My Life With a Spinal Cord Injury. Part 1.
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Claudia Miler is a quadriplegic, meaning she cannot move and feel her body from the shoulders down. In our three-part interview series she allows us to peer behind the curtain – into a truly impressive life.
Accident, Wheelchair, Infinite Sadness
Claudia, you are confined to a wheelchair. What happened?
I was 16, studying at a polytechnic institute with a focus on photography. In November 1998, I decided to spend the afternoon with friends in a nearby shopping centre. I still remember the red donut stand there, and its lingering scent of warm sugar. It was already dark when we drove home. I was sitting in the back seat, not wearing a seat belt. The car suddenly shot off the road, overturned, and I was catapulted through the rear window. The other two passengers remained unharmed. I tried to stand up, to move my arms and hands, but it was not possible. I could hardly breathe. When the paramedics arrived, I immediately asked whether I had suffered a spinal cord injury. The emergency doctor refused to answer at the time. Then I was given medication.
What’s the next thing you remember?
I remember coming to in the trauma room of a hospital. Someone was removing my piercings. My long black hair had been shaved off because of the lacerations on my head. That felt like a disaster at the time. I had no clue what else was coming… I was diagnosed with a skull base fracture and rib fractures. My spinal cord was cut off by a haematoma at the level of the 6th/7thcervical vertebra. I have been paralysed from that level downwards ever since.
How did you experience your time in the ICU?
In the beginning I was exhausted, under strong medication, and slept a lot. When I started feeling a little better, I underwent respiratory training every single day. I remember thinking at the time: “I’m 16 and I haven’t even had a boyfriend yet. No man will ever show an interest in me when I’m in a wheelchair.” However, it didn’t take me long to realise that there was nothing I could do to change what had happened. That approach helped me come to terms with the situation.
Did you have support?
Yes. My mum was at my side for the entire three weeks I spent in the ICU. I was grateful, of course, but it was almost too much for me back then. Looking back, it probably would have made sense to talk to each other more about everything.
The next step was rehabilitation, right?
Yes, exactly. I was transferred to a rehab facility after spending two months in hospital. It soon became apparent that I had retained a few bodily functions on the left, but also that the right half of my body was far worse off. I was extremely pubertal and thus a real handful for the caregivers. They told me that my skin was red from sitting so long and that I needed to go to bed at 7pm to relieve it. I was told to adhere to catheter times, show discipline, and monitor my body. I was supposed to document my fluid intake to know how much I would pee. I just thought: “What do you all want from me?”
Did you manage to “settle in” somehow?
There were many other young people who had suffered spinal cord injuries. We became friends, supported and motivated each other. On the weekends, we’d challenge each other by counting how many laps we could manage in our wheelchairs. And after seven months, I returned home.
How was the transition from a protected environment into everyday life?
I was exhausted and didn’t really know what to do with myself. I couldn’t move or feel my hands and fingers after the accident. At that time the world was still analogue. I couldn’t even adjust camera films alone, let alone access the dark room in my wheelchair. My dream of becoming a photographer was shattered.
I bounced from one school to the next. While my friends were pursuing careers and shouldering responsibilities, I plunged into a deep hole. I hid in my room during the day and hit the streets at night. I partied hard and drank too much. When I was 19, my mum moved out because we simply couldn’t live under the same roof anymore…
That sounds lonely.
Yes, I was very lonely. I almost failed to find a way out of this rut. I was so dissatisfied, chose sub-par partners, and was treated by them accordingly. It was really bad.
How long did that last?
Until I became pregnant…
Tomorrow, in the second part of our series, Claudia tells us more about being a tetraplegic single mum.