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A Taste of China – Part I

On 26th January 2011 my life changed dramatically when I was standing on a balcony looking out to sea in Morocco. The railings gave way and I fell about 20 feet and fractured my spine at T8/9, which has left me paralysed from the waist down ever since. I try not to dwell on my accident too much and I have been determined to not let it beat me.

The last three years have been a crazy whirlwind… I feel like I have been on an emotional rollercoater; working my ass off with various forms of rehabilitation while still trying to lead a normal(ish) life. I have always loved exercise and sport so it was always an obvious choice for me that I would keep fit and try to push the boundaries of what is achievable.

My journey has most recently taken me to China. I am taking part in the Kunming Walking Programme, and am only one of three ‘foreign’ (non Chinese) patients here. The programme is a form of intensive exercise therapy and I am in the gym for 6 hours a day, 6 days a week. I spend most of this time either standing or walking as the founder of the programme Dr Zhu Hui doesn’t really believe in the use of machines and technology. She bases her programme on the idea that full weight bearing (not even using a standing frame) can begin to trigger a new connection or wake up dormant connections from the brain down to the soles of the feet. The idea is that a connection is ‘forced’ through the injury site and after months of repetitive exercises some progress can be made. My friend out here, Ali, explains the theory much better than I do on her blog.. Click here to read her explanation.

Who knows whether this is a sound theory or not, I just knew when I heard about the programme that I had to come out here and see what it was all about. I have been blogging about my experience since I arrived and I recently started uploading my walking videos to YouTube so that people can follow my journey. Here is a link to my YouTube channel if you fancy having a look!

I arrived out here at the end of October last year. I had planned to start the rehab programme immediately, but some routine MRI and CT scans revealed that I had a pretty large arachnoid cyst growing on my spinal cord from T6-9, and it was showing signs of growing upwards. I made the decision to have surgery as soon as possible to remove the cyst.. it was at risk of bursting and causing more spinal cord damage at a higher level to my original injury. I am also very impatient and when I decide something I like immediate action! So three days later I was on the operating table, where as well as removing the cyst, the surgeons also removed several bone fragments that they discovered were lodged into my spinal cord. I now have these as a souvenir from my surgery in China!!

Looks quite daunting, but the nursing care out here has been incredible.
Looks quite daunting, but the nursing care out here has been incredible.

Two weeks later I was back in the gym after being told that it is a good idea to start exercising again as soon as possible. Thankfully they were quite gentle with me, and surprisingly I had very little pain from the surgery so getting back in the gym was actually a relief after being bed bound for two weeks. I eased myself into the rehab programme and started to get used to the routine.

I went back to the UK for Christmas against the wishes of the physios in the gym. They thought that I would just go home and sit around and do nothing, but they don’t know that I would never be capable of that! While I was in the UK I took the opportunity to have some therapy sessions at Prime Physio and Neurokinex. It was so great to see my trainers again after a few months away and they really helped to build my strength back up after the surgery.

In February I flew back out to Kunming feeling fit and strong and ready to tackle the rehab programme head on. The Chinese have regularly told me that ‘you get out what you put into the programme’, so I having been giving it my all. The morning and afternoon gym sessions are three hours long and my time basically consists of standing for half an hour, walking for an hour (sometimes a bit longer), going on a bicycle (like an FES bike but without the FES) for 20 minutes, and then a range of strengthening exercises and stretches on a physio couch for the rest of the session. Thankfully there is a two hour lunch break where I take the opportunity to nap.. I wouldn’t get through the afternoons if I didn’t!

Everyone always asks me whether I like it out here and whether I think it is making a difference. The first question is easy to answer… on the whole I love it out here, otherwise I would have left by now! I love that I can focus 100% of my attention on the exercise that I’m doing. There are very few distractions out here and my life is the gym. My days are pretty simple; get up, eat, workout, sleep, workout, eat and go to bed… that is literally all I do Monday to Saturday. And the Chinese physios and nurses are all so lovely and so caring.

In the gym with my physio Xu and my student physio May.
In the gym with my physio Xu and my student physio May.

Is the rehab making a difference? Well that’s not so simple to answer and I think only time will tell. I have only been on the programme for a few months and they believe that a minimum of six months is needed to start to see some improvements. My walking has definitely got better since the start, but I believe that most of that is down to my body adapting and my balance improving, and not necessarily from new neural connections being made. But who knows what is actually going on inside my body! Regardless of what happens over the next few months, my time in China will always have been worthwhile as my surgery was very necessary.

I am giving this programme everything I have and am so grateful that I have had this opportunity whether I make functional improvements or not. My friends and family have all been so supportive and I really couldn’t have done this without them. Spinal injuries are horrendous, but mine has been made so much more bearable by the amazing people around me.

If you want to read any more about my adventures over the last few years, my blog is called Sorry About Your Legs.

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