Surviving Recovery

Elizabeth Quinn

Elizabeth draws on personal experience in this Users Guide To Maintaining a Positive Attitude on the Road to Recovery.

In the weeks and months of recuperation following serious illness or injury, it can be an uphill battle to maintain a positive attitude, especially when a full recovery is not a likely outcome.

Everyone’s road to recovery is an individual experience. In my case, the euphoria of having survived a high speed collision carried me through the first weeks of my recuperation. Although my neck had been broken in two places, the spinal cord had not been severed. I was greatly reassured to know I would not end up in a wheelchair, but only time would tell what the impact of my injury on my future employment and long-term health outcomes would be.

My immediate concern was learning to live in an upper body brace (or Minerva brace) night and day for the next three months. ‘Minerva’ became my constant companion, restricting my movements to either lying down flat on my back (no pillows allowed), or standing up straight as a ramrod. She cupped my chin in a vice like grip and extended her reach to the top of the back of my head.

The combination of 24 hour discomfort, chronic lack of sleep and uncertainty about the future are not the ideal ingredients for maintaining optimism. The journey towards recovery can be eased by following some simple guidelines.

Concentrate on getting well

Give yourself permission to set aside your day-to-day worries and concentrate on getting well. Every day that passes is a day closer to good health.

Find something to look forward to

Make sure you have something to look forward to, no matter how small. The sheer bliss of my fortnightly shower, followed by the change of brace linings and two minutes of Minerva-free existence were the highlights of my life in those first few months.

Smell the roses

On my first forays into the world outside my bedroom, that is exactly what I did. I would shuffle slowly around the block on the arm of one or other of my children, whose job it was to point out any uneven cement paver, or wet camellia on the footpath, or scattered gravel from a driveway: all potential hazards to the unsuspecting traveller with no peripheral vision thanks to an upper body brace that allowed no movement whatsoever. But with a little care, I could lean in towards the roses at number 24 and inhale deeply; a habit I began that first autumn, maintained throughout the winter and into the spring. It is a ritual I still practise on my daily morning walk whenever I pass that bloom-filled garden.

Family and friends

Enjoy the extra time you have to spend with family members. Those hours spent pounding the pavement with my children, without the distractions of screen, phone or i-pod, were among my happiest memories of that time. You might also use the time to catch up with friends. They helped to keep my mood buoyant and were my connection with the outside world. I loved hearing stories of their daily lives while mine was in limbo.

Support groups

If you are feeling isolated, contact your Return to Work co-ordinator or case manager to find out about support groups in your area or online.

Indulge yourself

Take the opportunity of enforced ‘house arrest’ to indulge in that guilty pleasure known as Daytime TV. If Oprah is not to your taste, catch up on some quality TV series courtesy of your local video store. I got to know Rachel and the gang in Friends, Carrie et al from Sex and the City, and the solitary (and very gorgeous) Halgrim Halgrimson of The Eagle, an acquaintance for which I will be forever grateful. Add to the list the lovely Don Draper of Mad Men, Dr John ‘J.D.’ Dorian of Scrubs and the inimitable Stephen Fry in the role of Jeeves and my virtual dance card is complete.

Deal with one issue at a time

With the gradual return to good health, the problems of life in the real world begin to assume a greater significance. Questions arise that can threaten to overwhelm someone who is already vulnerable: When will I be fit for work? What sort of work will I be able to perform, given my injuries? Will I make a full recovery? I found it helpful to compartmentalise and deal with one issue at a time.

Commit to rehab

A good part of my time was devoted to exercise and rehabilitation. It’s amazing how much time can be spent in working towards wellness. And there was no lack of incentive. Every extra degree I achieved in neck flexibility was greeted with great excitement by my physiotherapist John, all-round nice guy and my number one cheer squad. I was his ‘star pupil’ and I wasn’t going to lose my spot on top of his chart. With his encouragement, I joined a gym and eventually returned to long-distance swimming.

Set goals

I have set myself a goal of competing just one more time in the Pier-to-Pub ocean swim: not to improve on my time, just to complete it and thereby draw a line in the text of my life that says “I am fully recovered.” Come January of next year, I hope to be able to tick that box and move on.

Minimise the chance of such an injury happening again

Try to make sense of what has happened and take action to minimise the chances of the same thing happening again. The country intersection where the collision had taken place was a notoriously dangerous one. I contacted VicRoads and was heartened to hear that funding was being sought for a major upgrade of the intersection. It has now been transformed into what looks like the biggest roundabout in the Southern Hemisphere and I use it regularly. I derive much comfort from its existence.

Ask for the help you need

The TAC provided me with psychological counselling that helped to keep me on track when my natural optimism threatened to desert me. I was taught strategies to help me to cope with those moments, and teach me that they too would pass.
It’s now eighteen months on and I am well on the way to a full recovery. My life has changed for the better in that I no longer take it for granted and have learned to treasure every day I’ve been given as though it were a bonus. Thanks to my support team of health professionals, family and friends I have learned how much I have to live for.

  • Concentrate on getting well;
  • Have something to look forward to;
  • Smell the roses;
  • Make the most of time spent with friends and family;
  • Contact support groups;
  • Indulge yourself;
  • Deal with one issue at a time;
  • Commit to rehab;
  • Set goals;
  • Minimise the chance of such an injury happening again; and
  • Ask for the help you need.