Time to return to Kunming

Only about 6 weeks late, but Happy New Year!!! I have completely neglected my blogging since I have been back in the UK… but I have spent the time very productively and I am feeling ready to return to Kunming in greater mental and physical shape.

I’ll start with the physical side of things…I have managed to maintain my strict Chinese exercise regime to the best of my abilities. Obviously I do not have quite the same amount of manpower on a daily basis as I do in the hospital in Kunming, but my parents and my personal trainer Jo have been absolutely amazing. I started off by purchasing a walking frame similar to the one I use in China. However when we started using it it became apparent that it wasn’t quite sturdy enough to allow me to walk to the best of my abilities. So we decided to make our own replica of the walking frame in China.

WalkingMy brother-in-law’s dad and my uncle are the ones to thank for this amazing piece of handiwork. We gave them the dimensions that we wanted, and a week later the frame was complete and ready for use. A friend of my mum’s was also kind enough to let us borrow her barn so that I would have a larger area to practise in. So twice a week we have been going to the barn and I pace up and down with my wonderful team of helpers. And I have to say that mum, dad and Jo have been very patient and extremely fast learners. They have allowed me to tell them exactly what I need each of them to do, and after a few dodgy steps it suddenly all became quite smooth and we all worked very well together 🙂

As well as my walking I have been going to my regular rehab sessions at Prime Physio and Neurokinex. I haven’t been able to go as often as I would have liked to, but the sessions have been vital in building up my strength since my surgery. It has now been 3 months since my operation and I feel like I am back to my pre-surgery level of fitness. So I can return to the walking programme ready to give it my all, and hopefully not need any more surgery this time around!

Instead of spending the majority of my time on the M25 driving to my rehab sessions, I have been working out at home for 1-2 hours everyday. I can do some of the Chinese exercises by myself and have the equipment at home to do so. It also means that I can spend more time with my beautiful dog Izzy…I really really missed her when I was away, so it’s nice to be around her lots!

Being at home more leads on to the mental side of things… I have finally, three years after my accident, started to use my brain again to start studying. One of the driving factors towards this has been a push from Ali out in China, who has reminded me that although my spine is damaged, my brain is uninjured and so I may as well put it to good use 🙂 I won’t go into the details of what I am studying, but I am really enjoying it, and I hope that it will open some doors for me in the future. It has taken time for me to improve my concentration levels, but I am getting much better at not being distracted by everything around me! Being back in Kunming will allow me to hopefully make more progress, as there are hardly any distractions there.

I am flying tomorrow morning with my mum, who will stay out in China with me for the first few weeks. I will then be by myself, but as I have mentioned before there are lots of lovely people out in Kunming that will look after me. I am so excited to get back out there and back on the walking programme. I will keep you al updated 🙂

Here is a quick little video of me, mum, dad and Jo recreating the Kunming Walking Programme in West Sussex!!

34km is a lonnngggg way!

Welllll I did it… I successfully rowed 34km (the width of the Channel) and I survived! Not being in the actual Channel made it much less treacherous, but it was still extremely painfully challenging.

My personal trainer Jo had borrowed another rower from one of her other clients, which meant that my ‘support team’ could row alongside me and keep me going. And I have to say that I would not have completed it without them. I think in total about 20 people came and went throughout the day, which kept me entertained and well distracted.

This was the start, where I was feeling very fresh and relaxed…

RowAnd my dad rowed the first leg with me…

RowEach of the people rowing with me would keep rowing until I had completed a kilometre. Obviously as they weren’t doing the full 34km by themselves they could push a lot harder, so their challenge was to row the Channel there and back between them in the time I went just there. I actually think they managed it in the end, which is pretty impressive!

RowI was still feeling pretty good at the 10km mark. The furthest I had rowed prior to this was 8km, so I was pretty confident as I breezed past 10km. In my practise rows I had been trying to figure out a good pace that I could maintain, and had decided that I would aim for around 4mins30 per 500m. I was keeping up this pace quite well and didn’t really take any breaks until 15km, when I decided to have a loo break quickly.

RowStopping for a couple of minutes made getting started again a LOT harder! My arms and neck had started really aching, and I knew that the rest of the row was going to be a struggle. I also began to get a pretty major headache. I don’t think I had been drinking enough, and I hadn’t really eaten anything (Yes Andy I know you told me to keep eating!!!). But the support crew were there to keep pestering me to eat/drink, so I gave my body a but of fuel to keep going.

This is how I was starting to feel..RowThe next 10km were definitely the toughest… the novelty had massively worn off, and I was finding it tough to stay distracted. But suddenly the end was slightly in sight. There was less than 10k to go, and I started focusing on the finish line.

Somehow I made it past 30km, then 31, then 32, then 33, and to the last kilometre.. I was completely exhausted by then, but everyone was clapping and cheering, which gave me a last tiny bit of strength for a sprint finish. And then it was over…

RowMy final time… 5hrs13mins.. and quite a decent average split time of 4mins36 per 500m.



I was definitely relieved that it was over. It still seems quite surreal that I was rowing for over 5 hours! I was soo exhausted at the end, and unfortunately couldn’t really enjoy the champagne that everyone else was having.. I just laid down on the floor to try and ease the back and neck pain that I had.

Getting into bed last night was such a relief. I was so tired, but couldn’t get comfy because my arms were hurting so much! Finally I fell asleep and woke up this morning in A LOT of pain!! I have spent most of the day lying on my stomach and then flipping over to lie flat on my back. My arms are very achey, but surprisingly not too bad..although I have a feeling that the DOMS will set in tomorrow and I will be feeling worse when I wake up in the morning.

BUT, pain is temporary, and the most important thing is that I DID IT!!! And I think I did it in quite a respectable time (although I have nothing to compare it to!)

So, a few major thank yous.. Firstly to everyone that sponsored me. I am so appreciative to all of you, and it really kept me going to think that you believed I could do it! And secondly, thank you to the Rooprai Spinal Trust and Prime Physio, who were the providers of the adapted rower. The Rooprai Spinal Trust donated the rower to Prime Physio for clients to use in their sessions there, and Prime Physio kindly allowed me to kidnap the rower for the day so that I could complete the challenge surrounded by friends and family at my parents’ house. They also were both huge support to me during the row via Twitter. My friends and sisters were in charge of tweeting and reading out tweets, and it was awesome to have them cheering me on from afar! Also, a special thank you to Marrianne for doing a 2km row ‘with me’ in spirit 🙂

And lastly, a HUGE thank you to all my friends and family that were there yesterday… I genuinely wouldn’t have got through it without you. The constant entertainment and distraction was extremely necessary, and I wouldn’t have even made it past 10k otherwise!

I think it’s time for some more rest now…



My next big adventure…. China!

This is something that has been in the pipeline for a few months now, and I only told a few people about it… But now the flights have been booked and final preparations are taking place, so I can share with everyone. I am going to China to join the Kunming Walking Programme, which I am SO excited about. (And also slightly terrified!)

First I will explain what the programme entails, but please bear in mind that I am not going there with the expectation that I will be ‘cured’. The theory sounds logical and straight forward, but of course they do not promise any results, and if it was a guaranteed method of making paralysed people walk again then, well, there wouldn’t be any paralysed people!

The walking programme focuses on prolonged periods of standing and walking in an attempt to make the brain reawaken connections and recruit related muscles. First the patient must learn to stand with a frame and just the help of therapists blocking the knees. Once this has been mastered, then it is on to taking steps… with the assistance of the therapists again. And then it is a case of repeating this over and over again.

Their very simple looking progression is demonstrated in the pic below…

KunmingAs I said, the theory looks very straight forward, but in reality it is not like that at all. The walking programme in Kunming is 6 hours a day, 6 days a week for at least six months. So it requires a great deal of strength, both physical and mental. My body will adapt to the intensity of the exercise, but I will have to learn to deal with a great deal of frustration as progress can be extremely slow (and I have to be prepared to make no progress at all).

So why am I choosing to do this?! Well, ever since I heard about the programme I have been extremely interested. Originally it was a Chinese military programme and was not available to anyone outside of China. But the founder of the programme, Dr Zhu Hui retired from her position as a medical corps officer and was recruited by the Tongren Hospital Group, where she is now the head of the new neurosurgery and spinal rehab department. This development has allowed them to open their doors to international patients. Currently there are just a handful of international patients there, and I will be the first UK (and I think possibly European) patient to attend the programme… that’s pretty crazy!!

I have had my heart set on going to China because honestly, I think it is too much of a good opportunity to miss out on. Anyone who is a regular reader knows that I am a pretty impatient person and I am not going to just sit around and wait for something to come to me. I have a great deal of determination, and I am not afraid of hard work. I love my rehab sessions here, but China offers something that isn’t available anywhere else… their programme is quite unique, and the intensity of it is something that nowhere else really offers. And the cost is extremely reasonable for the amount of therapists and hours of training that are involved.

So on October 29th I will be flying out to Kunming to join the programme and head out into the unknown. The programme claims to have had some remarkable results and Dr Zhu Hui has treated and rehabilitated over 4000 spinal injured patients since 1989. She most definitely has more experience than anyone else in the world when it comes to spinal injuries, so I am very privileged to have the opportunity to be one of her patients. I am going out to China with a complete open mind… I am prepared to put in the hard work and hopefully I will see some results, but if I don’t then at least I know I tried. One thing is for sure, this is going to be a massive adventure for me!!


Adaptive Yoga with Matthew Sanford

As part of my ‘trying new things’ attitude, I rather spontaneously signed up for an Adaptive Yoga class with Matthew Sanford at Triyoga in Soho. Last year when I had been googling adaptive yoga classes, I noticed that there are loads of classes in America, but there is a distinct lack of them over here. And then I came across Matthew Sanford.

Matthew Sanford is paralysed from the chest down after surviving a car accident at the age of thirteen that killed his father and sister. Twelve years after his accident, he began studying yoga, and today he is internationally recognised as a yoga teacher, public speaker and author. He also set up Mind Body Solutions, a non-profit adaptive yoga centre based in Minneapolis. On paper he is an amazingly inspiring person… in person he is even more inspiring and I feel so privileged to have met him and taken part in one of his classes.

From time to time he comes over the the UK to run workshops for yoga instructors, and this time around he was running an adaptive class as well. I immediately signed up so that I could experience his teachings first hand.

The class seemed to be a part of his 3 day workshop for teaching adaptive yoga to current  yoga teachers. He had obviously spent the majority of the day teaching these teachers, and then they would have a chance to practise what they had learnt with me and the others in the class. There were only a few of us in the class that had mobility problems, which meant that there were about 4 trainee yoga teachers for each of us. I had also brought along my mum and my sister Pip, so there were plenty of people around to help out.

The class was very enjoyable, although I spent most of it in the wheelchair. I would have preferred to have been out of the chair and on the floor, but Matthew was unaware that we were all able to get out of our chairs, so taught a sort of ‘sitting down’ class. He ensured from the very start that we were seated with perfect posture, which involved putting blocks and blankets in place to hold my legs are 90 degrees and keep my back completely straight.


As a teacher, Matthew is extremely relaxed and has such a calming presence. He made me feel comfortable and everything he said made complete sense to me. He heavily focuses on connecting the mind and body, and how under-utilised that connection is within everyone. He kept telling me to try and push down through my legs and down to the soles of my feet. When he asked whether I could feel myself doing that, I told him that I can always feel what I am trying to do with my legs, even if no one can visibly see it. He seemed very happy with my response and told me that that is what it is all about; connecting the mind and the body. It doesn’t matter if I’m not making any visible movements, as long as I am connecting and feeling the movement myself. It is quite hard to explain that properly, but he knew exactly what I was talking about.


Towards the end of the class I got onto the floor to lie down. I can’t remember the exact reasons for the things we did on the floor, but it was so relaxing and was a nice way to end the session.

YogaI absolutely loved this yoga class, and I think that 99% of that is down to Matthew Sanford’s inspiring presence. He seemed to connect with every single person in the class in a different way. The class was aimed at anyone ‘facing loss, trauma or disability’ so everyone had a different reason for being there; brain injury, spinal injury, amputation… and somehow he managed to teach us all the same exercises but in a way that was specific to our needs and capabilities.


Unfortunately his trips to the UK are only for a few days every six months or so, but I will be making sure that I can attend one of his classes every time he is over. And I am definitely now going to read his book (‘Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence’). He truly is one of those people that you meet in life and know that you will never forget.



Trying new things…Kayaking

My family and close friends know that I rarely like to try new things and can often be extremely close minded. I know that there are loads of different sports and activities out there that have been so well adapted and that I could easily participate in. But for some reason I just can’t bring myself to get involved with them. I think it is purely out of fear… I’m scared to have fun doing something that isn’t ‘normal’ to me. It is so much easier for me to stick to what I’m used to and to stay well within my comfort zone.

It takes a lot for me to agree to anything I haven’t done before, and I quite often work myself up into a bit of a panic beforehand. All I can think about are worst case scenarios, and often they are the most ridiculous things that wouldn’t happen in a million years! I never ever think that actually everything will run smoothly and I might in fact have fun!

So I think my sister and parents were quite shocked when I casually mentioned that I wanted to go kayaking. I don’t even know why I thought of it… probably because I tend to be drawn towards any activity where I won’t have to be in the wheelchair. I like to be on a level playing field with everyone else, so I guess I thought that if everyone else is in a kayak then I’m just like them!

I had done a bit of googling and found a fairly local place (Chichester Watersports Centre) which has a large lake for various watersports. They mainly do water skiing and windsurfing but I noticed that they also rent out kayaks, so after a bit of investigating (my sis and dad drove down to check out the place and make sure it was suitable) we decided to go for it.


Chichester Watersports Centre

Chichester Watersports Centre

My parents had some family friends staying for the weekend, so in the end I think twelve of us ended up going down there on Sunday morning. The Watersports Centre is fairly basic, but I guess it doesn’t really need to be that fancy; the most important part is the lake!! We were given our lifejackets and I was dragged down the shingle bank in my wheelchair to the edge of the lake. Then I was lifted into the kayak, handed a paddle and shoved into the lake! It all happened so quickly and smoothly that I didn’t even have time to get nervous.

KayakingI was surprised that I didn’t struggle too much with balance.. I had thought that there was quite a high possibility that I would wobble too much and capsize the kayak! But my trainers have obviously been strengthened my core well and I was able to paddle quite easily and stay upright. Also, we were told that the kayaks are virtually impossible to capsize.. If it had been a bit warmer I probably would have liked to test this theory!



KayakingI had so much fun paddling around with everyone. Kayaking is a pretty decent workout and I was getting quite tired by the end. It also got a bit cold… we were all sitting in a pool of water so were absolutely soaked. But it was well worth it and I would love to go again..it’s a shame summer is over now, although one of the guys that worked there said we’re about to have an Indian summer. If he is right then I am definitely going back down there for another go… I want to get my parents in a double kayak and see how good their teamwork is!




My new way of getting around

As I have said a few times before, progress with spinal injuries is often extremely slow and can be difficult to measure. I know that I have made improvements since my injury, but I have never considered myself to have made any significant progress, and definitely nothing that was really visible. But recently I have discovered that I can crawl by myself, which is pretty damn cool!

It’s one of the exercises that I practise quite a lot with my trainers, but I have always had assistance with it. But a couple of weeks ago when I was working out on the floor at home I decided I would try it by myself. I’ve tried it in the past and have been far too wobbly and kept ending up falling to one side (hip control is a pretty difficult thing to master). But for some reason when I tried it recently I was able to hold my hips quite steadily and actually pull my leg through about a centimetre or so each time.

I have always said that if I had something visible and positive to work on then I would practise practise practise, and thats pretty much what I have been doing. So, two weeks on, here is my progress…

My hip control has got a lot better and I am managing to pull through much more convincingly than when I first tried. In my therapy sessions I am doing exercises to help me progress more. This week with Natalie at Neurokinex I managed to set myself a record of crawling four mat lengths (they’re like those PE mats that you use in school) before my core got tired and I bailed to one side. We have also practised trying to crawl sideways.

Before anyone gets too over excited…it’s not a miracle and it doesn’t mean that I’m about to get up and walk now!! But at the same time it is of course quite exciting for me. It is the result of a lot of hard work and amazing training from my trainers. And maybe there is a strong enough connection from my brain to my hip flexors to help produce the movement, which is obviously great!

All I know is that it is something that I definitely couldn’t do this time last year, and actually it’s the first thing that I can do that is quite practical. I like the fact that I can move around without the wheelchair (other than just shimmying across the floor on my bum). Of course I’m not about to go and crawl to the shops or anything, but the other night when I was watching TV I got on the floor from the sofa, crawled to my fridge for a diet coke, rolled the can back to the sofa (I have an open plan kitchen/living room) and crawled back. Then I climbed back onto the sofa and enjoyed my well earned drink! It took a while and I was pretty exhausted afterwards, but it felt extremely rewarding!

So I’m going to keep on crawling and hopefully keep improving with it.

And apologies if I have incorrectly used practise/practice in this post… I tried to get it right, but the more I was thinking about the correct spelling, the more confused I got… My brain hurts now from over thinking it!


Redefining Possibilities

As I was so active before my accident, I have found it extremely frustrating that I can’t exercise like I used to… I can’t go for a run, I can’t surf, I can’t play a decent game of tennis… I can’t really do any of the sports I used to. And it also makes it hard to keep fit and to not get really fat through lack of exercise. So having a place to workout since my accident has basically been my saving grace.

Standing Start was a great starting point as it introduced me back into exercise after my accident. I was feeling pretty vulnerable and lost when I first came out of hospital and literally had no idea how I was going to cope with such a huge life changing injury. But Andy (now at Prime Physio) and Natalie (trainer at Neurokinex) were just amazing at making me feel safe while starting to build my confidence back up. I absolutely loved my first few months there and Natalie built the best groundwork possible for where I am today.

Standing Start has recently moved and has reopened as Neurokinex. It is now 50 miles closer to where I live (wooo!) and is so much bigger than their first centre. With the increase in space there are loads of new pieces of equipment and so many more exercises that I can do.

I’m pretty sure all my exercise fears have completely disappeared since I first started with Standing Start. I have full trust in my trainers and absolutely love trying new exercises and pushing myself to my limits.  I also now have a heart rate monitor so my trainer can see how hard I’m working and basically give me a kick up the ass if he can see that I’m not working hard enough!

neurokinexSo my sessions start quite casually on the table with some stretches to get my legs loosened up and ready to go. Then the hard work really begins, and doesn’t stop for two hours (other than water breaks).

There are so many different things I can do. Some things I have been doing from the outset, like crawling and kneeling, but I am so much better at them now than when I tried them for the first time. They may sound like really simple things, but when your legs don’t work and your core is pretty unstable they are much more difficult. So although it may not sound like much, I’m pretty happy with the progress I’ve made with some of these simple things, and it has made things I do in everyday life much easier.


Some things I do are pretty new to me. Neurokinex has a harness system which can help with loads of different exercises by taking some of your body weight for you.  I recently did chin ups for the first time thanks to this harness system, which felt amazing, although the novelty wore off pretty quickly..chin ups are a killer!! The harness can also be used with an overhead track system, which helps with assisted walking…


neurokinexThere are loads of other exercises I do as well, most of which I don’t know the name of, but  all of which are so beneficial and are helping to keep me fit and strong. I don’t really know what I would do without the rehab centres I go to but I know for sure that I wouldn’t be as happy and healthy as I am today.  When I was lying in hospital and was faced with the daunting prospect of never being able to go back to my old sporty life, I never would have thought that I could still lead such an active life, but just in a different sort of way.


Photos: Dave Roberts First Presence