LEARNING & EDUCATION

Stella's SCI Story Pt 1: A New Life

Spinal Cord Injury (SCI)

Elina Taranenko

A New Beginning

Like most people out there, my life is hectic. It’s a non-stop circus of work, chores, travel, entertainment, eating right, staying fit, going out with friends and then collapsing onto the bed each night, wondering where all my 24 hours went. The difference is, I'm a C5 quadriplegic. According to the hospital my injury is 'complete', my spinal cord is completely cut and there’s no chance of recovering.  

It all started 13 years ago, I was young and high, on a road trip with my friends during my last university break before graduation. One minute I was chasing pelicans by the lake, the next I woke up in ICU, hooked up to all these tubes.  Our rental car rolled on the slippery road, and somehow this 1 year old almost brand new car wasn’t equipped with any airbag. The rain was so heavy they couldn’t send me a helicopter, so I laid in the mud by the country road on the border of Victoria and NSW for hours before an ambulance took me to a nearby medical centre with my broken neck. It then took another 24 hours before I reached a Melbourne hospital where I was seen by a specialist doctor.  

Somehow I didn’t die! Just in a coma for weeks.  Remember that moment when the doctor leans over and say this to you?  "You are in whatever whatever hospital and I'm Dr. Blah Blah.... I'm afraid you've been in an accident... " My doc didn’t beat around the bush. The death sentence came quickly.  "You have sustained a spinal cord injury, we have tried everything we can, but I’m afraid your condition is likely to be permanent..." There aren’t enough swear words in the world for that moment.  I was still hallucinating from coming out of the coma, at the end of my bed stood the mom and dad I haven’t seen for years…  I was numb, so numb I couldn’t feel any sadness. I couldn’t speak, because I was on life support. I couldn’t swallow, because my throat was slit. I couldn’t move, except for my face. I couldn’t feel my body, like it was never there.  Time stopped, at that very second. Everything I ever knew, there ever was… was no longer. Everything I loved in life became no more than a slide show of my memories. All my hopes and dreams for the future slipped away in front of my eyes with every drip that went into my vein and every beep on the heart monitor.  But then I thought: ‘Well, I’m alive. So it can only go up from here...’   That was the start of my "second life".   This is my journey.   Hopefully my stories could help you navigate your new life. Most people don’t get the chance to start again, but you do.  And maybe, my stories and tips would help you get to where you want to be in life just that little faster and easier.

2 Minutes of Death, 3 Minutes of Inception

"Dreams feel real while we're in them." - Cobb (Inception, 2010)

For years and years I've often wondered: What if I never woke up from that coma? Would I live in that parallel universe for ever? Would I be forever young and not disabled? Would that, in fact, be a better life?  That parallel universe was sunny and warm, much like our world. It had the same streets, people and buildings… but I was different. I was still a teenager there and never broke my neck.  I remember there was a grey building on top of the hill where I escaped. I ran.

Desperately running away from a group of people whose faces I still remember.
I ran for what seemed like 3 weeks from street to street, place to place, trying to get back into reality and couldn't find a way.  I somehow knew I was dreaming.
I thought it would be all over if I couldn't wake up.          

I tried to slap myself on the face, stomped my toes really hard and scream from the top of my lungs in the middle of a busy street. If Inception had been out back then, I would have tried to jump off a building and jolt myself back. But nothing worked.     So I kept searching the streets for 3 long weeks. Behind every door. Inside every house. There were no nights in that world. And I was too frightened to be tired.

In that other world I needed water, in the real world I was thirsty from dry hospital air. In that other world I was running and feeling hot, in the real world I was on life support with fever. The faces of the people chasing me turned out to those of the doctors and nurses trying to keep me alive. And the grey building on the side of the road was in fact Austin Hospital where they took me to perform procedures.

While in the coma, I didn't know any of this stuff.   All I knew was the desperation of trying to wake up from a long and terrible nightmare.  Little did I know the nightmare playing out in my real life would last even longer and many times more terrifying.  When this becomes your new reality, you have some pretty dark thoughts: if I knew, would I choose to wake up? If that was my new reality until eternity, who's to judge what’s real or not ?

I later learned that somewhere in the midst of this nightmare, my vital signs stopped for two whole minutes. I look out of the window at the crystal blue sky, the blue sky I was given a second chance to see, I know, for that... I'm forever grateful!

The Darkest Hours Come Before the Dawn

If there is a gateway to hell, the intensive care unit is definitely it. Every day, a few people make it back to life, but many don't. The ones that 'make it' are on life support, unable to eat, sleep, breathe, move or talk.  To an onlooker, we are as good as dead.

You have to endure constant fever and chills, a mind boggling combination of drug induced sleepiness and perpetual sleep deprivation from round the clock routine procedures. Nourishment comes through a feeding tube in the nose, bags and bags of milky mixtures are dripped into the stomach. You couldn’t imagine how constantly hungry and thirsty this make you feel. Three weeks in the ICU feels like three weeks of fasting and a lifetime of suffering.  Your lungs are constantly filled up with liquid so bad that you crave for your hourly 'suctions', where a plastic tube is reached all the way to the bottom of your lungs then wiggled around to suck fluid out, it irritates your body so much that you violently convulse, even after the procedure is finished.  

But then, you get the precious temporary relief of breathing through the machine, just for that little while before your lungs are filled up again.   Here, the nights are dark and never ending. It's cold, so cold, I could never sleep. So I stared at the ceiling and listened to the loud noise of the air vent. The in and out of my breathing machine, the ticking of my pulse and heart beats on the equipment. Time passed slowly. Apart from my hourly blood sample and the blood pressure machine that squeezes my arm, nothing else happened. I soon realised the scary fact that my only lifeline is the nurse. When something bad happens, there's nothing I could do and no one I could alert.  That was a horrific night with nurse 'Tracy'. She spent the whole night in the cubicle next to mine gossiping, while I was desperately trying to get someone, anyone's attention. I was in excruciating pain and dead thirsty. When you can't move to push the buzzer and can't make any noise, there's nothing, nothing you can do except living the horror of desperation and helplessness, with your eyes wide open. The following morning she told the nurse that I'd 'had a great night sleep and didn't wake up once'.  It's not until life takes everything away from you that you realise you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. That night with 'Tracy' had taught me that no matter how dark and long the night seems, morning will come.  And when it does, so comes another day of opportunities for something great: to have a good nurse putting water soaked cotton buds on your lips, getting wheeled out of ICU for the first time, to see the sun, see the clouds, to feel the warmth on my face and breeze in my hair.

In the sun, I morphed into someone else, someone more like myself. I closed my eyes and saw my face with my bright red hair rising above the ashes of my past, into the dark sky, it is dark, and will be for a while, but someday the morning will dawn, and I will still be here.

To Be Continued.....

Part 2 to be published soon

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