My day yesterday involved trains, sex, buses, an ambulance, the emergency department, and CT scans, so it was relatively exciting, and since I’m going to tell you upfront that I’m okay you, there’s no need for you to worry as you read on.
I had to be in Parramatta for a class at 9 AM, which meant a far too early wake-up, and a morning preparation so rushed that I didn’t get a proper shower, and so headed out the door with my hair looking a little like John Travolta in Grease. The Ingleburn to Parramatta train ride has become boringly straight forward, except today. When changing trains, the ramp from the carriage to the platform wasn’t held firmly enough in place by the attendant, so I ended up with my front castor wheels jammed between the train and the platform. No doubt, the five-minute delay needed to get me unstuck annoyed impatient commuters, but I am used to this sort of drama, and before long I’d changed trains and made it to Parramatta, and then to work.
My class was on sexual ethics. In Christian contexts, this is a topic fraught with controversy, and as we negotiated subjects that included dating, masturbation, and the ideals of transcendent sexual unity, I felt like shouting, “stop overthinking things. It’s just an orgasm, and you should enjoy it while you can. I’d give anything to be able to experience that feeling again.” But I restrained myself, and the class was fun; an open and engaging discussion, about a topic dear to all of our hearts.
The lecture went through to midday, at which point I found a quiet corner in a Gloria Jean’s cafe, and tipped back my chair for a kip – one of the advantages of an electric wheelchair is that a bed is always present. I badly needed the rest, since my schedule for the day was unusually busy. Following the morning class was an afternoon meeting at ParaQuad, where I had been invited to sit on a steering committee for a project set up to develop training programs for personal care at home. The ParaQuad offices are in Newington, and to get there I needed to catch a bus from the Parramatta terminus. When it pulled up, a crowd of people swamped inside, leaving me to wait for the bus driver to lower the ramp and usher me on. Bus corridors are narrow, and it takes no small amount of practice to negotiate the chair round the corner, past the driver’s compartment, and into the designated wheelchair accommodation. This is near the front of the bus, with seats that fold up to make room for the chair, which is parked facing the rear. once in place, it wasn’t long before we were under way, and I was able to lose myself in dreams of adventure, listening to an audio recording of The Count of Monte Christo:
“Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man is what you do when that storm comes.”
From Parramatta, the bus headed east toward the city along Victoria Road. You can tell when a driver is in a hurry by the extent to which aggressive acceleration and braking force you forward and then reverse-fling you into the backrest and headrest of the chair. But the journey today, while fast, seemed relatively normal, and I was relaxed and unconcerned. The crisis came without warning, as the bus looped left around a sweeping on-ramp from Victoria Road to the overpass on Silverwater Road.
Before I had any chance to react, my chair tipped and I fell to the side, smashing my head on the seating opposite, and falling onto the floor. It must have happened in a flash, but I can remember every instant of the fall. It was one of those moments when time really did seem to slow, and I experienced the gut wrenching sensation of a fall that I was utterly helpless to prevent. I didn’t lose consciousness, and I ended up lying crumpled up on my side, half on and half off the fallen wheelchair, with my face flat against the floor. I screamed in panic. The passengers, watching on in horror, shouted to the driver, and the bus pulled up.
Immediately, a large and smartly-dressed man (who later introduced himself as Michael), rushed over, made sure I was okay, and called 000. He was given firm instructions that I wasn’t to be moved but, rather, to wait for the arrival of the ambulance.
So I waited, with my face squashed against the dusty and unforgiving floor, and my body twisted up, like one of those oddly bent chalk drawings placed at the scene of the crime on TV procedurals. Memories of 7 October 2010 flashed into my mind, and I went from being panicked to feeling pathetically humiliated; a circus attraction earning the curiosity of the watching crowd. Before long, though, my mood switched to one of resignation. This sort of experience seems to be par for the course of sci, and the way to get through it is to be patient and relax. What I can’t change isn’t worth worrying about, and so I took the opportunity to shut my eyes and have another rest.
The ambulance seemed to take an inordinate amount of time – although I suspect my sense of time was out of kilter. As I was lying there, I heard the bus driver talking to the passengers, defending himself:
“I didn’t strap the seatbelt to his chair, because most of them don’t like it.”
“I was only travelling at 30 km an hour, the normal speed – I wasn’t driving too fast.”
“I will probably be put on report and might be placed on suspension.”
This self-interested justification irritated me, so I interrupted:
“Instead of spending this time worrying about yourself, why don’t you get your priorities right, and show some concern about the quadriplegic lying on the floor of your bus.”
He gave a quick apology and that was the last I heard from him. And still, I waited. I’m pretty sure it was half an hour or more before another bus turned up to take the onlooking passengers the rest of their journey. I guess I should have felt a little sorry for the chaos I’d created, but I struggled to feel any real sympathy for them and their missed appointments. For that matter, it looked like I was going to miss my own meeting. I figured, at least, that I had a good excuse.
The police arrived, and then firemen, and about 20 minutes after the fall, the ambulance roared in and the paramedics took charge. The team leader introduced herself as Claire, and while checking my vital signs she chatted and joked and so made me feel at ease. It seemed likely that I was okay (well, I was still a quadriplegic – the fall hadn’t cured me – but I didn’t seem to be any more damaged), but Claire wasn’t taking any chances. Since I was paralysed, I needed to be treated as any other person subject to a sci. The difficulty was that my weirdly contorted position, among the poles and seats of the bus, made a puzzle of the task of straightening me up. But a strategy was devised, beginning with the placement of a neck brace, and then a series of small and cautious moves that eventually saw me lying flat on my back on a gurney. Thereafter, the task of getting me out of the bus and into the back of the ambulance was relatively simple.
Once settled, I was briefly interviewed by a police officer, and then asked whether there was anyone who should be apprised of the situation. Truth be told, I was reluctant for them to contact Elly. I knew that a call from the police would cause her panicked heart palpitations, and because I thought that I was probably fine, I contemplated keeping quiet, going to hospital for tests, and then trying to find my own way home. I quickly realised that not only was such a strategy stupid (really, did I imagine I could get myself home after an accident like this!), but that Elly would murder me if I didn’t make sure she was notified. I instructed the officer to make the call, but to be as gentle and upbeat as possible.
At about 3 PM I took my first ride in an ambulance (my previous journey to hospital was in a helicopter), and I was ushered into Accident and Emergency at Concord Hospital. An hour or so later, I was transferred to radiology, and was given a CT scan of my head and neck. When I was returned to the ward, Elly was there waiting. This really did feel like old times; me staring at the ceiling with a neck brace, and Elly sitting alongside the bed. It must have been around 6 PM when I was given the all clear, and Elly took me home.
Later, I was talking to my brother Kurt, and he declared that the whole thing was set up. I have almost finished my memoir (looking for a publisher), and he reckons that this mini emergency had been planned to give me an exciting way to end the book. “Finish it on a cliff-hanger,” he said, “so that everyone will want to read the sequel.”