© Jürgen Skarwan

“I couldn’t accept it”

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Almost 10 years ago, Werner Rosenberger suffered a fall and was diagnosed with an incomplete spinal cord injury. Here, the 42-year-old speaks about the consequences and how he lives with his injury today.

How was your life before you had the accident?
I’m from Krems, but I studied in Vienna. I didn’t complete my studies, though, as I was eager to work and be more active. I worked in the catering industry and was always on the road. I was also very athletic and performed in public many times as a musician with my trombone. I did a lot of commuting between Krems and Vienna; I was always restless and found it very difficult to commit.

How long did you live that lifestyle?
I feel like I was young for a very long time. Then I met Maria, my life partner, when I was 27. A few years later, we decided to start a family and moved to Krems. I became a father at the age of 33 when our first son was born. That was 10 weeks before my accident…

How did the accident happen?
It was September 2, 2006 and my family had been hosting a party. I’d been helping out and decided to ride home on my bike. It was fairly late, but I felt up to it. I still don’t know how it happened, but I suddenly lost control of the bike, did a full somersault and landed on my head. I ended up on my stomach, unable to move an inch.

What happened next?
Some friends saw me fall and immediately called for help. Things moved quickly after that. The emergency response doctor arrived and removed my helmet very carefully. I was then flown by helicopter to a hospital in Vienna. I instantly realised that something really bad had happened to me.

What happened when you were admitted to hospital?
I had surgery and was placed in an artificial deep sleep for two weeks. I had terrible nightmares during the slow wake-up process. At first, I couldn’t move anything apart from my head. I panicked and fell into what felt like a deep hole. The only people I wanted to see were my girlfriend and my baby son.

What was the diagnosis?
My spinal cord was contused between C3/C4, at the upper cervical vertebrae level. The doctors told me that the diagnosis was an incomplete spinal cord injury.

What did that mean to you at the time?
I couldn’t accept it at all. After leaving the intensive care unit in Vienna, I spent three weeks in a normal hospital ward in Krems where I had therapy involving the manipulation of my entire body. I could feel dull sensations in my toes, which showed there were some residual functions. This is typical for incomplete spinal cord injury patients – some things still work. At the time, I was sure that I would soon be able to walk normally again. I was convinced that I would return to health if I trained hard. I was very naive, probably to protect myself.

What role did your family play?
My girlfriend was very brave and motivating. She made clear to everyone who visited me that they needed to be positive and that I didn’t want any pity. I’m sure she also had trouble accepting that my predicament was more serious than I wanted to admit.

And then you began the long process of rehabilitation…
Yes, I spent 10 months at [rehabilitation centre] Weißer Hof in Klosterneuburg. I had a lot of time to think about my situation, and I found support in audiobooks on spiritual healing and mental strength. My mobility improved during that time: I was able to hold a glass without help, managed to shave myself and relearnt how to brush my teeth. I was able to move my legs a little and, after six months, I managed to stand on them for the first time since the accident. I also learnt to control my bowels better. I was finally allowed to return home in July.

On foot, as you had hoped?
Unfortunately not. I have residual functions, but my body is limited in its reactions. Following the accident, I will need to use a wheelchair. I can’t remember exactly when it happened, but there came a point when I began to accept this new situation.

What was life like when you finally left the rehabilitation centre?
During my rehab, my family and friends had prepared an old house for barrier-free living. I suddenly needed help with almost everything, and it took some time before I adapted to my new life. Maria was very supportive. But the nursing part – washing me, assisting me on the toilet, and dressing me – was provided by a third party right from the start. As a couple, we decided to make a strict separation between our relationship and my care; I didn’t want Maria to become a service provider.

And your son was already a year old at the time…
Yes. He’d just learnt to walk. That was really tough on me, especially as I had thought that we would be learning that together. I soon realised that I needed to do something that didn’t involve me thinking about myself and my predicament.

So, what did you do?
I enrolled on a distance course in PR, which I completed after three years. After that, I shared my marketing expertise with clients and, soon after, I was approached by my current boss. At home, Maria and I decided that we desperately wanted a second child. So, four years after the birth of Felix, we conceived another son naturally.

How does it feel to be the father of two?
It’s not always easy for me. I try to do a lot with my sons – to sit them on my lap and lead a normal life with them – but they both only know their father as someone who needs a wheelchair. It does hurt when I see other fathers playing football and running around with their boys.

How do you deal with the low points?
In the beginning, I would wonder why, of all people, this had to happen to me. Then I met others who have the same kind of injury, but because theirs is a complete spinal cord injury they have to steer their wheelchairwith a mouth-operated joystick. So things sway back and forth. I have a desperate longing to stand on a mountain summit or play music, but I also remind myself that I need to accept my situation and make the best of it.

How is family life today?
An assistant supports me in everyday life and at work.

 (Jürgen Skarwan )
© Jürgen Skarwan

I still find it difficult to ask someone for help all the time. I had to learn to be modest and patient. I try to do a lot with my family, like watching my boys doing sports, and relish the time we all spend together.

Do you ever imagine there being a cure 
for spinal cord injuries?
Together with my boys I participated in the Wings for Life World Run and will start again on May 7th 2017.

I follow the work of Wings for Life and I’m thrilled that the research continues. I’m glad that safety plays such a major part in all the clinical studies. If there was something that could liberate me from my limitations, I would do whatever it takes. Until then, I’ll keep on imagining I can move my body, and dreaming about chasing after a football with the boys one day. 

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