My return to work after life-changing spinal injury

Carol Irvine, back at work after a spinal injury

A university lecturer from Glasgow who returned to work after a life changing spinal injury has thanked a National Lottery funded charity for its support.  In this blog Carol Irvine, 69, tells us how she has adapted to life in a wheelchair, thanks to the outreach and support team at Back Up

 ”On the day of my accident early in 2018, I was cycling around Millport with a friend visiting from overseas. The last thing I remember was seeing a pothole up ahead and then everything went black”, says Carol. “I don’t think I reacted in time. When I came to, my first thought was ‘I’ll just lie here for a minute or two and then get up’. Of course, I soon realised I couldn’t. Fortunately, a couple passing in their car had seen me. They called the island ambulance service and stayed with me until the ambulance arrived.”   

Carol had sustained a spinal cord injury in her neck and was to spend seven long months in the Spinal Injuries Unit within the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital.  Upon hearing about the severity of her condition, she says: “The x-ray confirmed that I had damaged my spine at neck level and because of the height of the break I wouldn’t be able to walk again, as my legs were not weight-bearing.” 

She was thankful for the friends and work colleagues who visited her in hospital. “I was never short of visitors and they were a wonderful source of support.”

Carol with her friend and colleague, fellow lecturer BrÍan Doonan, in the library at The University of Glasgow

It was while in the Unit that Carol was introduced to the outreach and support team at UK-wide charity Back Up. The organisation has a National Lottery Community Fund award of £149,859 to support people in Scotland who have recently sustained a spinal injury or have just left hospital, to stop them from becoming lonely or isolated.  

As part of the Unit’s Patient Education programme, Carol attended regular Wheelchair Skills sessions organised by Back Up, and it was from here that her confidence and independence using a wheelchair grew. Once discharged and back in the community she continued her rehab with Back Up’s support.” 

“Being in a wheelchair is a huge adjustment both physically and mentally”, says Carol. “Back Up helped me to become more skilful at using the chair and using my upper body strength to push myself.  They have been a wonderful source of support. You go through a range of emotions when you have a spinal injury so having that awareness and having Back Up to help recognise that is important.”  

Reflecting on leaving hospital, Carol says it was a huge adjustment: “Before the accident, I had lived happily for 25 years in a tenement building in a third floor flat, but I wasn’t able to go back. A Housing Association offered me a ground floor property and I now have the support of a district nursing team, and carers come in each morning to help me get ready.”  

As her rehabilitation progressed, there was one pressing thing on Carol’s mind; returning to work as an English language lecturer at the University of Glasgow. At 69 she was still enthused by her passion for teaching overseas students. “I love my job, and I have great colleagues, so was anxious to get back among them.”  

Carol has returned to her job as an English language lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Here she is with manager Carole MacDiarmid who is delighted to have her back

Once again, Back Up was there to provide support and offered her a place on a 5-day Wheelchair Skills course in Edinburgh to help navigate some trickier outdoor challenges. “It was very well designed and helped to further build my confidence. What’s wonderful about Back Up is that people truly understand what you are going through. The volunteer trainers on this course and many of the office support staff are in wheelchairs themselves and are always on the other end of the phone if I need to talk.” 

With her confidence brimming, Carol soon got the news she had been waiting for; she could go back to work on a phased return.  “It’s thanks to the support of people at Back Up that I was able to return to work two days a week in September last year”, she smiles. “I can’t thank them enough.” 

To find out more about Back Up and their work transforming lives after spinal cord injury, visit their website.

[Update: We were sad to hear that Carol passed away in February 2021. Our thoughts are with all of her loved ones.]

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