Thursday, 23 August 2018 08:48

Transitory moments - 10 years on from spinal surgery

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It's almost a year since I found myself sat in Zermatt YHA, posting to social media that it was probably my last press trip. While the images showed spectacular views soaring over Zermatt on a tandem paraglide and taking on the descent from Schwarzsee to Zermatt the images were only half of the truth. The reality was I was sat on the edge of my bed, falling apart both physically and mentally. The adrenaline was wearing off from the day's action and the repercussions of a 9 year old injury were making their presence known big style.

A simple slip when descending the flanks of Skiddaw in 2009 had seemed innocuous enough at the time, it was only a couple of feet as the whole group took it in turns to disappear from sight as we found the drainage channels hidden by the chest high vegetation. Over the next few weeks I developed a range of symptoms from pins and needles in my left arm to an inability to fully control my left leg and balance. With a family history of heart problems the obvious concern was that I was continuing the family tradition of heart attacks - so it was off for a series of ECGs. As the symptoms progressed and the tests came back fine, first the heart scans and then blood tests for an unlikely vitamin deficiency all that was left was an MRI scan. The results of  the MRI would turn out to be life changing. High up in my neck the disc between the C3 and C4 vertebra had slipped through the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and was almost 50% of the way into my spinal cord. The pins and needles and unsteadiness were the result of nerves being cut or compressed and surgery was the only solution. Thanks to the neurosurgeons at Salford the immediate danger was averted by what's called an anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, where the disc is replaced with bone grafts or a synthetic replacement and the vertebrae on either side are fused , but the damage was already done. Nerves that had been compressed too far were irreparable and in the long tern the genetic degenerative disc disease that had helped cause the problem wasn't going to get any better.

c3 c4 acdf          post neck op

For the next two years I lived in hope, hope that the symptoms would go away as it could take that long for the nerves to find new pathways and connections, and the next three years being angry. I was angry at the important things in my life being "taken away" from me as the neurosurgeon finally confirmed that not only was the damage permanent but that I'd never walk more than the 20 - 50 metres I was achieving through the pain. The mountains that had been my playground were no longer an option, the caving and climbing were consigned to history and it wasn't fair! But as anyone who knows me will tell, I don't like being told what I can and can't do and my anger propelled me, 20m by 20m at a time up Snowdon just a couple of days later, stopping between each short burst of walking to control the pain. I wasn't about to let a simple injury define me.


I'd just left Outdoors Magic after 5 years as the financial crash began to bite and faced the double whammy of losing both the mountains and a large chunk of my contacts list. In the outdoors things move so fast that just a year out will have seen the world move on and leave you behind. A 6 month stint re-writing product descriptions for a web retailer kept me involved in the industry but when that came to an end the choices were limited. Through a quirk of fate, however, I found a new destination and MyOutdoors was born. To the outside world it was as if nothing had happened; the thin scar on the front of my neck was fading and visibly I looked no different than before the operation.

The reality, however, was much as it is for the majority of people living with an invisible disability. The symptoms were still there despite throwing everything the NHS has in its armoury at it from hypnosis to acupuncture, meditation to medication and I learned to function with a level of pain that would previously floored me. I adapted and I became adept at hiding it. I walked close to walls when out, positioned seats around the house to lean on when it all got a bit too much; I was always within arms-length of something to support me as I refocused my mind on the single task of controlling the pain. Photo stops became a smokescreen for when I could no longer carry-on and hiding the reality became second nature.

Initially MyOutdoors was just that. My outdoors. Nothing more than a means to an end; an end that saw me keep contact with friends and contacts developed over decades. It wasn't about the money it was about keeping a vestige of the life I'd had before, combining my years of journalism and love of the outdoors. As time moved on, however, the workload grew and grew. I was getting products for review that I was no longer fit to use and I turned to friends to help out. One became two, then three and four and as the team grew so did the commitments. Though team members were reimbursed for their efforts with keeping the kit they reviewed I felt a degree of responsibility I'd never had outside of bringing my boys up on my own from infancy. A moral responsibilty to the team and a professional responsibility to the brands and PRs we worked with.

MyOutdoors logo 650 x 195

The rewards weren't financial, the outdoor industry and PRs in particular are loathe to redistribute the wealth downwards while always greedy for the publicity we could give, but it gave me new opportunities, new goals and new hope. As the reviews became increasingly assigned to team members it became easier to hide the daily grind of spending the first hour of each day throwing up while the pain-killers kicked in and the mental concentration of holding the 24/7 symptoms at bay. But I also learned to stop being angry! Sure there were things I could no longer do but I learned to appreciate the fact that I had done them; looking around me I knew that 99% of people I saw around town as I leaned against a wall would never have the privildge of experiencing a fraction of what I'd done while I could. Just as importantly it helped me realise the mountains didn't have to stay out of bounds - there were countless adventures I'd never had before because my time was taken up with the others that I'd chosen to pursue. So I couldn't climb a mountain, but with gravity on my side I could still find new ways to get down if some man-made contraption could get me up there.

Chamonix AdM bridge

And so I found new adventures in my mid 50s. Through MyOutdoors I took my first tandem paraglides over Chamonix and Zermatt, did a skydive over the Eiger and learned to balance, if temporarily, on a pair of skis in Austria and Switzerland. Where a summer ski-lift will allow mountain bikes on board I've tried out singletracks in the Alps and with a battery on-board I've been able to ebike the valleys; and throughout it all I've been able to hide the reality of 24/7 pins and needles in my arms, the hypersensitivity that send shocks through my arms if I lay them on certain surfaces, the loss of feeling in one leg from time to time and the loss of a big chunk of lung capacity. 


Furi 1 

The daily grind hasn't changed, especially 14 hour days on press trips and so I found myself in Zermatt YHA, on a press trip, and posting .....

"For the last year in my mind each and every one of these trips is my last. In the build up to each trip I question why I'm going and if someone else should be in my place. It's hard, very hard as each step hurts and the travelling alone can leave me exhausted. At home, in front of the PC I don't need to hide the pain but on a press trip I have a professional duty not to let it show. Thankfully Swiss Tourism make it easier for me with custom trips where I'm usually supplied with passes and vouchers but essentially left to myself. It means when I need to stop for a break I can, and when the adrenaline out balances the pain and limitations of my body I can still find adventures. I may climb steps counting in 50s before a break but just being in the mountains is special; the perception of pain lowers and even the tinnitus of the last few months eases. Each trip means pushing my limits in a way I wish I'd done 30 years ago, and this one is no exception. As with every trip of the last 18 months I see this one as my last and like its predecessors it's increasingly likely that it will be the last adventure. If it is I'll miss the trips and pushing the boundaries, but my duty as a professional demands I give value for my presence. If it's not my last trip that will be down to the mountains' ability to inspire, to medicate both physically and mentally and to educate. Either way it's been a privilege and if it does come to an end there will be no regrets."

Almost a year on, and approaching a decade of disability, and I've been to Switzerland again; this time on bikes, karts and ziplines. The little team of friends helping to review products has grown to 17 and where there were one or two press trips a year it's grown to a dozen or more spread around our merry band. I've learned to accept my limitations without surrendering totally; accepting the trips I can still do while allocating the ones I can't to others. I'm no longer angry with the world and while there's a twinge of jealousy as I see Alan or Bryn, Jessie or Katy head off for the adventures I once dreamed of it's now only a minor frustration. In learning to value what I have done, rather than regretting what I can't do, I've learned to come to terms with disability - or ability limitation as I prefer to see it. Thinking about it, the time comes to us all when the mind is willing but the body says no. It's hard, unbelievably hard, to the point that you find yourself going through the same same five stages of the Kübler-Ross model of grief - Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. Denial that the pins and needles were anything but poor circulation, anger at the loss of what I used to do, Bargaining in the first 2 years post-op that there was still time for the nerves to heal, depression at the perceived lack of meaning in life without what made your life worthwhile and finally acceptance of the new reality.

It's a process.....but it's a process where those of us who spend our lives in the outdoors have an advantage. That stubbornness that drives us the final miles of a long walk uphill or past the crux of a climb can be our ally in setting our own goals not those imposed on us. A doctor may say "never again" but a doctor only knows what the average outcome is, he or she doesn't know the individual makeup that pushed to your goals before and will again. Society may give you a Blue Badge and write you off, but what does society know? It's the same society that doesn't understand why you wanted to climb mountains in the first place. Society defines us by what we are and what we have, but we define ourselves by what we do. In regretting the things we can no longer do we undervalue ourselves and the things we have done while simultaneously limiting our future opportunities.

Living with an ability limitation, whether mental or physical, places demands on us and there's a natural instinct to hide it from others, I know- I live it every day, because we don't want it to define us. But part of acceptance has to include no longer hiding your limitation. To a person with a mental illness or an invisible physical disability this is the biggest emotional risk we'll ever take and as hard as any summit we've ever reached. When I walked up Snowdon, days after being told I'd never do it again, I stopped every 10 or 20 steps and if anyone was approaching I'd make it look as though I'd stopped to take a photo or look at some plants rather show I was struggling but I was still somewhere between anger and bargaining at that point. To still be hiding it a year ago wasn't acceptance, to finally reach acceptance I had to accept the value of my past gave my future value. In adventure everything is transitory but I needed to learn to value the transitory, it's what's left when everything else has gone. We never know when everything we think we are is going to be taken away from us, either physically or mentally, but when it does come it's the memory of those transitory moments that will support us and provide a solid link between who we were and who we are.

Tandem paraglide 2

Without valuing the past I wouldn't have experienced so much in the last few years, fulfilling dreams I didn't even know I had.