Paul’s story

Paul shares his story of a cliff fall which fractured two vertebrae in his spine. Thanks to the fantastic treatment he received and his determination to recover, he's now doing better than ever.

The next few seconds changed my life for good. As I took a couple of steps forward, I stumbled and fell approximately 14 metres into the sea landing flat on my back. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had broken my neck.

My name is Paul and I’m 58 and was diagnosed with AS in the mid-eighties.

I was very frightened at the time. I’d just completed my apprenticeship as a carpenter and joiner and was involved in a lot of team sports, I had my life ahead of me and I didn’t know how the condition would impact on my life.

Fast forward to 2017 and I had a lot of spinal fusion and a forward stop (kyphosis). My rheumatologist warned me to be careful on uneven ground as a fall could be fatal.   I’m a determined and positive person and I wasn’t going to let this deter me from getting on with my life., I was determined to carry on as normal as possible but within reason.

In 2018 my wife and I went on holiday to Jamaica. We had wanted to visit for many years and saved to make it possible.  During the holiday disaster struck.

We visited Rick’s Cafe, a place where holiday makers and locals jump and dive off the cliffs into the sea. It is a beautiful location and setting, there is a restaurant and café, live music and it overlooks the sea giving beautiful views including stunning sunsets.

I was keen to get a good vantage point to watch the locals diving and jumping and decided to go off track and walked close to the cliff edge which was flat but slightly rugged.  The next few seconds changed my life for good. As I took a couple of steps forward, I stumbled and fell approximately 14 metres into the sea landing flat on my back. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I had broken my neck.

I was taken to the local hospital where they carried out an x ray and told me that I had sprained my neck.  The following day I was told that I could leave and go back to the hotel, even though I couldn’t move.

When I requested a ‘fit to fly note’ the hospital arranged for a scan at another hospital. As I came out of the scanner, I knew from the doctors faces that something was wrong.

I was then taken to a private hospital in Montego Bay which was covered by my holiday insurance.  Due to the severity of the injury, they were unable to do anything for me and plans were made to bring me back to the UK as soon as possible. Four days later I was flown home by air ambulance.

To enable me to fly, a halo was fitted to my scull to stabilise my head and neck. The flight was traumatic, the air ambulance was a small Lear jet and the journey took fifteen hours and three stops, two in Canada and one in Iceland.  I’m so glad that I had travel insurance, it wasn’t cheap due to my medical conditions, but it was worth every penny, if I had not have had it, I would still be in Jamaica now!

When we landed at Birmingham airport, I was transferred by specialist ambulance to the Robert Jones and Angus Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital in Oswestry. This hospital specialises in spinal traumas and is a fabulous facility.

The following day when I met the surgeon and his team, they explained the severity of the break, I had broken vertebrae’s C5 and C6 and the break was called a ‘chalk stick fracture’. A section of the broken bone had just dinked my spinal cord which affected my right arm and hand, my hand was in the closed position and I couldn’t open it. I was told that it was a miracle that I wasn’t paralysed or even dead.

During eight hours of surgery I was put back together by the amazing team and the long road to recovery began.  I always try to take a positive out of a negative and in this case my accident was a blessing in disguise.  I had met a fantastic medical team and a hospital who were now prepared to manage my AS.

During this time my body was not coping well with the morphine and this prompted me to look into other pain relief options.  I was told that cannabis was good for spinal cord injuries and pain relief but unfortunately, it is not available on the NHS. I was determined to try it and managed to obtain the cannabis in an oil format.  The results were and still are astonishing to this day, it gives me pain relief without the bad side effects of opioids.

The issue with my right hand being in the closed position was frustrating and I was determined to get it working again, I initially started to teach myself to write with my left hand but never gave up hope with my right hand.  In hospital I was given a spongy ‘red nose’ toy which I placed in my right hand, I’d then cover the hand with my left hand and squeezed it tight and then released it.  I also cut the fingers off an old glove and fitted lolly pop sticks inside the finger holes, I’d then wear the glove, forcing my fingers straight for fifteen minutes and then revert to squeezing the red nose.  After four weeks the sensation began to come back in my hand to the amazement of the medical team.

I feel it is important that patients with AS are aware that a trip or fall could result in a fractured spine which could be fatal, it’s also important that the emergency services are made aware of a patient who has AS, to prevent then strapping them flat to a spinal board which would cause more damage.  I now carry an ICE card (in case of emergency) which states that in the event of a fall my spine must be treated as broken until proven otherwise, it also states that I must not be laid flat.

Finally, positive mental attitude is so important, we need to accept our condition and focus on the future and the things that we can do rather than the things we can’t do.  There are associated issues with AS and these are sent to test us.