CRPS & Di

It has to be said, when I drove in to work on the 6th September 2011, I could never have foreseen how that one shift was going to change my life forever.  I worked as a truck driver delivering dairy products across the south west of England. Most deliveries were fairly routine and to large supermarkets.  Mostly I delivered trolley’s of milk, each one weighing approximately 1/4 of a ton.  In any given shift I would deliver between 15 and 30 tons of milk to a number of stores.

On the 6th September 2011 I was doing a round that I had done so many times before.  The only real difference was the truck I was driving.  It was a hire vehicle.  I set off on my rounds and made the first drop no problem at all.  The second delivery was to a sloped bay.  I backed up to the delivery point as usual, jumped in to the back of the truck to unload, and pushed the first trolley up on to the tail lift.  I only had a part load as I had to return to the depot to fill up again to finish the round at one of the large Southampton supermarkets.  This meant that I had to walk down the inside of the truck to collect the second of twelve trolleys.  I heard nothing due to the noise of people working inside the delivery bay, but as I turned with the second trolley and was ready to push it up the slope and on to the tail lift, I saw the first trolley within a couple of feet of me.  It had rolled off the tail lift and had picked up some speed on the slope.  It smashed in to the trolley I was holding, forcing the second trolley back and up in to me.  The force of the impact hit my shin, before dragging down my shin and on to my ankle.  When the action had stopped I was pinned by two trolley’s and my back had hit the remaining trolleys behind me.

It took a great deal of effort to get the two trolleys off me.  I rubbed my shin and finished the delivery.  At the next store I was very lucky because their fridges were down so they refused the delivery.  I say I was lucky because that store was one of the more awkward deliveries on this particular round and required that each trolley was rolled by hand backwards down a sloped pavement in order to gain access to the store.  It was difficult at the best of times, but with an ankle/shin that had just collided with a 1/2 ton of milk, I reckon it would have been that much more difficult.

Nonetheless, I drove back to the depot and collected 58 trolleys of milk to deliver to the large Southampton supermarket.  This drop was a contentious drop, so I saw no point in stating that I was injured as it would have been viewed as an excuse not to do the drop.  Thanks to modern trucks having cruise control and being either automatic or semi-autos, the driving part was the easiest part of the job.  I was kept waiting at the store for over an hour before being able to unload.  That time spent waiting around seemed to allow the injury to get worse.  I struggled like I have never struggled before to unload all 58 trolleys and reload another 50 or so empty trolleys.  By the time I got back to the depot again I could barely move or walk.  The adrenalin that had kept me going had finally run out.

IMG_0188My car also had cruise control.  By the time I got home that night my partner had to come out to the car to help me get in to the house.  Work had kept me standing at the depot whilst they took an accident report from me.  The bruising had already started to go a very deep purple, and as predicted by the shift supervisor taking the accident report, I was unfit for work the next day. The photo to the left was taken when I got home, and due to the poor light, doesn’t really show it well.

I’ve gone in to a lot of the detail of the accident here to highlight how active I was prior to my accident.  I saw the doctor the day after and was advised to rest, Ice, Compress and Elevate the leg for two weeks.  With no progress after two weeks of RICE I asked for physio.  Before I could have physio I had to go for an xray.  At this point I was advised they believed my leg was fractured.  After another month I was advised it wasn’t fractured, but the base of my fibula had a problem.  It wasn’t until July 2012 that I actually got a diagnosis for the problem with my leg.

IMG_0394Those initial 10 months were probably the easiest, strange as that may seem.  At no point during them did I ever doubt that I would make a full recovery.  I did have to come to terms with the possibility that my leg would have to be amputated below the knee, but in truth, that seemed like an option that would rid me of the problem, so was met with quiet concern, but not depression.  When the diagnosis actually was made I had quite an array of symptoms.  My toes would cramp at any time of the day and night.  I couldn’t, and still can’t, bend my big toe.  I couldn’t walk without serious pain.  I couldn’t cope with anything or anyone touching my shin/ankle area.  My foot would go ice cold for no reason.  My ankle, foot and shin would swell up like an elephants foot.  I was a mess.  A mess full of hope!

I was diagnosed with CRPS (Complex Regional Pain Syndrome) after a succession of MRI’s, Ultrasounds and xrays, and a full 10 months after the accident.  The first thing I did when I got home from the diagnosis was ask Google what it meant.  The news wasn’t good.  76% of people with the condition never make a full recovery, and, even after a period of being symptom-free, it could come back at any time.  It was at that point that I wished that the fracture diagnosis had been correct and I cried.

That’s a normal reaction for me.  I receive bad news and get all maudlin about it for a time, then I get bloody-minded, and from that point there is truly no going back!  It was decided that I would be amongst the 24% that did make a full recovery from the condition and I would not become a victim to the diagnosis.  After the correct diagnosis was made I was issued with an AirMax Walker boot, given crutches, and sent for physio, hydrotherapy and counselling.

DSCF1365The AirMax boot made an instant impact on my condition as I could walk with crutches and largely without pain.  I’d spent time in a wheelchair, but in truth, it wasn’t very much time.  I only used it 3 times.  Once to go to the postbox on the corner of our street.  This was a nightmare due to the camber of the footpath at peoples driveways, people being parked on the pavement, and ultimately having to wheel myself along the road in order to make the trip.  The second time my partner pushed me around Southsea promenade and I couldn’t cope with my perspective being the same as when I was a 10 year old, being so close to the pavement, and the looks of people wondering why I was in a wheelchair.  The third time was by far the best!  We were visiting Cornwall and went to the Eden Project.  Although I had all the same issues as at Southsea, when we got to the shop at the end of the day, it had a lovely smooth floor and I could tear-arse around all on my own.

Making the decision to be in the 24% pushed me at each and every physio and hydrotherapy session.  So much so, I was invited to be a case study for the physio department due to my condition being relatively unknown, and because of the determination that I approached my recovery with.  This led to me having a 9 on 1 hydrotherapy session and a question and answer session with all 9 of the physio’s.  I mention this because it did wonders for my confidence and to reaffirmed my commitment to being in that elite 24% once more.

The counselling was to help me come to terms with my change in life circumstance, and to deal with the issues of being diagnosed long-term disabled.  As I simply wouldn’t accept that I was going to be disabled long-term, most of the sessions were used dealing with some historical issues that had led me to be depressed and suicidal for many years of my younger adult life, and still lingered in the background waiting for an opportunity to come back and haunt me.  My counsellor changed my life again.  I am now totally at one with myself, no longer haunted by my past, and perfectly able to talk about those dark times almost as if they happened to someone else.

12 months after the diagnosis of CRPS I got married to my childhood sweetheart.  I was determined that I would get married without the AirMax boot and walked down the aisle on my fathers arm with nothing but some hefty strapping.  It was a real moment of triumph for me.  At the evening reception I did wear the boot, but this was so that I could dance the night away with all my friends and family, without ever having to sit a dance out due to the CRPS.  I look back on our wedding day and feel a real sense of achievement.  I paid for it for a couple of days after the wedding, but that was a price definitely worth paying.  During the week that we were in Cornwall getting married we made another huge decision.  We decided that we would buy land in Cornwall and build a smallholding together.  Up to that point we were considering land in Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Yorkshire, but getting married in Cornwall made it feel like the right place for us to build our dream there.

Building our dream together had been a discussion long before my accident happened, and after the accident our dreams were shelved whilst we discovered if my positive mental attitude could truly overcome a condition with such poor recovery rates.  Walking down the aisle with just some heavy strapping to support my ankle was proof enough for me, that when I put my mind to something I can indeed make it happen.  Two months later we offered on the land that is now known as Axe Head Farm.  The deal went through in December 2013 and in January 2014 we moved from Hampshire to Cornwall.

photo 2Making the decision to be in the 24% of people to make something of a recovery from a diagnosis of CRPS was my first landmark decision in my rehabilitation.  The second was deciding to get married without the aid of my AirMax boot.  This led to the third, buying some land to turn in to a smallholding.  The fourth decision was to get my faithful smallholders dog, Bob.  Of all the three previous decisions, getting Bob was probably the one that saw my recovery come on leaps and bounds.  Once we had the land in Cornwall and had moved here, Bob was just about to be clear of his injections and ready to be walked daily.  At first we did little walks around the 1st field here at the farm, then we moved up to fields 1 and 2, until eventually we were able to walk round all three fields.  A distance of just over a mile.  This worked well for us both.  I recall at one point excitedly texting Adrian to tell him that we’d walked all three fields twice, then three times, and then four times.  All of this was achieved due to my positive mental attitude, Bob needing to be walked, and all without the aid of the AirMax boot!

IMG_1512The last time I used the AirMax boot was on the evening of 15th May 2014 when we went to see the Kernow King at the Minack Theatre at Porthcurno.  I remember it well, because when the tickets were purchased by our friends Tim and Harriet and I realised what kind of venue the Minack was, I asked Tim to get the tickets altered to disabled seating as I wasn’t confident I’d cope with all the steps.  By the date of the performance I felt like something of a fraud, sat comfortably in the disabled area with my friends, realising that due to my own efforts and the timely arrival of Bob in my life, I could have taken any seat in the venue with no worries at all.  It was a massive moment for me.  The Minack Theatre will always have a piece of my heart, as it was the venue that showed me that in just 5 months, I had taken my recovery far beyond anything that I had ever dreamed possible over the preceding 2 and a half years.

I can’t say that the journey has been easy, but every single day now, I do something that seemed out of reach for a while there.  CRPS has not left me, but I’ve learnt to live with it and how to manage it best to allow me to keep going with building my dream.  The longest it has stopped me in my tracks in one episode recently is two weeks.  Generally, however, as long as I listen to my body, it stops me for no more than two or three days.  I can’t remember the last time I had the crippling toe cramps.  I still can’t bend my big toes fully, but it will do a shaky half bend now.  I can walk unaided and generally without pain.  I can touch my ankle/shin with anything, including crisp packets without wincing, and so can anybody else!  In fact, Bob has turned out to be something of a foot licker, and I have to say, it is now one of my most favourite sensations when he pays attention to my bad foot!   My foot still goes ice cold randomly.  It swells up when I overdo things, but it doesn’t just swell up and stay swollen any more, it goes back down with some rest.

Chicken runSince starting to build our dream down here in Cornwall I have managed some things that I didn’t know I still had in me.  Things like digging out a farm track, building a dog pen, enclosing our yard, ripping up carpets and laying wood flooring in our static caravan, removing a gas water heater and replacing it with an electric one, building some raised decking to aid getting in and out of our static caravan, building a compost loo, almost completing (it’s still a work in progress!) an 1/8 acre orchard chicken run, planting trees, lavender, blueberries, putting up rabbit mesh fencing, moving ton after ton of soil… the list could go on and on!  If I had a pound for every time Adrian has said ‘Well, you couldn’t have done that 6 months ago’, I’d be rich enough to not need to build a smallholding!

So, what motivates me?  For sure, if you want to see my shine, tell me I can’t do something and I’ll move heaven and earth to prove you wrong!  Equally, if you tell me I have a disabling condition with only a 1 in 4 chance of recovery, you’ll set me on a path that sees me hell-bent on proving I can be in the group of one’s.  I understand my process so well now that I feel I can beat the odds on pretty much anything sent to try me.  Things that, during my dark years, would have broken me and sent me spiralling toward the edge, now only prove to empower me and set me on the path to achieve my goals and ambitions.  Building a smallholding is both building a new career post truck driving, but also, and perhaps most importantly, rehabilitation post accident.  For such a long time after the accident I couldn’t watch Ice Road Truckers or the Eddie Stobart series.  At first I missed being a truck driver badly.  Now, in my days work I’m accompanied by kestrels, buzzards, barn owls and so much more.  A big difference to life on the not so open roads.  I don’t miss it all.

My inspiration comes from all other women out there that won’t accept that their gender is an obstacle to their ability.  People like Rowena Cade who built the Minack Theatre in her back garden, after building herself and her mother a house for £100.  Amelia Earhart for being the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic.  Ellen MacArthur for everything that she achieved as a solo long-distance yachtswoman.  Sinead O’connor for shaving off her hair so that her music would be judged for its merit, rather than her looks.  Bethany Hamilton for having her arm bitten off by a shark, but relearning surfing and going on to compete again at the highest level.  In fact, not long after my own accident, I sat and watched Bethany’s story in the movie ‘Soul Surfer’.  It had a profound effect on me.  After her accident the doctor at the hospital said to her (and I am guilty of paraphrasing here) “There won’t be many things you can’t do any more, but there will be lots of things you have to learn to do differently”.