I am working on a research project – or at least I am starting to think about a research project to see whether it has legs. My interest is in the connection between virtue and human flourishing. That sounds complex, but what I am thinking about doing is interviewing long-term quadriplegics in an effort to discern what it is that is has enabled them to flourish over the long term in the face of immense challenge. There are some horrifying and depressing stories in the spinal community, and there are some amazing stories, and I would love to be able to record some of them; the good and the bad, and try and discern whether there is any meaning to be found.
Last week I had the privilege of recording an interview with John and Pam Trefry. They are robust and powerful 70-year-old Australians, and John has been a spinal patient since 1959, aged 18. At a time when quadriplegics had a life expectancy of weeks and months rather than decades, John went on to survive and flourish as a C5/6 quad – and he has done so now for more than 50 years. John has a similar level of injury to my own (I am C4/5), and I find it hard to imagine 50 years in such a body.
Anyway, his story is far too long for a blog post, but I thought I might give you a few titbits. John spent seven months in hospital (five months in traction with a wishbone frame drilled into the skull) before being transferred to Weemala nursing home in Ryde, which bore a sign over its entry that read, “NSW Home for Incurables” (for those of you familiar with the spinal community, this site was later to host the Royal rehabilitation Centre, Sydney –http://www.royalrehab.com.au/history.html).
John spent most of his time flat on its back, since the nursing home did not have the staff resources to get him up regularly in a chair. What did he do with his time? Not much. There was no television, and he couldn’t read – his arms could not hold a book. He was, at least, wheeled outside and into common rooms where he was able to talk to the residents. Of course, they were mostly over 65 and John was 20 – he shared a room with two other men the youngest of whom was 65.
He once asked the matron, “how long am I going to be in here”. She replied, “when you come in here son, you don’t come in here to get better. You slowly get worse and die.”
It is hard to fathom what it is like to be 20, stuck on your back staring at the ceiling and receiving this sort of encouragement. This is the Hotel California masquerading as a nursing home (you can check out any time but you can never leave). I asked John what it was about his character that enabled him to get through this (he was later transferred to a spinal unit at Prince of Wales hospital that changed his life). He says that on his own he was depressed – feeling utterly hopeless and impotent. What got him through was the support of others. When he told his sister what had been said she insisted, “this is not going to happen to you.” She was later to find a way to move him to a spinal rehabilitation unit in Prince of Wales hospital.
The lesson, I think, is that the character traits that enable us to flourish in the face of hardship are not our own. We get them from the support, from the strength and determination of others. Where would we be without our family and friends? That old matron probably had it right. Slowly getting worse and waiting to die.