Wolfgang Illek aus Österreich
Wolfgang Illek aus Österreich  © Stefan Voitl

Photo story: Living With Spinal Cord Injury

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To find out what it’s like to live with spinal cord injury, we spent a day with our Wings For Life colleague Wolfgang Illek.

Living with spinal cord injury means you need a lot of time for everyday activities, things like washing or dressing, so each day is pretty tightly organised. But I’m lucky - I have a personal assistant with me, who is paid for by the national social services department.


Due to my high-level tetraplegia, I can’t really move my arms or hands, and my fingers don’t really function at all. So things like holding a toothbrush only work because of my man-made hand functions. I had the sinews shortened as part of my rehabilitation.


Customized wristbands also make daily activities a bit easier. With them, I can move my wheelchair better and integrated laces mean I can use a knife and fork.

After my injury, I didn’t have to change my eating habits, but using the toilet needs be worked out in advance, as my bladder and bowl are heavily impaired. This subject, a bit of a social taboo really, is a sensitive issue. Most people concerned are afraid to talk about it.


I’m always loved sporting activity. Before the accident this was done to compete, but now I do it for health reasons. I train on a special hand bike and try to do a daily workout of at least 40 minutes. Doing this means I’m trying to activate my weak circular flow to prevent dermal issues. I also do physiotherapy and other training to prevent any shortening of my muscles and sinews.


Since 2009, I’ve worked at Wings for Life. Despite the long journey to the headquarters in Salzburg, I’m always look forward to getting to my desk, and not just because of my friends and colleagues. I’m in the office one day a week and the rest of the time I work from home.


I am mainly responsible for looking into the prevention of spinal cord injuries, as well as various other projects. I’m also grateful that the working atmosphere here is very flexible and accommodating to my own needs.


Due to my loss of finger function, in order to work I needed to find creative solutions. During rehabilitation I learned to use my knuckles to use the keyboard on my computer… which does, of course, take longer to type.


Luckily, I have a modified mobile phone... this helps a lot.


Weekly meetings at Wings for Life happen on the days when I’m in Salzburg. As someone who lives with spinal cord injury I can give input to various projects from our point of view.


In general, only a few buildings are barrier-free. That means having good colleagues is even more important. Here (above) I had an appointment at an advertising agency. Using a special technique, it’s possible to get over the stairs - but those who help me out need to be shown the right way as some movements can easily do harm.


I’m very proud of my van. After some modification I can get in and drive it myself. This regained mobility means a lot to me, as I still get frustrated from time to time with being dependent on others.


Back home. Again it needs some creative thinking to find a comfortable resting position despite the wheelchair. Just leaning back saves time and energy.


Before my accident I didn’t even consider spinal cord injuries. I had a paraplegic friend and admired his strength, how he dealt with his injury. Today I envy him a little, as he can move his arms and fingers without any difficulty. But hey, I know I’m doing well compared to others. People in other countries don’t have the fortune to have access to good medical treatment or rehabilitation - far from it! Many patients still die after their injury due to a lack of medical knowledge or facilities. I’m also fortunate to have the assistance and publically funded services which enable me to live a meaningful live. Nevertheless, I cannot wait to put my wheelchair in the corner and continue my ‘old life’…


Photos: Stefan Voitl