Learning To Live Again Post Spinal Cord Injury

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Peter was young and physically fit when he became a quadriplegic from a diving accident. Peter had just finished teaching swimming lessons when he decided to swim some laps himself before meeting a friend for dinner. He dove into the pool, and suddenly, everything changed for him.

“The next thing I knew, I remember tasting blood, and losing control of my limbs.”

Peter was rushed to Singapore General Hospital where his parents met him and were able to see him briefly. Peter uttered the words, “Mum, I’m very sorry,” as he was wheeled into the operating theater. The surgeon told Peter’s parents that his chance of survival was very slim. Peter’s spinal cord had been transected between the fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae and he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Another chance at life

But Peter did survive the operation. And when he awoke in a hospital bed, he recalls the beginning of a very dark period in his life. “I remember feeling very lonely and desperate,” Peter shares about those first few nights after his injury. “I was calling in vain for my family who was out of earshot.”

Peter’s mother says that Peter shut down in those early days. “He refused to accept his condition,” she shares. Peter was sad, desperate, and refused to speak about his circumstances. Still, his family and friends remained by his side and provided both care and comfort for Peter. Someone familiar was always with Peter overnight to help.

“In those dark days, I was very fortunate to have the love, support, and encouragement of family and friends.”

Once Peter was stable, he was transferred to Ang Mo Kio Community Hospital where he began rehab in the Tan Tock Seng Rehab Unit. It was here where Peter met Gilbert, a quadriplegic who had been injured in a similar accident years before. Gilbert wanted to help Peter move forward with life. “But I remember turning him away initially,” explains Peter, “as I still couldn’t accept my condition.”

Embracing the support of a mentor

It wasn’t until later during Peter’s rehab stay that he and Gilbert struck up a friendship. Gilbert used his own experience to help Peter get through this difficult transition toward a new life. “So I sort of let him know that it’s not a dead end,” says Gilbert. “It’s difficult. You need to cry. In fact, you have to cry. It takes courage to cry.”

“I was very impressed with his positive outlook on life despite his condition,” Peter says of Gilbert. As the men got to know one another better, Peter learned that Gilbert was an accomplished mouth painter and was able to be financially independent.

“I began to slowly accept my condition, and I decided to move on and see what I could do with the rest of my life.”

So with a new attitude to guide him, Peter began looking to the future and what career he could achieve. At that time, he had just about one year left to complete his Electrical and Computer Engineering degree in the United States, but felt that path was out of grasp for now. So he decided to use the credits he’d accumulated and apply to the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Investing in a future 

The dean of the Engineering Faculty came to the hospital to visit Peter and discuss his academic path. The dean told Peter that Electrical Engineering might not be the best choice for him since a completion of an industrial attachment was necessary. Instead, the dean suggested a Computer Science path, “as that would minimize the need for me to travel to campus with the help of modern technology” explains Peter.

Peter enrolled in Computer Science courses in 1996, two years after his injury. He attended classes accompanied my his maid (caregiver) who would record lectures that he would later transcribe. “A one hour lecture would take a few hours to transcribe,” says Peter whose mother and aunt helped him with the task.

Peter’s positive outlook and persistence made an impact on both faculty and classmates during his time at NUS. Peter was the best graduate of the School of Computing  and received the Lee Kuan Yew Gold Medal for his achievements.

After his schooling, Peter went on to hold jobs at the Medical Computing Laboratory at NUS and the Group Strategic Marketing and Communications Department at DBS Bank. Peter works mostly from home where he uses voice recognition software to complete his tasks, and also relies on help from his parents.

Peter has made remarkable strides from those dark days initially following his injury. His change in attitude has propelled him to achieve his goal of becoming financially independent. Peter says he owes so much of his success to his family who has been there for him from the beginning.

Worries for the future

Still, even with the success he’s had, he's wonders how long he will be able to work and what will happen to him when his parents pass away. Peter’s parents echo his sentiments: “Myself, my wife, are getting old each day, and we will not be here forever,” shares Peter’s father. It is Peter’s mother’s hope that Peter will find a partner who will love and help him in the future. “If he can find a partner, then I’m very relieved,” she says.

But Peter knows that the future is something he has no control over. “So I just try to focus on doing my very best,” says Peter, and prays that his faith will help him through the challenges of the future as it has done with the challenges of his past.

Peter’s journey has taught him that life goes on no matter the circumstances. It is Peter’s greatest hope that his story will inspire others to carry on despite insurmountable odds.

“Tomorrow will always come and you can never change that. What you can change is the way you position yourself  to embrace it.”

Share this story to help someone who may be struggling with a new way of life.

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