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My Return to a Working Life

10 April, 2017

My life as an incomplete T1 quadriplegic started on the 10th of March, 2011, about a month after I turned 50 (…yes, I am that old & some!). As I prepared for work that morning, I was out on the third floor balcony of my apartment and, for reasons that remain a mystery, I appear to have “fainted” resulting in my fall to the driveway below. I was “saved” by a doctor from the Alfred Hospital, where I worked, who happened to live in the unit below me and had just finished night shift. My other saving grace was that at the time, I lived only two kms from the Alfred Hospital, so response time was rather swift.

I subsequently spent three and a half weeks in both the Alfred & Austin ICUs until I was eventually transferred onto the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Spinal ward in Kew. I remained there for almost sixteen months regaining my independence and learning to adjust to a different life than the one I had envisaged. The resultant injury was initially a permanent C5-7 (at the time of assessment) incomplete quadriplegia. Whilst there has been a significant improvement over time, there remains no sign that I’ll be able to “walk”. I do however remain hopeful, with the improvement in medical research into areas such as stem cell treatment and mechanical/robotic technology that one day, a person with a spinal cord injury may regain further independence in mobility. Whether that occurs in my life time remains to be seen.

"What have I learnt in all this time? A lot really; about my own resilience and ability to not entirely give up..."

"I’ve also become more acutely aware of some of the restrictions and access issues faced by people with disability through my own day to day experiences."

Whilst I thought I had a healthy empathic appreciation of being “patient”, I’ve also become more acutely aware of some of the restrictions and access issues faced by people with disability through my own day to day experiences. For example, when going out for a coffee or dinner, the table height or table leg configuration can affect the use of and access to the table. I had never considered that before using a wheelchair.

I have had a progressive return to work schedule developed to ease me back into working life at the Alfred. I returned to work in early September, 2012 stepping up my working hours each week over three months, working in more general areas of the Alfred social work department to test if I was capable and able to meet the rigors of a busy acute hospital. I have finally returned to being a part of a team of social workers in the Infectious Diseases Team covering HIV, Hep C and the Haemophilia social worker role in which I’m currently employed. Due to restrictions on my work capacity and the rostering of my carers, I have negotiated a job share arrangement of twenty hours per week.

My work at the Alfred puts me in contact with many patients living with varying degrees of disability such as a bleeding disorder affecting their joints, like arthritis or rheumatism, an amputation of a joint with a prosthetic replacement, or being wheel chair bound or crutches dependent. Others may have a pre-existing disability such as an ABI, mental health, physical or developmental disability that complicates their health care and management.

I often work with patients of matters affecting their employment, career choices and decision making alongside a myriad of other issues from housing, relationship/friendship complications, sexuality, sexual health and function. It is a challenging career but an interesting one when placed within a large organisation such as a public hospital.

As a staff member, social worker and a person with a disability, I am now a member on a committee to look at matters affecting patient/staff access and inclusion within the Alfred Hospital setting. When looking around the hospital environment, I find that there is always more that can be done to increase accessibility and inclusion for people with disability and illness.

f anyone requires any assistance with accessing the Alfred Hospital or has any queries, I can be contacted Tuesday/Wednesday 9:30 to 5 and Thursday until 4pm on 9076 2000, pager 6101 or by email [email protected]

"Social work... It is a challenging career but an interesting one when placed in a large organisation such as a public hospital."

Alex Coombs is a very social wheelchair user around town, who when not at work enjoys the delights of hunting out and tasting his way at various eateries across Melbourne. He moved to Melbourne 8 years ago from Perth to search of the many cultural opportunities including festivals and the great theatre and arts scene that abound here.

Tags: Blog, Career, employment, study