Surviving a spinal cord injury

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STOCKHOLM: There is a thrill in visiting another country.

On this Swedish voyage serious adventure was always a prospect. The rare encounter to meet with the King and Queen of Sweden, an opportunity to interview and meet two senior Swedish ministers as well as Captains of industry.

When I looked at my schedule I salivated at the mouth-watering prospect of hobnobbing with the big shots and I almost concluded that this would be the highlight of my Swedish escapade and everything else was going to be a sideshow. I even entertained thoughts of blocking out a late appointment with Dr Claes Hulting of the Spinalis Foundation. I am glad I did not.

No one meets Dr Hulting and leaves the same. An encounter with Dr Hulting lives you crying, smiling, heavy and light at heart. When he speaks his booming voice has a way of commanding attention. Two weeks prior to his wedding, he remembers the exact date, June 15, 1984, he broke his neck while diving in shallow water at the Stockholm archipelago. Ever since then he has lived with a Spinal Cord Injury (SCI) and this has even affected his left arm and that part of his body is without sensation. He is a tetraplegic.

He was already a qualified doctor when the accident happened. "As a doctor I knew what to do. I could refer myself and I even knew when to scream and I even discharged myself. The ward is boring and completely unfeeling. I felt I needed to get up and work. It was difficult working in the Intensive Care Unit."

Seeing the agony and difficulty faced by people with spinal cord injuries, Dr Hulting decided to do something to assist all those who had spinal cord injuries. He had realised that the system of care in Sweden was imperfect to deal with the peculiar needs of people with SCI.

The result was the establishment of the Spinalis Foundation. An organisation that was to establish a centre for spinal cord injury rehabilitation and research. "Every year people are injured in car crashes, motor cycle accidents, diving into pools, falling accidents and they injure their spines and are confined to wheelchairs. After the accident they do not think about what they need to do but they think about what they are unable to do. They need successful rehabilitation, change of attitude. They need to know how to control bowels and use bladders, deal with pressure sores, use wheelchairs.

While they wait for the cure they need to enjoy life, drink wine, drive cars, work, have sex and do everything that people who walk on two legs enjoy."Dr Hulting should know what he is talking about as he defied all known laws and managed to have a child even though he had SCI.

"I have a child, he is a teenager now." Dr Hulting says most SCI patients, 80 percent, are men. "The majority are between the ages of 20-30, a sexually intense part of life. In this situation, one of your first concerns is whether you can have sex again. Most men with SCI do not have sexual erections. A reflex erection is there, but in most cases, it still does not work. Most couples find a way to cope with their new situation."

He has been used as the lead investigator in coming up with Viagra and he says such a drug can be used in people who have SCI. The introduction of Viagra has meant a lot for men with SCI. Walking through the Spinalis Centre is both a physical and mental journey. Seeing the rehabilitation facilities such as the kitchen, rooms fitted with beds and toilets that are specially made for people with SCI, work benches for them to re-skill in physical vocations.

The gym room for the SCI to build their lower bodies or upper bodies and to play such sports as table tennis and basketball. Having succeeded in Sweden, Dr Hulting wants to recreate the Spinalis model in Gaborone. It took just a chance meeting and a social discussion with the then Health Minister, Lesego Motsumi to plant a seed that saw the Spinalis project taking shape at Princess Marina Hospital in Gaborone.

The situation in Botswana, he says is compounded by the wide use of open trucks with limited or no adherence to safety standards and thus leading to many cases of SCI cases.  In a year, he says, over 120 Batswana suffer spinal injuries. Over the years these cases received assistance from South Africa but now that the Spinalis Centre has been set up at Princess Marina he believes millions of Pula will be saved.''

We are about to leave and Dr Hulting needs a big favour from us to enable him to carry out a project that has promise for many Batswana who need rehabilitation. "I am told there is some money from the alcohol levy, please find out how we can access this fund to assist this project.''

Perhaps out of exasperation with Botswana bureaucracy he voices his displeasure with the slow pace of discussion between his organisation and the Motor Vehicle Accident Fund. "We want to work with MVA but every time I go there all I get is a free T-shirt but I do not need a free T-shirt. I need action," he says as he wheels himself to the bathroom.

After seeing the laudable efforts of this irrepressible man and the indefatigable men and women in wheelchairs undergoing therapy you do not know whether to cry seeing how accidents have disrupted lives or to glow seeing how the spirit of man triumphs, 0 even over adversity.

Editor's Comment
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