For the past three years, my life has been geared around one main goal: to walk to Cambridge University’s Senate House on graduation day 2014, and graduate. Three years ago, my biggest challenge was the work required to pass my BA, which then seemed almost fantastically insurmountable. Over the past year and a half, however, another aspect of the day has become the greater challenge: to walk the 150 yards from St John’s College to the Senate House. Eight months ago, flicking through photographs of the sunlit, beaming faces of friends in the year above on that infamous walk, I promised myself that, however much physiotherapy it might require, I would follow in their footsteps.
Yesterday, I sat in my orthopaedic surgeon’s consulting room and accepted that, whatever happens on graduation day this year, I will not be walking. Scrolling through a recent MRI scan of my right leg, he traced with his finger the white patches which criss-crossed the healthy black. ‘Your bones,’ he said in amazement, ‘are crumbling.’
The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore is an incredible place, and they are very kindly funding – at great expense, with a generosity many hospitals would not permit – an ‘Exogen’ ultrasound machine, which will hopefully heal the worst of my existing leg and foot fractures. All my life, the healing of an injury has precipitated frantic encouragement to start weight-bearing as soon as possible, however much it hurts, so as to increase bone density and muscle mass. It is a catch-22 situation: bone density and muscle mass are essential to prevent further fractures, but the stress of weight-bearing might cause further fractures itself. The fragility of my bones has now tipped the balance; walking is no longer an option.
I cannot count the number of times I have learned to walk. I also cannot count the number of nights I have spent in sleepless agony, because walking is something my body is simply not designed to do. ‘Giving up’ walking feels like a heart-wrenching waste of the years my doctors, surgeons, physiotherapists and other specialists – as well as my family and I – have invested in getting me walking. Yet it is also a great relief. I have been using a wheelchair more-or-less full-time for a few months now, and the pain which I have felt in my knees, legs and feet for as long as I can remember has almost completely disappeared. I am sleeping better, and my mood and concentration span have improved dramatically. Once my current fractures heal, there is a real possibility my legs might never break again. My life is no longer in a state of flux, prefixing every long-term plan with ‘If I can walk by then…’, working constantly towards increasingly unreachable goals. More importantly, my day-to-day plans will no longer be dictated by the short distances I can walk. I can wheel faster and further than I could ever walk. The complicated logistics of life in a wheelchair aside, my horizons have only broadened.
I am fortunate to count amongst my friends not only the black-robed graduands who walked to the Senate House last summer, but a number of fabulous wheelchair-users who are living proof that a wheelchair is in no way a barrier to success. I will not be walking to the Senate House this June. I am learning to accept that such an ambition, the product of a society structured around able-bodied norms and values, was never that important, anyway.