SMSR Trustee Jamie Polk discusses life with paralysis after a Spinal Cord Injury and why SMSR's research is important to him

My life changed on October 21 2000. 

You wouldn’t have known it that morning. My girlfriend and I were on holiday in Venezuela, having breakfast on the beach.

You wouldn’t have known it 10 minutes before it happened. I was mucking around with a small girl, the daughter of some new friends in the hotel, who was chasing me around the beach with a crab. And you wouldn’t have known it 10 seconds before it happened, as I ran into the surf and dived into the waves.

But then I heard a crack, felt my body stop instantly and realised I was in real trouble. I had hit my head on a sandbank, had broken my neck and immediately was unable to move anything other than my mouth and eyes. I was inhaling water, stuck face down and quickly beginning to slip away. The little kid knew nothing of this, running after me and putting the crab on my head, her arm brushing my mouth. I bit it, it was the only thing I could do, she screamed and people saw what was happening and dragged me out of the water         

From that moment on I consider myself very lucky. There was one clinic In town, it had two beds and two doctors. One of which had returned two days previously from six months in the Miami spinal unit  He stabilised me and flew me back to the UK where I spent a year rehabilitating at Stoke Mandeville spinal unit.

And then I was thrust back into real life. It took some time to get accustomed to the new life. There were definitely some dark times. Over time though you come to accept the new normalities. What you lose when you break your neck is not only the use of most of your body, but it is spontaneity. Everything needs organising, everything needs planning. I can’t just meet you at the pub, does it have steps at the front door? I can’t come and stay with you on Friday night, does your house have a downstairs toilet? I can’t just go to the football, how do I get there on public transport and will there be suitable disabled spaces? I can’t just go on holiday, how the hell do I get in a plane seat and what about the hotel when I get there? So those are all the problems, but with careful planning and plenty of help from others, life in a wheelchair is not much different.

Except it is. It is not the constraints of being in the wheelchair, as I say somebody could help me up those two steps into a restaurant or whatever. It is the things that nobody sees, nobody thinks about and I often don’t like talking about.

I’ll give you a couple of examples. I sit on my bum all day and however much I stretch and try and relieve the pressure, I am always in danger of getting pressure sores. It is an absolute nightmare. These sores can put you in bed for weeks. You are stuck, there is nothing you can do and it can be soul destroying. All your plans get thrown out the window.  I can’t do this, I can’t see you there, I have to cancel our meeting etc. I find myself having to make excuses because I don’t really want a business client for example to know what is going on, to picture me in bed with a sore. But perhaps instead they just think I am unprofessional.

Or bladder infections. I use a catheter and again I am in constant danger of infection however careful I am  They are awful, you feel terrible and it can hit you for four or five days. You can’t do anything you are totally wiped out. Again though, I don’t want a potential new client to know the reason why I am cancelling the meeting is because I am shivering under my duvet at home.

This is why what SMSR are doing is so totally and completely crucial to the lives of all of us with a spinal injury. Is there a probiotic I can take to stop bladder infections, is there a better catheter I can use? It is impossible to overstate what an impact that would have on me.

Same with pressure sores. What if there is a better way to relieve the pressure, is there a better cushion I can sit on, what about massage bicycle type shorts to keep the blood pumping? What about the best way to treat a sore if I end up getting one. Tell me what to do, tell me what best practice is and I’ll do it. Anything to get out of bed and get on with my life.

These are some of the areas that SMSR are focused on. Not in a theoretical way, but focusing on projects that will make a material and practical difference. That is why I’m so passionate about what they do. I’m happy living my life in a chair, it’s different but no less enjoyable. But as with all of us I need to feel I am pushing my boundaries, I need to feel fulfilled. I can’t when I am constrained by a pressure sore, by a bladder infection. So let’s fix these problems, let’s find solutions. I promise you it is life changing.