Most people learn to walk in their early years and never look back.
I’m sure it’s frustrating at the time, but it’s a process few of us remember going through.
There are, however, an unfortunate few who have to learn to walk twice in their life, sometimes when they’re a fully grown adult, and are perfectly aware of how exasperating and maddening it feels to know what you want your body to do – but be physically unable to do it.
This was my reality, and it was perhaps the most mentally and physically exhausting thing I’ve ever had to do. I’m still learning to walk again now – perhaps I always will be.
My old life was filled with adventure. Though I was still working full time at 66 years old as an occupational therapist, I would travel up and down the country on classic motorbike rides with my partner and hike around the countryside while on holiday in our campervan.
I was healthy, and, most importantly, I was happy – but that all changed one morning in June 2021.
When I woke up, I noticed a small, painful numb patch on my hip, which I originally palmed off as a trapped nerve that would resolve itself eventually. I got washed and dressed and was about to plough on with some work, but all of a sudden felt a strange tingling sensation run down my legs and decided it was best if I sat down on the sofa and waited for it to pass.
After about 15 minutes, I tried to stand, but had no feeling in either of my legs and couldn’t put any weight on them.
It was only when I lay sprawled across my sofa on the phone to my GP and they said I needed to go to hospital that I began to understand the severity of the situation. Before I knew it, I was lifted into the back of an ambulance.
Over the next five days, I had two MRI scans, a CT scan, various x-rays, two lumbar punctures and countless blood tests, until I was eventually diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis – a rare neurological condition caused by an inflammation around the spinal cord.
After doing some research, I realised how serious this diagnosis was, with only a third of people making a full recovery, with the rest being left with some kind of disability.
I was given a three-day course of high strength IV steroids to reduce the inflammation, and medication to address the nerve pain, which helped me regain some movement in my toes but I was still unable to stand.
Wondering if I’d ever regain use of my legs left me depressed. I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to go home, or how the diagnosis would impact my relationship with my partner. I couldn’t help but think it wouldn’t be fair on him if I was left severely disabled.
The uncertainty over my future left me feeling so low.
I’d cry a lot, wondering if the condition would eventually worsen and leave me permanently bed-ridden, or whether I’d be a wheelchair user and have to move out of the small cottage I called home.
I eventually saw a physiotherapist at the hospital and, after a few weeks of training, was able to stand very briefly with the assistance of a device designed to assist with standing from a sitting position.
Despite only being able to remain upright for just a few seconds, I cried with happiness for the rest of the evening, knowing that I’d get stronger every day from here on.
I had, and still have, constant nerve pain in both of my legs and on the soles of my feet. I also had loss of sensation in my right heel, which made balancing more difficult.
Learning to walk again was tiring as it involved a lot of effort. However, even taking a few steps felt like enormous progress and with each step I was determined that I would build on that and do more each day.
I continued the next day by taking a few steps around my bed in the ward, followed the next day by a walk to the window and back – before I knew it, I was walking over 200 yards, down the corridor and back again, getting further and further each day.
The day I was discharged was the best of my life – after spending nearly four months in hospital, I couldn’t wait to go home. I continued to use my wheelchair, but ordered a folding treadmill to use at home so I could continue to recover and regain confidence in my ability to walk.
I learnt that repetitive exercise can repair nerve damage, and so far, so good! Now, nearly two years on, I can now walk around the supermarket to do my shopping, with my spasms and nerve pain gradually decreasing.
So far, the furthest I have walked is 1.5 miles, using my walking stick, around the village where I live. It took me an hour to do this, a walk that used to take me half of that. I was exhausted.
However, every time I walk I feel like it’s another step towards recovery.
There’s no denying my life has changed completely. I can no longer go for walks in the countryside or enjoy long weekends in my campervan. Now, I have to watch concerts from my wheelchair so I don’t lose my balance and fall over, and I struggle to relax in the evenings due to the constant spasms in my legs.
But, despite everything, I remain hopeful for what is to come.
I’ve given presentations at the Disabled Living Foundation Conference and written chapters for professional journals on living with a disability since my diagnosis, with more planned.
I’ve taken up woodwork, and can still enjoy going to the pub with my partner for some dinner – we’re even planning trips abroad after a successful holiday in France with my adapted car.
Some days are certainly harder than others, but I will continue to work towards making a full recovery. For me, giving up isn’t an option.
Gill used MuscleSquad’s P100 Folding Treadmill to regain confidence in her ability to walk after her diagnosis. For more information, visit: https://musclesquad.com/.
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