Celebrating mediocrity.

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My latest piece for the Guardian is about celebrating us losers who keep coming back because we love the sport we play.

Inevitably, it has courted a few 'typical bloody Guardian' comments below the line that have clearly been written after reading only half of the article. he question I'm dying to ask is,
"If you consider the Guardian to be lefty p.c. rubbish, why are you reading it?"
Perhaps one day I'll join the fray, but for now I'm happy to stay above the line.

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch...

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...or 'Bringing Spike back into the room.' For anyone who has not come across this character before, Spike is the name of the pain that I have had to live with ever since my spinal cord injury in 2005.

It's been a while since I've talked about pain on here. I'm not sure why, as I'm happy to discuss it. It does help sometimes, although there can be occasions when it makes people feel awkward because they want to offer help or comfort, and I'd rather not make people feel awkward. About my pain, obviously. When it comes to any other topic relating to spinal cord injury, then I view making people feel awkward as my sworn duty.

As part of my 'Mission To Explain', I have decided to offer this 'Mission to ExPain'. Get it? Get it? Here are a few thoughts about living with chronic pain that may help to shed some light on what this entails.

1) Not all pain is the same.

1a) Some is useful.
If you hit your thumb with a hammer, your body reacts in a series of ways: Your thumb will immediately swell to the size of an apple and pulse alarmingly, while you leap two meters into the air and hover long enough to let out an ear-piercing screech. No, wait... that's only in Tom and Jerry.  Instead, your nervous system will send a flurry of signals towards your brain. As these signals pass along your spinal cord, they will compete with all of the other sensory information traveling along similar pathways (the feeling of your shirt sleeve on your arm, the warmth of the sun on your hand, the recently dropped hammer hitting your toe, etc) and will be vetted for importance. Your body may even take remedial action before your brain receives the signal, by initiating a 'reflex' response in the form of sudden withdrawal of the injured area from the source of the injury.

In this scenario, the pain serves a vital function, in warning us of a threat to our well-being and demanding action. This is a 'good thing' especially if the stimulus has not gone away, e.g. your trousers are on fire, there is a shark hanging off your foot, etc. as it gives us the opportunity to try 'not to die'.

1b) Some isn't useful.
With chronic pain, the signal traveling to the brain may be caused by 'static' due to nerve damage, or might just be the result of the pain 'gates' being unable to differentiate between the warmth of the sun and the trousers on fire scenarios and attaching the same significance to both. It might even be the nervous system trying to find a method of communication where the usual channels are no longer open. For example, one of the hardest aspects of my ongoing battles with urinary tract infections is that the first signs of a flare up always coincide with my hammering foot long, red hot knitting needles into my thighs (this is of course a figure of speech). I know something's wrong without necessarily knowing the exact problem. I also live with pain that is caused by the nerve damage at the site of my spinal cord injury (neuropathic) and pain resulting from problems associated with sitting all day, such as the stiffening of muscles and shortening of tendons and ligaments (musculoskeletal).

Chronic pain is often defined as any pain lasting more than 12 weeks. This doesn't mean every second of every day, but certainly at some point in every waking hour in my case, and it's been more than 11 years.

2) I can feel it in my bones.
Yes, it's the weather, and I know how ludicrous this may sound. I also know that there is scant scientific evidence to explain the phenomenon, but the weather seems to have a bearing. Cold is known to trigger greater instances of spasticity (or involuntary flexing of the muscles) and certainly can increase my base levels of neuropathic pain, but wet weather (or perhaps the low pressure systems more commonly seen on rainy days) also has an impact. I know this, because it's pissing down right now, and I'm on my second Tramadol. Which brings me to point number 3:

3) The drugs don't work.
As The Verve pointed out, 'The drugs don't work'. Well, that's not strictly true, but to describe them as working needs qualification. For a medication to be licensed for management of chronic pain, the threshold for success is lower than for the treatment of other conditions, and even if it is judged effective, it won't work for everyone and even those who have had success are most likely to be describing a reduction in pain rather than its elimination altogether. In mt case I take Tramadol for the worst of the musculoskeletal pain, and a tricyclic anti-depressant and an anti epilepsy drug for the neuropathic pain (both at a relaitvely low dose, but it took me about 3-5 years to get them down to such as there are withdrawal issues).

As a pain management consultant once explained to me, it is possible to make anyone's pain go away. It's just a question of how conscious they will remain. I certainly felt some benefits in terms of pain levels from medications that rendered me close to incapable of cognitive function. Fun for a short while, but not a long-term solution.

4) Chronic pain is more common than you might think.
Around two-thirds of people with spinal cord injury experience chronic pain. This may be associated with the original injury or the result of the extra burden borne by the shoulders.
In the wider population,. the WHO estimates that around 20% of adults live with some kind of chronic pain condition.

5) Sleep is a valuable commodity.
Sleep can also be illusive. For me, when I get to the end of the day and lie down, I experience about twenty minutes of severe pain in my legs. This is partly the change of position and the relaxation, but also the common experience of the switching off of distraction causing whatever was masked to come to the fore. The extra challenge is that the only way to get past this for me is to allow the pain to build to a peak and then subside. That means not wincing, clenching muscles or generally squirming. The problem is that if I'm not tired enough, this can go on for much longer, but if I am too tired, it can be hard to find the mental energy to be able to let go and ease into the pain.

6) Some pain is worth it.
If I train hard at basketball, then I will be in a lot of pain immediately afterwards and probably the next day too. But for the two or three days after that, base levels of pain certainly improve, not to mention the other health benefits of staying active, etc.

6) Pain is not always visible.

For many people living with debilitating pain, this can add to the problems they face. People will often find it hard to get past the 'well they look OK to me' voice in their head when it comes to understanding or offering support to someone with a chronic pain condition. In my case it's fairly obvious because there are occasions when the pain just demands my attention. I know that this can make people feel awkward, and they might say, "Is the pain really bad?" Yes. "Is there anything I can do?" Not really, except maybe don't mention it, and ignore the fact that I am squirming in my chair, frowning darkly, huffing and puffing or punching myself repeatedly in the thighs, trying to understand how my unfeeling legs can also also somehow create the sensation that they are being used as a knife-block.

It's hard for those close to the person with chronic pain.
I know that I am sometimes irritable and short-tempered with those close to me (therefore, if I am rude to you, consider it an honour. Unless I have just met you and you are an arsehole), and this actually makes me feel worse. As well as my having to learn to live with my chronic pain, I resent the fact that Spike also demands that my loved ones have to learn to live with me.


7) Swearing helps.
I mean, fuck it, that's just a universal life lesson, isn't it?

Back to court.

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+++Trigger warning: This entry contains cynicism at a level that some readers may find disturbing+++

One of the more unusual aspects of my life since suffering a spinal cord injury is the role I now play as 'eye candy' for publicity pics about good causes. I don't mind playing the part. I understand how the game works. If you want to publicise an event, facility or service, or if you want to write a news story covering the opening/launch of such, then the easy shorthand is to get the guy in a wheelchair to pose for the pic with whoever the story is really about.

In the run up to the Paralympics in 2012, I found myself playing basketball in Trafalgar Square one day, and tennis there on another. On both occasions the focus was on promoting the sport, but still we had a long queue of dignitaries who wanted to make the most of the photo op, climaxing with David Cameron and Boris Johnson playing mixed doubles with two wheelchair players in what was clearly score settling for some childhood dust-up on the playing fields of Eton (sadly, much of British politics seems to be driven by much the same motivation).

Still, I enjoyed watching the chaos from a ringside seat, and the news cycle and click-centric coverage makes this kind of fly-in-fly-out-photo-moment all too common.

Now I find myself in small-town Australia, and I was greatly heartened by the local tennis club's efforts to ensure that improvements to their facilities would also make the courts and clubhouse wheelchair accessible.  I was happy to help out in my modest way, by writing to the local MP in support of the club's funding application, explaining why I felt that tennis provided a great opportunity for integrated sport, etc.

I was delighted to hear that the funding had been secured, and was a little surprised to learn that the NSW Premier, Mike Baird, would be dropping in to the club to recognise the award. Having been invited to attend too, I was happy to do so.
The surprise at Baird's attendance was primarily because we are in the early stages of a Federal general election campaign, but also because there was some controversy locally, surrounding the Premier's plans to merge various local councils. In the end, the local merger didn't go ahead, and so the tennis club speeches were peppered with references to 'local visas being reinstated', delivered with the inevitable 'I-could-have-been-a-comedian (No, really, you couldn't) chuckling so loved by politicians the world over. Incidentally, should you be considering a career in politics, please study Barack Obama's delivery carefully. Obviously he doesn't write all his own gags, but his timing and emphasis are faultless.

For the record, the local MP had come out against the merger, although he wasn't exactly manning the barricades, so while some local people view him as a hero, I rather view him as a good strategist. It wasn't a resigning issue, and as it was immediately obvious that the majority were against the planned change, any local MP who didn't back the NO campaign would have risked significant local political capital in not doing so.

Still, perhaps there was some fallout after all....
The Premier invited the local MP onto the tennis court for a photo op that was eerily reminiscent of Trafalgar Square four years ago, and we lined up; a wheelchair player and a politician on each side of the net (I got Baird).
I mostly watched, fascinated as the Premier thundered tennis ball after tennis ball at the local MP, who is legally blind (in the UK, I think he would be referred to as partially sighted). To give him his dues, the MP tried valiantly, and even managed to connect a part of his racket with a couple of balls, but it clearly wasn't his sport. It certainly counts as one of the more unusual 'have-a-hit moments' I have experienced on the tennis courts of the world...

Press release of the day.

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I'm thinking this might be a bit of a regular new feature.

Every day, I wake to find my inbox liberally scattered with press releases. This is because my address is still on all the press listings in the UK, despite my best efforts to have it removed. PR companies send out thousands of press releases to lists are based on the kind of subjects a journalist tends to cover. I get a lot of family ones, as well other 'lifestyle' topics as well disability stories.

The press releases are often built around an extremely tenuous connection to a news story (every time a royal baby fills their nappy I get inundated with PR waffle about new baby clothes 'fit for a little prince' etc.), but sometimes they signal the launch of a new book/range of sportswear/toy. Others just appear for no apparent reason. When I read them I often picture a young intern who is putting in a shift in a bid to get a job in 'branding'.

The following excerpt is from a release I received today. It came from a self-styled life coach, fitness instructor and nutritionist, who wants to teach mums how to be 'healthy happy and confident.'

In keeping with the traditional 'inspirational' narrative, she has looked for a story of her overcoming adversity, and opens with a statement that includes the line,
"I'm a health and fitness entrepreneur, mum-of-three and international co-author - and was warned I'd be in a wheel chair by the time I was 45!"

Intrigued, I read on. Did she suffer some kind of spinal cord injury? A life threatening illness, perhaps? The full drama of her story was revealed a few paragraphs later.
"I have been told by a knee surgeon that if I carry on with my running and high impact exercise then I'll be in a wheel chair by the time I'm 45!"

Oh, the anguish. The suffering.

Two top tips:
1. If a surgeon tells you to stop running and other high impact exercises, then you should probably just stop. Maybe find some other form of exercise. Swimming, perhaps?

2. It's probably best not to send 'overcoming adversity' stories of this nature to someone who is paraplegic.  From where I'm sitting, it seems more of an inconvenience than anything.

It never rains...

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Apologies if anyone out there has been disappointed by my silence. It's unlikely, but if it is the case, I'm sorry. It's nothing personal.

In truth I have had a bit of a roller coaster ride of late, with ups and downs aligned to form the perfect cliché.

On the plus side, I have managed to land myself a regular spot with an excellent physio who has decided that my ambition of getting up in calipers more often and maybe even shuffling a few steps is not unrealistic, nor is it pointless. Cue lots of intensive manipulation to try and free up my sacroilliac joint, aiming for pelvic rotation and stretching my hip flexors (the group of muscles that run down the front of the thigh). These muscles get very tight if you sit all day. It's hard to be in a wheelchair and not sit all day, unfortunately (and while I'm on the subject: journalists, when you write articles about how sitting all day is really bad for your health and can lead to an early grave, can you please bear in mind that some of us don't have a choice in this matter. Ditto standing desk sellers. I could get a standing desk, but unless I wish to stare at the top third of the screen with the keyboard and mouse out of reach it would be pointless).

So, the inevitable effect of all this stretching and straining has been an increase my base levels of pain, a subject I have covered on this blog in some detail previously. It's a rock/hard place scenario, as it is with playing sport. If I do it, it hurts, but then it hurts less later. If I don't do it, it hurts less now but more later. Basically it all hurts, so it's just a case of getting on with it and rationalising whatever choices I make as part of my internal dialogue. A dialogue liberally punctuated with the term 'ow', and more expletive laden outbursts.

On to the rain:
Arriving at basketball training a couple of weeks ago, the rain lashing down on the car as I sat in the dark car park, contemplating whether to wrestle with an umbrella or just accept the soaking, I decided to go for the quick exit. A schoolboy error.

I opened the car door and slid my wheelchair off the back seat, but instead of putting the brakes on, I went for an express launch. This manoeuvre is fine when undertaken on level ground, but the car park at the sports centre boasts an impressive camber. Just as I was about to hurl myself at the chair, it decided to wander off, not just leaving the car's side, but making an impressive bid for freedom that involved a 180 degree spin before heading enthusiastically down the hill. Luckily, I was able to shout for assistance to a man who was crossing the car park and he kindly intercepted my errant steed about 50 meters from the car and returned it to me.

Suitably chastened, I applied the brakes and got into the soggy chair. I made my way around the side of the car to the back and opened the boot, which on our car consists of one single door that opens vertically and offers a significant area of cover. Except that the rain was coming in at the perfect angle to render this cover useless.

I dragged the basketball wheelchair frame down from the car and placed my bag on it, hoping to prevent the cushion from getting completely sodden. However, the weight of the it caused the unstable wheelchair frame to tip over and deposit my bag in the torrent that ran down the gutter, filling it with an impressive amount of water. The game was up. I thought to myself that the whole process couldn't have gone much worse, and I put the wheels on the basketball chair with an air of resignation. It turned out that I was wrong.

Remember that big boot door? It has a recess for the number plate, and this recess was now full to brimming with rainwater. Upon closing the boot, the equivalent of a large bucket full of water crashed down on my head. I wouldn't have been wetter had I decided to swim to training.

As made my way to the building I found myself musing on a well worn concept. In the American Marines they have a saying: "Slow is smooth, smooth is fast."
I like to think the English expression, while expressing the same idea, does so with a little more polish: "Less haste, more speed."

And now, before your very eyes, I shall attempt to draw these two seemingly disparate topics together.

To apply the less haste approach one has to tame the instinct to rush when under pressure. This might be weather influenced or may come from numerous other sources. The effort required to overcome the urge to rush pays dividends in the long run. Things get done right first time, and to a standard that one can be happy with.

When it comes to managing pain, the urge is to avoid the exercise or activity that triggers the pain. However, if one can overcome this instinct, the release of endorphins and the improved circulation that comes with movement, to say nothing of the satisfaction of being active, the rewards outstrip the penalties by some distance. We are made to move. The degree to which we do so may be dictated by various physical and mental factors, but the sense of well-being that accompanies any physical activity should always be valued.

To quote Jazzie B of Soul II Soul, "Keep on movin'..."


Dressed to depress.

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There are a few 'activities of daily living' that can present additional challenges to us spinal folk; tasks that require a little ingenuity, a different technique or just a lot of swearing and physical effort.

One area that continues to catch me out on occasion is what should be a straightforward daily ritual - Getting dressed. Some of the techniques we use may come as a surprise to those who have not considered the additional complications that come with paralysis. For example, did you know that we have to wear our socks inside out to prevent the seam that runs across the toes of most socks from marking our skin and causing a potential pressure sore? Or that we have to remove any buttons, studs or flaps from the back of trousers and jeans for the same reason?

In truth, the whole process has been made somewhat easier by moving to Australia, where it rarely gets cold enough to wear half of the clothing that it rarely gets warm enough not to wear in the UK. But certain items are essential for legal reasons, and the challenges offered by dressing often carry the additional complication of having to be faced in the morning, when I am barely conscious. By the way, this means any time between 7am (rarely) and about 11 (sadly more common).

In order to better enable the reader to appreciate just what is involved, I thought I would highlight a few of the more common struggles.

1. The half superhero.
This was a new one for me. Heartening that even after ten years with a spinal cord injury, I still struggle to dress myself. It happened this morning, and was certainly due to a lack of decent sleep. I began by slipping one of my legs into my undercrackers and then straight into my jeans. This can feel like a time saving sequence, and usually passes off peacefully. So far so good. However, my dressing routine was then interrupted by a howl of anguish, and the bedroom door was thrown open by a small child clutching a Lego minifigure covered in porridge. Once the crisis had been resolved, I then put my other leg into my jeans and then attempted to get the foot into my undies. It took me far too many seconds to identify what the issue was, and the ensuing tangle was far from dignified.

2. The arsey bustle.
This one will be familiar to any SCI swimmers out there. After a dip, the most practical approach is to drape a towel over the seat of the swimmer's wheelchair in order to keep the cushion a bit drier. When clothes are then applied, the dresser discovers that swimming seems to have added several inches to the waistline, and doing up the waist button and flies has become an impossibility. As you may have gathered from the name, the usual cause is that the towel has used the clamminess of post-swimming buttocks in order to invade the victim's clothing.

3. Toe jam
When applying a shoe, the dresser finds it impossible to get their heel into the piece of footwear. After much straining and swearing, the withdrawal of the foot reveals a mangled mess of twisted toes. Upon further investigation the shoe is found to contain a sock/pair of socks/champagne cork/Lego minifigure covered in porridge.

4. Sleeve it be
This is not intended as a boast, but my shoulders and arms are on the larger side these days. It's an occupational hazard that comes with being a wheelchair user, and it can make buying shirts and t-shirts challenging at times. I prefer not to be impeded by my clothing, but nor do I want to go straight to the kaftan option.

5. Off the cuff
In preparing to make a presentation/accept an award/deliver a eulogy/sit a job interview, the dresser puts on a crisply laundered and freshly ironed shirt, only to discover that in the journey from the ironing board to their body, the shirt has picked up some unspeakable and definitely stainy substance from their wheelchair's tyre.

6. Tie died
Having sponged into a smudgy mess whatever goo has populated the shirt cuff, the dresser must now turn his attention to the tie. This baffling accessory can be fraught with potential complications, even for a biped. It can end up in the soup, or over the shoulder in the slightest of breezes. Just tying the damn thing to the right length when the wearer is permanently sat usually takes about eight goes, and even then it inevitably peeks too far out of the bottom of the suit jacket (see below) like the tongue lolling from the mouth of an overheated labrador.

7. The Quasimodo
The perennial problem of formal attire. The wearer dons a suit jacket and spends several minutes pulling at the side flaps and tucking the bottom of the jacket in all the way around, only for their first push to make the whole thing to ride up and completely conceal their neck and ears, while the lapels open like the mouth of half-starved baby bird.
I have been assured that a decent tailor can make a suit that prevents this from happening, but I have yet to have a post-injury suit tailor made. Apparently, the difficulty faced by the tailor is the same as the one presented by conductors waving their arms around in time to the music.

Faced with the difficulties associated with suit jackets, some wheelchair users choose instead to opt for a waistcoat without a jacket. I can see the advantages, and I'd love to be able to adopt it, but the Mod in me just can't face the idea. It's just too... well, Status Quo, isn't it?

I'm sure there are more, but you get the general idea.

As for getting into and out of a wetsuit? That's definitely a tale for another day.

In the Guardian: on my 'legendary' status.

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So here's a piece I wrote for Guardian Australia. Strangely, many people seem to have decided I had taken offence. Not so. Not really something I do. But perhaps this interpretation says much about the lack of communication and understanding around disability...

In a different vein.

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Bus adverts. Guaranteed to have the worst strap lines, written to make the driver of the car stuck behind the bus go a funny shade of purple when there is a traffic jam.

I raise this because I had the delight of being behind a bus for a few minutes in Canberra recently. The ad I got to stare at included a line about being freed from the terrible tyranny of 'unsightly veins'.  I can't remember the exact words, but the gist of the copy was that womankind could be free to choose the clothes they liked, if only they would pop along to a clinic and have the veins removed from their legs.

Presumably this doesn't result in their feet going black and falling off, as one assumes there will be enough veins left to allow the blood to continue to feed their lower limbs, but it wasn't the medical intricacies of the procedure that I found myself pondering. It was a much larger issue, and one that permeates every facet of the media.

While my first thought was, "Is this what we have become? Are we so cosseted, so lacking in need or principal that the appearance of veins in our legs keeps us awake at night?"
But while the ad is not necessarily a symptom of impending social collapse, it does raise some issues... Yes, folks, it's time to talk body image.

Now, I'm sure there are people for whom the removal of veins from their legs has been a confidence boosting joy. I'm not knocking the whole procedure. As my earlier observations amply demonstrate, I know very little about the medical side of it. But what I do know is that there are many people for whom the veins in their legs play no role at all in their ability to present themselves as 'sightly' in the eyes of the mainstream.

In truth, very few people do look anything like the model in the ad, with her short skirt and her perfectly formed, blemish-free legs.
"Look at me," She seems to say. "My legs are so perfect they don't require blood."
The last person I met for whom that was the case was a double amputee. Is THAT the surgery this company is offering?

For most people, legs are functional appendages; load bearing and carrying the life story of the owner, from grazes, nicks or bites to scars that tell of accidents, injuries or surgery. Yet on they go, carrying us through another day. Taking us from cradle to grave (probably not on the same day. That would be a bit hectic). We may have concerns. Our thighs might be a bit wobbly, our knees a bit knobbly and our gait a bit hobbly (not a real word), but we can still put them out there can't we?

My legs tick every single box in that list. But what they don't do is carry me through the day. And their inability to do so has also led to a dramatic change in their appearance.  They have no muscle tone, and seeing as I am six foot three, there's quite a lot of them. Not in number, obviously, but in length. It took me a long time to get the confidence to wear shorts following my spinal cord injury. Looking back, I covered the event in my column for the BBC a few years back.

You've gotta know when to fold 'em...

For the most part, I don't tend to worry very much about such things these days. This is partly because I am 47. At 47, even the super fit began to look a little loose at the seams. But it's also because I have had ten years of more pressing concerns (staying well, for example). And I have had to come to terms with the fact that I don't stand up anymore. I can't look down on many people over eleven, my trousers look like they have been stuffed with jelly, my lap always has food/dust/random gifts from children on it, jackets always ride up at the shoulders, my cuffs are filthy and/or worn ragged and the down side of sitting all day is that no amount of exercise is going to make my gut look anything but 'paunchy'.


I do care about the clothes I wear. I care about having my hair cut. I have way more pairs of shoes than I could ever hope to wear out. I clean my wheelchair regularly, and I am engaged in a seemingly eternal quest for the 'perfect hat'. So I clearly care about my appearance. But I don't choose my attire to suit some kind of benchmark as to what is 'unsightly'. People shouldn't feel like their bodies are something to be ashamed of.

It's ok to fuss. It's fine to primp, to curl, to dye, to shave, to wax, to tattoo. It also ok to iron, to accessorise, to layer, to undo a button or few, to hitch up, to slip down and even to wear ironic eighties knitwear (just). But people are built the way they are for a myriad of reasons, and as a society, we could do to be a bit more accepting of that.


Words and an award

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It's been a strange few days, what with one thing and another.

Last Wednesday I had a speaking engagement in Canberra, where I was invited to address the Swedish Australian Healthcare Forum on behalf of the catheter manufacturer Wellspect.

Among the topics covered at the event was Infection control (a subject of great personal interest following my experiences in hospital this time last year), and my contribution was to provide the voice of that universal figure, the 'service user'. Of course, we are all service users sooner or later, but I am happy to share my experiences, especially if it means reminding those who help to set health policy that the numbers on the page represent real people.

My contribution was also intended to assist in a campaign to improve the funding of catheters and other continence products in Australia. My experience in the UK was informed by the support I received from the NHS, and the help and support I received during my rehabilitation.

The continence nurses at the National Spinal Injuries Centre had access to the full range of catheters that were on the market, in-dwelling and single use products, and 'the right fit' could be decided upon, purely on the basis of clinical decisions rather than economic ones.


Following my return home after rehab, I would phone a call centre and the appropriate single use catheters would be dispatched to my door, while the supplier would then contact the GP on my behalf to arrange a prescription.

Over here in Australia, catheters cost the user. This could mean finding $400 per month to pay for single use catheters. As a result, many people re-use products that are specifically licensed as 'single use only'. As well as this expense, many users have little knowledge of the diverse range of products that are available, and could be unaware of a solution to the serious health complications that can be associated with catheter problems.

And we are not talking about rare occurrences here, either. In the US, where the figures are better collated than in Australia, it is estimated that more than 13,000 people die from Catheter associated urinary tract infections every year.

It is impossible to put together accurate global figures, but the numbers that are recorded are usually in countries that have generally good healthcare provision, so it is not hard to imagine just how extensive the problem is in developing countries. It is a topic I shall return to, especially as my own health situation is far from uncomplicated at the moment...

In other news, I spent the weekend destroying myself chasing a basketball around. Slam Down Under is a local tournament that attracts teams from across Australia and New Zealand. Seven matches on Saturday and the semi-final and final on Sunday... Shattering, but my vital role as lucky gonk on the team seems to be paying dividends as the Illawarra  Eagles followed our success in the Country Cup earlier in the year by taking the Slam Down Under B division Gold. Boom. That's going straight in the pool room....

Please don't tell me what's going on Upstairs...

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One of the aspects of moving to a small town that took my by surprise was finding myself closer to God...

That is to say, closer to people who are closer to God. Or believe themselves to be. They seem to make up a larger percentage of our social circle.  I happen to think they are wrong, because I don't believe there is a God. But that's ok, because they think that I'm wrong. The difference is, I don't believe there is a God because I can find no evidence. The questions stack up pretty quickly for me (if the Bible is the word of God, how come he hasn't said anything worth writing down for the last two thousand years? etc.). But If I did find evidence or answers to my questions, then I would revise my view, that being the logical approach.

Those who hold religious beliefs, on the other hand, seem to me to thrive on the lack of evidence, and would not change their view regardless of what you put in front of them. What with them having Faith and so on. Which is fine. Mutual respect is still possible, and I don't view religious beliefs as a barrier to friendship, although I struggle to drop the topic completely from conversation.

Perhaps in moving from east London, one of the strongholds of the atheistic 'Liberal-Elite' (©every-Murdoch-newspaper-anywhere-in-the-world) makes the greater prevalence of religion here seem more startling. Incidentally, why does the Right continue to bleat about being victim to some kind of urban left-wing dominance? Enough with the siege mentality. You're in power.

But I digress. I should perhaps get to the point, as I'm sure you're wondering where all this is leading...

There are two areas of public service where I have concerns over the prevalence of religion.

Firstly, in schools. Obviously discussing religion in the context of history, art or social studies is fine. But presenting text as 'the word of God'? Do that in your own time, people. That should be a personal choice. And certainly an opt-in not an opt-out.

The other area where I would prefer religion be requested rather than proffered is during medical treatment, especially when one is a hospital resident. I speak here from personal experience. Indeed, my first night in hospital after breaking my spine involved an encounter with a nurse who 'encouraged' me to find Jesus, and told me all about a woman who had walked again after breaking her spine, thanks to the power of prayer (not sure why we were bothering with a hospital at all, really). The corollary of this notion is the same as the: 'they said I'd never walk again, but I proved them wrong through sheer determination' line, which is that the injured party needs to summon a cure through prayer or intensive exercise. Anything less than a cure is a sign of personal failure.

I have also been visited by chaplains (on both sides of the planet) who, on hearing that I am an atheist, would reply that they were fine with that and would be happy to come and just look in on me, should I feel like a chat. They never did, probably much to our mutual relief.

Recently, I heard the line that 'God only lets this happen to people who can cope'. To use a common contemporary acronym (or CCT): WTF? This makes Him Upstairs sound pretty unpleasant to those of us who don't have access to His long term strategy. If he lets it happen, why doesn't he just stop it in the first place?

Even putting aside the notion of some kind of Divine purpose, this comment upset me, because it's not true; it doesn't only happen to people who can cope. Some people can't. And watching them drown in the overwhelming torrent of loss, pain and frustration is tough for all of those close to them. Really tough.

I know that religion offers succour to many millions of people in times of difficulty. And if it works for you, that's great. I'm genuinely happy for you. But if you want me to respect your belief system, then please do me the same courtesy, and keep the mystical platitudes to yourself.


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