Recovering from a spinal cord injury takes time and patience. I was someone who constantly rushed to meet a deadline, and these things never mattered much to me.
As a journalist for three decades, I punished my body to the max – sitting on uncomfortable chairs or benches for hours on end trying to file stories, forgetting to grab lunch or skipping dinner, and subjecting myself to many sleepless nights. I realised too late that constantly subjecting my body to those kinds of conditions, especially sitting in the same position for hours, can have life-threatening consequences.
On July 1 last year, I paid a very high price for three decades of complacency about my physical wellbeing. I woke up at 4.30 am at my home in Bangkok, ready to start work on an article about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s upcoming visit to Thailand, for an ASEAN meeting in Phuket. When I reached my computer, my arms suddenly stopped functioning. I could not move them at all. I was so scared. What had happened to me?
I called out to my wife, who helped me down to our car and drove me to Bhumibol (Air Force) Hospital.
The first two weeks in hospital were a mind-numbing, hellish experience. I was unable to write, walk or even take a pee. The first four days I had no food or water, except a liquid drip. My lips were so dry they were like the skin of salted fish in the local markets. All the while, teams of doctors were trying to figure out the cause of my illness.
It turned out that my sudden collapse was due to spinal cord inflammation, or acute transverse myelitis (ATM, but not the variety that gives you cash). The day before it happened I had worked at a conference, writing for five hours in an armchair with little movement or change of posture. Looking back, I am sure it was one of the factors that brought on the attack.
ATM, which is common, causes dysfunction of everything, in my case, below the chest. My arms, legs, bowel and bladder all stopped working. I had never been admitted to a hospital before and my health had been excellent, and now, for the first time in my life I was confined to a bed for 24 hours a day. I was constantly thinking of my body, which was numb from the chest down.
With most of my body immobile, it was extremely hard to sleep. When I closed my eyes, I felt as if parts of my arms and legs had left my body and flown away. I felt compelled to constantly watch my arms and legs, to make sure they were still there. It was eerie, like watching a horror movie.
I could not sleep for the first two weeks in hospital. My eyes were puffed up and looked like the dark circles around the eyes of Lin Ping, the baby panda at Chiang Mai Zoo.
Two one-hour sessions of physical therapy became part of my daily routine. To be able to function normally again, I had to stretch and strengthen my muscles. I suddenly had to do a lot of exercises – something I had not done enough of when I was healthy.
It has been an amazing and painful experience, trying to build up my arms and legs. Once your limbs stop “motoring” (moving), their muscles immediately acquire a marshmallow-like softness. It took several weeks to reactivate them. It took five weeks, for instance, to move my right toe up and down just a few millimetres!
The whole experience was like piling up sesame seeds one on top of another to generate this tiny amount of energy, so that when there were enough piled together they would somehow energise later. But it worked. After two and a half months, I was feeling much better, and was able to walk with a cane. The next challenge was toilet training.
Nine months have now elapsed. I am grateful to my family and friends for their loving care. Well-wishes and prayers from friends both at home and afar were powerful and yielded wonderful healing power at such a difficult time.
Special thanks go to Nattaporn Deepiriyanon and Pilasinee Panthonglang, the two physical therapists at Bhumibol Hospital who have tirelessly urged me to do more exercises despite all my tears and screaming. Nattaporn said I should be able to jog with her soon. The hospital also has very good doctors and caretakers, with good camaraderie, who are willing to work for the common good, not financial reward. They all seem to be overworked and underpaid.
As my journey of recovery continues, I have plenty of time to look back on what I have done. I have gained new insights and meaning in my life. I have to be more patient with myself and do things that seem impossible at first (such as moving your 90-kilogram body), because they are possible in the end.
By the way, when is the next deadline?
Kavi Chongkittavorn, 54, is the assistant group editor of The Nation newspaper in Thailand. He continues to receive physical therapy as he recovers from his illness.
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