guess. Fortunately for Grant ACC recognized that
ageing would impact on his physical mobility and funded a new van. Grant can no longer
transfer in and out of the regular car but a flick of the ramp and up she goes into the
drivers seat – independence is retained. I think probably back when I had my accident
I may not have expected to last 30 years with what I knew back then, I knew very little
but I certainly didn’t look 30 years ahead but now I’m looking another 30 years ahead
because the last 30 have been so good really. You’ve got to be sensible; you’ve got
to be smart and certainly try things but don’t push yourself to limits that you can’t handle.
It was a big decision really to go from a manual chair to the power chair, I’ve been
30 years in the manual but yeah it’s been a change but I think one for the better. There’s
lots of things you can’t do but I tend to focus on what you can do and don’t hold
back really. Everyone’s skin gets thinner as they age.
For a person with a spinal injury this is critical particularly as the surfaces of every
part of your body is constantly rubbing as you transfer from zone to zone, bed to shower,
shower to chair or even chair to car. Think of a scratch say on my butt, if I choose
to ignore it well the chances are it could turn into a pressure sore and that means weeks
of painful bed rest – that’s the most demoralizing experience in the world and it
recently happened to my mate Sholto. Sholto’s been in a wheelchair for 18 years
(the same as me). We both played wheelchair rugby at a high level and endured intense
training sessions and generally thought we were invincible. Six weeks ago I was transferring into the
shower chair and it all went a little bit wrong and I came down heavy and it was only
a really small cut right on my backside bone and it was a really minor cut, the doctor
had a look at it and said “as long as you keep it clean you can go about your business”. Healing happens slower in a chair, the skin
gets thinner and fat layers are lost. The human body is designed to move and Sholto
has stayed as active as possible and that’s made a big difference however as the years
go by pressure sores become more of a risk. Well it got infected I imagine sort of five
weeks down the track and when I finally went on bed rest and by then the area had increased
dramatically, I had a staph infection in there so when I did go on bed rest it was looking
really bad and I was like “oh no you idiot what have you done?” I’ve seen pressure
areas and bed areas and trauma areas and know that they take at least months to heal, if
I’d taken maybe two or three days out of my training regime I probably would have healed
it up but at that stage my training regime was a really high priority to me and I was
feeling really good about it and I had goals and was focusing on the bigger picture and
sort of two days out of training just seemed like too bigger obstacle, you really need
to be vigilant and when you get those little things like that you really need to take care
of them straight away. I’ve been in bed for two weeks now; I’m
going a little bit stir crazy so I’m really paying the price for not being vigilant. When
I got up and was doing my rehab and mobilizing and there were a couple of guys that came
back to the spinal unit for various reasons and I was speaking to one of them and said
“how long have you been in a chair” and he said “12 years” and I was like “12
years! Wow that is a long time” and now I look back and time has gone by so quickly
and like I said 18 years down the track and I’m now looking at people that have been
in chairs for 30 plus and I’m seeing no reason why I’m not going to be in a wheelchair
at retirement age. Yep Sholto’s given me plenty to think about. Oh man Pilates, yoga, massage – it all sounds
a bit airy-fairy to me but at this stage I’m willing to do anything it takes to make sure
I stay healthy. I’m starting to think that wheelchair rugby is doing me more harm than
good; maybe I need to try something a little less stressful. Tiffiney is 41, she broke her spine water
skiing 18 years ago but she maintained her fitness and has represented New Zealand as
a tennis player and now as a hand cyclist, she’s convinced that’s the key to a long
and healthy life. Well I’m a firm believer in sport whether
you’re in a chair or not for your health so I think for flexibility and every day stuff
you’re always going to get in and out of cars, getting on and off beds if you don’t
have good strong upper body life’s going to be tricky. So I guess the one thing that I’ve noticed
especially after my shoulder operation is the range of movement in this arm, especially
the shoulder, it’s taking a long time to get back aye. I’ve just pretty much always been into sports
really, I think it’s pretty important for your mental and physical wellbeing, like I
had my accident playing sport but I probably had about five years off while I got married
and had a baby and it didn’t take me long to get back into it actually. Although Tiffiney is a total sports junkie
she also has to worry about the effects of ageing – scoliosis or curvature of the spine
is another factor and it affects half of adults in a chair. Scoliosis gives me a little bit of a worry,
I’ve got one shoulder that my spine sort of curves around that way and I predominantly
favour my right side and it’s so built up now so that was a slight worry when I first
got in a chair someone said “oh you’ve got to do this and that otherwise you’ll
be wheeling down the road with a hunch back” but so far so good. Partner Chris is also in a wheelchair; he’s
Mr Fix It. Keeps me fit and healthy, people comment that
I look fit and healthy so it’s what I do and it’s what I know. I’m fortunate enough
that I’ve represented New Zealand for tennis and hand cycling so I suppose I consider it
a bit more of a job at times. According to everyone that did my transfers
in Canada I don’t wait for three, I go on 2 1/2. Working out sure builds your upper body strength
but I worry – is it enough? What more can we do? Go along to a Chinese
herbalist…I hear they’re great…I think you worry too much Curt. Laughs Hommmmmmmmmmm hommmmmmmmmm Some say that by keeping a positive frame
of mind your live will generally be … well positive, I know very deep isn’t it but
can the power of the mind really affect how your life will turn out? Gabrielle has well and truly defied the odds,
she’s had 39 years in a wheelchair post accident – remember 30 years ago the expert
view was people could expect to live just 15 years post injury. She’s had virtually
no health issues and reckons teaching has given her a full life. So right from the very start when I had my
accident I knew that I had to make the most out of every opportunity. Is this Mrs Bateman’s classroom? Kids: Yes. Hi Gabrielle. Hi how are you Curtis? Good. So this is room 12. Hello everyone. Kids: Good afternoon Curtis and God Bless
You. 39 years I’ve been in a wheelchair, it doesn’t
seem that long though. I think it is the fact that I’m mobile and I think that must have
an effect on your well-being. My mind is certainly active because so much happens in a day and
I think that must lead towards good health as well. I had a foot in the door really because
I was in my first year at teachers college when I had my accident and so I had begun
my teacher training. It’s interesting though because initially I never ever thought I would
teach in front of a classroom…so I’m very lucky I work full time. I love what I’m
doing and every morning I just love getting out of bed and I enjoy the collegiality of
the teachers at the school here but most of all just the children. I have had a few little
hiccups along the way but my mother always taught me that when the days are bad it’s
always another day the next day so keep moving and try not to think too much about it and
enjoy the moment and enjoy the life at present…Although it is there in the back of your mind. Well I think that’s pretty good advice. I won’t lie to you, I’m still a little
nervous about my future but at least now I know what to expect. Life is what you make
it and being happy and healthy is really the key to live a longer and lasting future. CYA.

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