© Phil Pham

Many Last Times

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Two years ago, Moritz suffered a spinal cord injury during a surfing accident. We met up with the student to talk about change, sex, and gratitude.

Moritz, you had travelled to Chile at the time. However, the adventure was over after a mere week. What happened?
It was actually my first major trip ever, with a youth group. We visited the Atacama Desert, saw spectacular geysers, and made some incredibly beautiful memories.

Moritz with a friend in Chile. (Phil Pham)
Moritz with a friend in Chile.  © Phil Pham

Then the 8th of March dawned. We rented some wetsuits and went surfing. I had never surfed before, but it turned out I was a bit of a natural and mastered the board quickly. The water was freezing cold. Then that one wave came along. I rode it like all the other waves during the previous two hours. The wave slackened and I fell off the board. This time I was unlucky enough to smash my head on the sandy ground. I can still remember experiencing a dull strike to the skull…

What happened next?
I was attempting to surface with my eyes closed due to the salt water, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t move my arms properly, so I struggled to lift my head above the water to call for help. I simply couldn’t draw enough air in. 

A situation that is impossible to sustain for any longer period of time, I’m sure.
I was probably ten seconds away from drowning when I heard someone running towards me through the water. A friend dragged me out and dropped me off on the beach. Several people immediately converged on the scene; one of them touched my legs and said something about a contusion. When the ambulance arrived, I was placed on a stretcher, restrained, and taken to hospital.

Did you understand what they told you at the hospital?
No, I couldn’t understand a word. I was x-rayed and underwent surgery. After that, I spent half a day in the hospital unable to move. You just lie there and stare into nothingness, really. There is an element of fear, but at the same time you have no clue what’s going on. Finally, an English-speaking doctor explained to me that I had fractured my 5th cervical vertebra and injured my spinal cord at the level of the 7th cervical vertebra. He beat about the bush for quite some time before he told me I was now a paraplegic.

That must have come as a shock…
It was awful, but I remember thinking that I should be more upset. I found out later that I had been given anti-depressants straight away. Maybe that helped, but maybe I was already too focused on my plan to regain independence as quickly as possible.

Moritz right after his accident in the hospital in Chile.  (Private)
Moritz right after his accident in the hospital in Chile.   © Private

That’s such an impressive reaction. Did your strength help your family come to terms with the situation?
My parents found out what had happened via friends. I spoke to my dad on the phone after the surgery. Both my mum and I couldn’t have coped with talking to each other. Hearing her cry would have hurt me too much. My parents and brother were able to visit two weeks later after they had obtained the necessary visas. They provided tremendous support.

When were you allowed to return home?
After spending three weeks in the Chilean hospital, I was flown back to Germany in a passenger plane, lying down for 14 hours. I developed a pressure sore from not lying correctly. I was admitted to a rehabilitation centre immediately, where I had to lie on my side for a fortnight until my skin had healed.

In rehabilitation, one has to learn many things all over again. How did you cope with that?
For the most part, I can no longer move my body from the shoulder blades downwards – and I can’t feel it either. Suffering a spinal injury ends a chapter of your life – forever.
I spent six months there and had to relearn everything: eating, drinking, brushing my teeth, sleeping, and using a wheelchair. Your mobility, the way you perceive yourself, and how you interact with others changes, as does whether you find yourself attractive. I was blessed with strong self-esteem before the accident, but it had suddenly disappeared completely.

Memories of a past life.  (Phil Pham )
Memories of a past life.   © Phil Pham

What was the toughest aspect for you personally?
The toughest aspect certainly was dealing with bowel movements. The whole process suddenly took so much longer. I spent about five minutes on the toilet before the accident, but suddenly you became the marionette of others for one-and-a-half to two hours. It is such an intimate aspect of life, and initially you feel even more uncomfortable in the presence of younger nurses. They all did an excellent job, I must say.
My days during rehab were always fully scheduled with sports, physio work, and ergotherapy. I experienced my first real setback when I returned home. From one day to the next, there was no plan whatsoever: no therapy, no friends in wheelchairs, and no purpose. Things went very quiet, and I was alone. However, I refused to surrender. Instead, I started to train, make plans, and organise my life.

The scar is now a part of him.
The scar is now a part of him.  

You fell in love not too long after the accident, right? ;-)
Yes, that’s true. We are no longer together, but I owe a lot to my girlfriend of the time. She researched the situation, was incredibly patient, and we experimented together. For instance, we figured out the best posture for kissing. We found out which positions still work, and which ones don’t. Being intimate is still possible, but it is nothing like it used to be.

The young German in his apartment in Munich.  (Phil Pham )
The young German in his apartment in Munich.   © Phil Pham

Could you elaborate?
Well, I have regained many abilities after the accident. It may take more time or the help of others, but I get by somehow. I will, however, never feel anything like an orgasm ever again! I can’t feel anything down there. If I find my partner visually appealing, my blood pressure and body temperature rise, but I don’t feel anything else beyond that anymore. Medication like Viagra needs to be taken well in advance – if it works at all. There’s nothing spontaneous about the act. And there are side effects such as, in my case, really nasty headaches.

Is that a bodily function you’d like to regain?
Oh yes, right alongside regaining control over my bladder and bowels. There is always the risk of something going wrong. I’m constantly prepared for the worst.

And yet you still have this air of optimism about you…
Yes, of course! I now study social media, deliver lectures, and lead a fairly independent life. I firmly believe that you can make the best of every situation and I intend to soak up everything that life offers me.

Once you realise that it could all be over in a flash, you realise you need to enjoy every day. Back then, before the accident, I wasn’t aware that it would be the last time I walk through grass or dance. I am infinitely grateful for everything I can do, as I know it could be the last time. 

Wings for Life aims to make spinal cord injuries curable. Thank you for your donations.