Imagine your whole world changing in the blink of an eye.
Dancing had always been a part of Tom’s life, and he was living his dream while studying at Codarts University for the Arts in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Having landed a position at a top dance company, he was about to embark on his professional career. But Tom’s life took an unexpected turn while on holiday with some friends in Portugal.
On a day at the beach, Tom dived under a small wave like he’d done many times before. This time was different. He hit his head on a sandbar and suffered a C5 spinal cord injury.He immediately couldn’t feel his body and after being rushed to hospital, was diagnosed with full tetraplegia (also known as quadriplegia).
“Everything went silent and eerily calm. I couldn’t move my arms and legs or catch my breath as I came to the surface. All of a sudden I was on the sand again and could see my friends in front of me. Their faces told me everything I needed to know. In that moment my life changed completely.”
Tom was left paralysed from the neck down. He had sustained a critical injury to his cervical vertebrae and damage to the surrounding nerves. His future was changed forever.
“I was shell-shocked. For days I thought that they might have been wrong and that I would be the exception,” Tom says.
As a dancer, being able to freely express himself through movement formed a huge part of Tom’s identity. So to him, the inability to voluntarily move his body was utterly devastating.
“I was sad to leave a life I knew so well behind and enter a period where you couldn’t predict anything. I was sad to be a person that I didn’t recognise anymore, living a life that you never would’ve imagined you’d be living,” he said.
Tom is one of the estimated 20,800 people across Australia who is living with a spinal cord injury (SCI)1. There are approximately 12,100 people with SCI under the age of 65, and 81% of SCIs in people in this age group are the result of traumatic causes, like Tom’s accident. There are also approximately 8,700 people living with a SCI over the age of 65, with 71% as a result of non-traumatic causes like tumours and degenerative disorders. Whatever the cause, we want to be able to continue research to help improve everyday life for people with a spinal cord injury.
Things can be quite different depending on what type of spinal cord injury you have. Tetraplegia is classed as a complete spinal cord injury (SCI), where the injured person cannot move anything below the area injured. For Tom, his spinal cord was affected at the base of the neck. This type of spinal cord injury is in the same group as paraplegia, affecting movement and sensation in the lower body and legs.
However, loss of movement is just the tip of the iceberg – ongoing pain, digestive health issues, pressure sores, spasm, loss of bladder and bowel control and impaired sexual function are just some of the effects that can make everyday life difficult.
Imagine your whole world changing in the blink of an eye. More can be done to help those suffering from a spinal cord injury – and your donation could help us find the answers.
After five weeks in a Lisbon hospital, Tom returned to Australia for surgeries and rehabilitation at the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney. There, relearning the simplest tasks was difficult, often agonisingly slow and maintaining a positive mindset was also tough.
“Holding a coffee cup and tying your shoelaces are these goals that you set for yourself but when you reach them it’s hard not to think ‘well this is not anything special’,” Tom says.
But these were incredible milestones for someone like Tom, who could not move anything below his neck a few months earlier. Doctors could not tell him how much feeling and control he would get back, so he had no choice but to continue with their expert help and hope that things would improve.
“But then you’ll do something without even thinking about it. For me that was grabbing something with my left arm. I got so excited when I did that because you realise while it might be slow your body is responding. The possibility that more movement would come back was real for me,” he said.
With hard work and determination Tom learned how to do things like write and feed himself again. But one of his biggest milestones was being able to walk, and when he did, this astonishing achievement made him even more determined to walk out of hospital.
“My first steps were incredible. I had the biggest smile on my face. For me it was the start of a new chapter. I knew it was possible for me and now I just needed to train myself. In a way it was like dance, you did it once so you just keep doing it until you can do it every single time,” he says.
“I never skipped rehabilitation with my physio and did as much as I could outside of sessions. I even lay in bed at night and thought about the motions of walking as I was convinced that I could train my brain to send better signals to my legs. Mostly this just ended with me dreaming about running. Maybe that helped too, I can’t be sure.”
Tom’s hard work enabled him to walk out of hospital, which was a miraculous achievement. But the work doesn’t stop here, his recovery is ongoing and he will keep working at this for the rest of his life.
Many people with spinal cord injury can’t achieve the same amazing results as Tom, but every small improvement means a great deal. NeuRA is committed to spinal cord injury research, and we need your help.
Now, Tom is working on another life-changing achievement. A medical degree. With an ambition to pursue a career in rehabilitation medicine, he wants to help change the lives of more people with spinal cord injury.
“There’s no question why I would like to pursue this specialisation. I really want to help other people through the rehabilitation process and to help them understand the different stages of rehabilitation, mentally and psychologically,” he says.
Something he already started working on with us at the Spinal Cord Injury Research Centre (SCIRC) at NeuRA. Established in 2020, and funded by SpinalCure Australia and Catwalk New Zealand, it is home to studies that could lead to significant changes in how we help people with spinal cord injuries.
My team and I are exploring cutting-edge techniques which could help activate muscles in people with incomplete spinal cord injuries. One of these is the eWALK trial.
In this trial we are using neurostimulation therapy to send electrical impulses through electrodes that sit on the surface of the skin over the spinal cord. The stimulation acts like a hearing aid for the spinal cord: tailored electrical currents can amplify messages transmitted via surviving neural pathways, enhancing communication between the brain and the body. When the stimulation is coupled with stepping and walking training in people with chronic paraplegia, the therapy aims to rewire impaired neural pathways.
While the results of previous small neurostimulation studies are promising, this technology can’t be converted into clinical practice and trialled for more people with different spinal cord injuries, without more funding.
We need your help to expand studies like eWALK. It’s the only way we can advance the quality of life for people with spinal cord injury.
We were thrilled to have Tom join us at SCIRC last year as a researcher. His recovery is a true inspiration. He has directly experienced the power of research, and knowing that some of the world’s leading researchers are working on answering the questions that could improve the lives of so many, keeps him going too.
“NeuRA’s research is essential because it gives us information that will help us find new insights, making improvements to the lives of people with spinal cord injury. And those small improvements are big wins that make a huge difference for people like me,” Tom says.
This is why we need your help. We want to be able to help more people with injuries like Tom’s. Your generous support will help us fund further research into spinal cord injury and help people affected regain some precious measure of independence and better quality of life.
Your donation means so much. Thank you for joining us as we work towards improving the lives of the thousands of Australians with spinal cord injury.
All gifts over $2 are tax deductible.