Awesome Humans 20 Jan
One Step at a Time: Walking with a Spinal Cord Injury
By Sarah Wise
Hi, my name is Sarah Wise, and you may have already read a bit about me through my other blogs about my accident and what it’s like living with a disability that’s both visible and invisible.
If you’re new here, then welcome; a quick bit of backstory for you is that I had an accident two years ago that broke my neck and was diagnosed with quadriplegia. I call myself a walking quadriplegic because I learned how to walk again after a lot of intense rehabilitation. This blog aims to share a little more about what that journey was like for me.
It’s not like I woke up one morning and I could walk; it’s been a very long, sometimes testing process. In the scheme of things, though, I guess I regained my ability to walk pretty quickly for someone who has a spinal cord injury.
When I was first in the hospital after my accident, I had this strong sense of hope and belief that I would be able to walk, even though it was never promised or even expected of me to walk again.
When I started physiotherapy, I wasn’t happy just doing a session. I always pushed the boundaries, going that little bit further than what was expected each session. In my head, I was constantly questioning, what is the limit? How far can I push myself?
I would try not to think too hard about the fact that before my injury, walking was something I didn’t even have to think about; it was automatic.
But at every physio session I went to, I had to think about it, and I had to think about it hard. It wasn’t just remembering to put one foot in front of the other anymore.
I had to remember eight things at once! “Walk on train tracks, lift the leg, don’t snap back, lift your toes, tuck your bum under, tense your abs - oops, I forgot the train tracks! And now I’m falling over because I’ve lost my focus, and my legs are crossing over”.
It took a long time for me to get the hang of things.
The first time I took assisted steps with my two physiotherapists holding me up on each side, I got flashbacks to the start of my journey, being told that I wouldn’t be able to walk again. It was very emotional. It was my “I proved you wrong” moment, which I found very empowering.
I took slow, considered steps. Every step was heavy; it was so difficult even to lift my feet off the ground. They felt like they were glued to the ground or had a magnetic force too strong to even lift. The simple act of placing my foot down on the ground was confusing. I had lost my understanding of where my foot was in space. So it wasn’t as simple as one step at a time.
I took four slow steps before being told to rest. But I was motivated to keep going and walked from my hospital bed to the door. About three meters. That was enough for one day. It fed my desire to ‘try again tomorrow”. And again the next day, and the next day.
Many people can relate to going for “one walk a day” throughout the pandemic. For me, my walk was a 4m stretch in the hospital hallway, and I looked forward to it every day.
At rehabilitation, I continued to work on my walking technique, balance, endurance, and awareness of my body in space. It took a lot of concentration and patience.
I approached learning to walk again like my elite training in gymnastics. I knew it would take structured sessions, turning up to training, a lot of repetition and minor improvements over time.
Two years later, walking has become easier, faster and automatic. I often still have to consciously think about my technique, especially lifting my toes, to avoid tripping over or swerving as I walk. It still happens, but I’m okay with it! It's all part of the journey.
Most of the time now, my disability isn’t visible. On hard days I need a walking stick; I may stumble and fall over. It differs day-to-day. But every day, I am consciously grateful to have regained this ability. I guess the saying “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” rings very true to me.
And while I’ve just written a whole piece about learning to walk again, it’s important to acknowledge the complexity of spinal cord injury. There is so much emphasis on learning to walk again from the public, which can be challenging for those who don’t have this function.
All Pictures from Sarah Wise 2021 (@sarahjwise)