where wheelchair users and BIID/transabled unite!

The Unimaginable

Part One

As I drifted off to sleep, I was thankful I was home. The day at home had definitely been enjoyable. My parents had left this morning, for a week, leaving myself and my two brothers (Brian and Phillip) at home. That was all I knew as my eyes closed

As I groggily reopened my eyes, I thought to myself, It doesn’t feel like I got much sleep. It was then that I suddenly jolted into reality. My friend Jeff was kneeling over, me putting an EMS collar on me. I immediately started to panic, where am I? As I continued to babble on in a confused state I tried my hardest to get up and get away. Whoa Chontelle, settle down Jeff said, let me put this collar on, please stop moving. Could you two please hold her head and shoulders down? I need to get this collar on her in case she has a neck injury. In the midst of all this confusion, I did not notice then that I was paralysed from my belly button down. I burst into tears as the collar clicked into place.

Please, tell me what’s happened. Jeff? I just went to bed.

Don’t you remember? Write down conscious and confused for her level of consciousness please… You went out with your brother after you went to bed Chontelle. You were been hit by a car, while you were walking across the road. Please tell me Chontelle, where do you hurt the most?

Ooh, my head, my chest, the top part of my tummy ooh and my back.

What about here? Jeff asked, prodding a deep cut on my thigh.


I’m prodding right now; it’s on your thigh. Can you feel that?

Suddenly I realised my paralysed state and I said, (sniff)I cant feel anything. I cant feel my legs. I cant feel anything below my belly button. I then broke down with a fresh bout of tears and a silence fell on the crowd that had gathered round us.

Jeff then started poking and squeezing different parts in my toes, feet and legs. When I responded with a No to all his prodding, it was decided I had a spinal cord injury.

Okay, Chontelle, this is my partner John. He’s going to give you some painkillers so we can move you. We are going to need to log roll you, and get you on a back board. I’m not going anywhere; I just need to radio the emergency call centre.

John knelt down next to me and started preparing the morphine. While doing so, my older brother noted to the paramedic that I was having problems breathing. They then fitted me with an oxygen mask and it was connected to an oxygen tank.

Hey this is Jeff Wilson from St Johns in Wellington. I have a nineteen year old female complaining of paralysis in her lower torso and legs.

Have you tested her sensitivity and the feeling she has in her legs?

Yes and she couldn’t feel anything.

Okay, we are going to need to get her to Burwood. Does she have any other injuries?

She has head injuries which have resulted in a loss of memory. She’s complaining of pain in her chest and what torso she does feel. Her breathing is difficult and shallow.

Thanks. Get her to the emergency as soon as possible so she can be stabilised. Then she will be transferred to Burwood.

Out of curiosity, who are you going to send with her to make sure she gets there okay? I’m a good friend of hers and I know that I will be able to help her more if I went with her. I know that it would be a long shift. My shift officially ends as soon as I get her to the hospital anyway.

Hang on. I’ll check it with my boss.

Jeff hung up the radio and went back to the scene. When he got there he saw I was barely conscious.

Right, we need to get her to the emergency ward ASAP! Brian, you kneel here, and can you sir kneel here? On three we will all roll her to my left. They placed my arms across my chest and tucked my hands into my shirt, making sure they wouldn’t get in the way. I was conscious enough to be aware of what was happening. As they counted to three and rolled me over, I felt so helpless. All this was happening and there wasn’t anything that I could do. There wasn’t anything they would let me do! I couldn’t even remember how I got in this situation! John slid a back board under me as they rolled me. They rolled me back onto the board and proceeded to buckle the straps. One across my ankles, one across my thighs, one across my tummy, one across my chest, and finally, completing my helpless state, one across my forehead.

One, Two, Three. They then lifted me onto the stretcher, placed a sheet and blanket over me, and buckled the straps on the stretcher over my already trapped body. With a click the side rails were up and they were wheeling me back to the ambulance.

Hello? Jeff? You there?

Yes I’m here. We were just loading her in the ambulance.

The guys in charge have Okayed your suggestion of you going with her. To be honest they think it is a good idea. They Don’t want her any more stressed than what she has to be.

Thank you.

Jeff turned the key and drove away while John was in the back checking my vital signs and filling out the paperwork. Meanwhile, I started to calm down; I knew Jeff knew what he was doing. I hoped it wouldn’t take long to get to Wellington Hospital, I had a feeling I would be in more trouble if they didn’t get there in time. Tears trickled down my face as I listened to the siren blaring and the motor roaring.

Jeff carefully backed the ambulance towards the entrance and got out. He opened the doors to see tears pouring down my face. He quickly climbed in and went to my other side. He grabbed some tissues and started drying my tears up and then helped John unload me.

This is the girl that the Emergency Call Centre should have told you about. Her pulse is 120 and her Blood pressure is 55/90. Her resps. are 22 per minute. We suspect a spinal cord injury and she has suffered a head injury. She has identified pain in her chest, upper abdomen, head and back and her breathing is shallow.

Yup okay. The Emergency Call Centre people said for you to hang around and be ready to go with her for her transfer. Chontelle? Can you hear me?

I was barely with it while they performed their initial examination. The doctor barked out instructions for the nurse to write on a form and they started a scan of my chest and torso.

Damn, she has a deflated lung, several broken ribs and internal bleeding. Get her to surgery now. Ring ahead so they know.

“What about her spine doctor?

Our job is to get her stable enough to send her to Burwood.

They wheeled me to surgery as I was drifting back into unconsciousness. Brian was looking on helplessly and Jeff was doing his best to reassure him.

Brian, do you have anyone you can ring?

Mum and Dad are away for the week, I could ring our Aunty though

Hey, Aunty Kristine? Something bad has happened. Chontelles been in an accident and Mum and Dad aren’t here.

(Gasp)What has happened Brian? How is she now?

The doctors are saying she has a spinal cord injury but there are a whole heap of other problems as well. They have just sent her into emergency surgery. Can you come down? I Don’t think I can handle this, besides Phillip is home alone at the moment.

I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’ll just zip round and get Phillip though. See you soon.

Part Two

I drifted into consciousness for the second time that night. I found I was still on a stretcher, and still unable to move.

Chontelle? How are you feeling?

I craned my eyes over to see that Aunty Kristine was standing next to me.

I know that I cant be with you very long. They stabilized you enough to transfer you to Christchurch straight away. I’m just happy to know you are going to be okay. She bent over me and gave me a gentle hug to encourage me and I felt I was being pushed away. Where are they taking me???

Right! We have a Helicopter waiting for you Chontelle, let’s get going. I could see Jeff’s head above me pushing the stretcher. Everything still felt overwhelming but I felt safe knowing Jeff was with me. I always enjoyed being with him. He understood me.

I felt myself being wheeled out into the night. I was still in pain but it was being subdued with pain killers. I heard a helicopter start up and then felt myself being loaded into the back of it.

Hi Chontelle, my name is Shelly, and the pilots name is Richard. Well be taking you to Christchurch. Shelly then slipped an oxygen mask onto my face explaining that I could have breathing problems while in high altitudes. They secured the stretcher in place and then the helicopter took off.

As the flight wore on I became more apprehensive about what was awaiting me. You didn’t often meet people who were paralysed in New Zealand but I had read on websites the awful things that can happen to people in America. I was thankful I wouldn’t have the same financial problems. There are some good reasons to keep Labour in government, even though I would never vote for them myself.

Jeff and Shelly tried to put me at ease, talking to me and telling jokes the whole way. Every now and then they would check my vitals and frown. They said that although they were better than they were before the surgery, they were still not good. As we got closer to Burwood Jeff reminded me about how good this unit was. He even reminded me that if it got too hard, just to remember that Mr Bean was there (a retired doctor at Burwood)! As they unloaded me from the helicopter they decided to keep the mask on me. I still had a deflated lung! Shelly and Richard then wished me luck and took off. Jeff wheeled me to the waiting Doctor and Nurses in the admission area.

The Doctor introduced himself as Dr. Cuff, and then thanked Jeff for keeping me on a back board.

Well I remember last time I had to bring a patient here, and how long it took to transfer him to one of your stretchers, I figured if it would help, it wouldn’t hurt to keep her on a back board.

They then lifted me onto their stretcher and removed the backboard. Replacing the oxygen with one of theirs, they then restarted the initial examination. Jeff handed over my charts and went to ring for a minivan to come pick him and the stretcher up to go to the airport.

They tested me, pricked my feet with pins, and rubbed blocks of ice against the sole of my foot. They prodded my legs and then turned me over to see a swelling in my back. They felt there was definitely a spinal cord injury and one of the nurses stepped back to do something that I could not see. Suddenly I felt a needle plunging into my back and I cried out so loudly I surprised them all.

I’m sorry honey, I should have warned you first. That was steroids to prevent any more damage to your spinal cord.

Chontelle, we are going to take you for some tests. They will be x-rays, CAT scans etc. There won’t be anything to worry about. Once we have those we will be able to confirm your injuries, and hopefully make you more comfortable.

They then wheeled me off to be tested.

Here I am lying in a bed by myself. I found out that my spinal cord was severed at the 11th Thoracic level. Two of the vertebrae were shattered as well. They managed to re-inflate my lung and I am now breathing normally. My Chest and Torso is healing nicely from the surgery and I’ve been told my head injuries are healing well. Apparently I am prone to pressure sores now that I have no feeling from my belly button down. To try preventing this, I have a special mattress and a nurse comes in every two hours to turn me over. I have tried to turn over by myself but it is a lot harder than you think. Besides, I was told off for moving round while my spine wasn’t stabilized.

The physical therapist comes in regularly and moves my legs round. She says this is to keep them looking good and it helps my circulation.

My parents found out, shortly after I arrived at Burwood, and rang as soon as they could. Unfortunately they are unable to come down to support me because it is financially impossible for them. Instead, my mum raced around Wellington doing a little bit of damage control. She also went to see the Disability Resource people where I was getting employment support.

Crissy said, hi Velda, how are you going? She was surprised to see Velda because she would normally not have much to do with her.

Hey, I had to come in and tell you, Chontelle can’t make any appointments at the moment. She was hit by a car a few days ago and they have transferred her to Christchurch.

Oh no, Christchurch! That is where they send people with spinal cord injuries isn’t it? The poor girl, this whole thing will change her life. Is there anything you need? We would be more than happy to help.

Probably not till she gets back. I haven’t been able to go see her because we cant afford to go to Christchurch. Well sort something out though.

Ugh! Hang on, hey Donna, come here? You know that girl Chontelle who we’ve been giving employment support? She’s in Burwood; she was hit by a car!

That’s terrible. Is it safe to assume she is in the spinal unit there? Donna asked.

Yeah, I wasn’t in Wellington when it happened so I’m not 100% sure on all the details. Her doctor wants me to come down so he can talk to me in person but we cant afford for me to be off work to go down. Besides, going down there would be enough of a challenge. Paying for the plane ticket, accommodation Velda answered them.

We have funding for that sort of thing, Crissy told her, we argent just here for employment support you know, were here to support a person in any way they need it.

Donna added, do you mind if we helped get you down there? It’s important for Chontelle to have someone there. Its very easy to get depressed when you are thrown into that situation. This was particularly interesting to Donna because she is in a wheelchair and it made her remember when she first had her accident. She had all confidence in how the staff at Burwood would treat me but she knew the psychological problems that would be swirling round in my head.

That would definitely help, Velda said, Thank you soooo much!

Part Three

Crissy, Donna, Velda and the other staff sat down to a meeting in the Wellington Disability Resources Office.

The rest of you are probably wondering why we are all here, Crissy started, one of the girls I have been helping with employment support (Chontelle) has been hit by a car in an accident a few days ago. It has left her with a spinal cord injury in Burwood Hospital in Christchurch. I was wondering if you guys would help me to get Chontelle’s mother, Velda, down to Christchurch to be with her. At the moment she is not able to afford it.

Burwood has accommodation available for family, don’t they? David, the resource manager, asked.

Yes they do Donna recalled.

I should be able to get hold of the people there to organise a ride for Velda from the airport, David continued, And we have money set aside, for situations like this, to pay for her plane ticket. Once you are there Velda, you would have to sort out your own food etc.

Thank you, I wasn’t expecting this much, Velda gasped.

If you will just come with me, we can book your flight right now online, another lady said.

And I will go and ring Burwood, David said.

Hello, Burwood Hospital, you’re speaking to Alyssa.

Hello, my name is David. I’m from the Wellington Disability Resources Office. I understand there is a patient in the spinal unit named Chontelle Daniel’s? I’m calling on behalf of her mother.

Hang on. Ill just transfer you to the Unit where someone should be able to help you.

Thank you

Hello Burwood Spinal Unit?

Yes my name is David. I’m calling on behalf of Chontelle Rodgers mother from the Wellington Disability Resources Office.

David heard tapping on the other end.

Yes Chontelle, she was admitted two days ago.

We are currently trying to assist her mother in getting down to Christchurch to be with Chontelle, because she was having difficulty. I was wondering what you could suggest in the way of accommodation?

We have motel units for families, we only charge enough to keep the power and phone going. I can book one for her if you would like?

Yes that would be very helpful. I was also wondering if there was anyone that would be able to pick her up from the airport. I don’t want to sound like I want you to go out of your way but we feel its important for her to get to Chontelle as soon as possible.

That’s no problem. There will be someone there to pick her up if you would like that. When will she be flying in?

Wait a minute. I’ve got one of the other staff booking the flight right now, Ill just ask. Hey, when will Velda’s flight get into Christchurch?

It will get there at eight tomorrow morning.

She will be landing in Christchurch at eight tomorrow morning.

Okay, there will be someone there waiting for her. Just tell her to look for a sign with her name on it.

Thank you very much.

You’re welcome.

As Velda made her way out of Christchurch Airport she noticed a woman, who happened to be holding a sign with her name on it, so she wandered over there.

Hi I’m Velda

Hi Velda, my name is Mindy.

Thank you so much for coming to get me. I definitely want to see my girl.

It’s a good coincidence you are here this morning because she has surgery this afternoon.

What sort of surgery?

I think it would be better if you talked to her doctor about that.

The rest of the car trip to Burwood was consumed with conversation about the unit.

Mum asked Mindy, You know something funny?


Chontelle has actually read a book on the history of the spinal unit here in Christchurch. She said she was bored in the library and the book looked interesting. She was spinning out facts for the next couple of days about the Paralympics and other things.

Mmm, I think I know what book she read. It’s definitely interesting. We have people working in the unit now that were admitted when the unit was started in the old Christchurch hospital.

Part Four

Mum got to the spinal unit and was led to Dr. Cuffs office.

Thank you for coming Mrs. Rodgers, Dr. Cuff said, Your daughter came into the unit with the repercussions of the internal bleeding and head injuries the people at GHW Hospital had stabilised. Amazingly she has some broken ribs, but she isnt experiencing much pain from them. She had a deflated lung as well.

The most serious injury though was this one. He put an X-ray of my spine up on his illuminated board. If you see along her midsection and lower parts of her spine two of her vertebrae have been broken several times, and right here (pointing to my t11 vertebrae) is where her spinal cord was completely severed. Like all cases, in the first two days after her injury her spinal cord went into what we call spinal shock. No messages get through from the brain to any level below the break. It isn’t until after the patient comes out of spinal shock that we are able to assess how bad the spinal cord injury is. In Chontelle’s case, her spinal cord was severed completely. She cannot feel or move anything from her belly button down. She will never walk again. We will have to put her on a program for both her bladder and bowel.

Mum started to sob and Dr. Cuff quickly added, I am confident to say once she has recovered from the initial trauma, and is taken through physical therapy, she will be able to live a full and independent life. There will be things she will need to watch out for, but I can tell you her quality of live will not be lessened. It may improve. She’d be able to get from A to B faster without getting tired as quickly as we do from walking but being serious, the most important thing for you to do now is to be confident. There is a cycle most spinal cord injury patients go through, and it is important for her not to get stuck in depression.

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