My husband still proudly takes me out despite that I’m wheelchair bound – Akande, teacher with spine injury
Patience Akande, a graduate of Computer Science from the Lagos State University and Federal College of Education (Technical), Akoka, tells ALEXANDER OKERE why she is using her experience as a person with a spinal cord injury to give hope to others
You lost the ability to walk as an adult. Can you recall how it happened?
I was travelling on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway. I was in a vehicle and before we knew it, the vehicle had somersaulted and I broke my spinal cord.
When did the accident happen?
That was on January 1, 2012. I was returning home from a programme when it happened. What I remember is that we were discussing something in the vehicle and suddenly, a car driving very fast collided with ours. It was 6am and the vehicle was rushing to the park. It was trying to overtake our vehicle and it just shoved us into a ditch. Everybody in the vehicle was hurt and the vehicle was a total write-off.
Immediately that happened, I remember I could not move my two lower limbs. I saw people struggling to get out of the vehicle and I struggled to do the same but that came with immediate pain and I could not move my limbs.
Did you get help immediately?
Unfortunately, I did not know about spinal cord injury and the people around me were not aware and that is why I have been creating awareness that when people have accidents, the first thing to do is not to move them because one is not sure. So, I guess the process of moving me broke more spines in three places and that was why I had multiple breakages.
The Lagos State Ambulance Service got to the scene almost immediately and I was taken to the emergency unit around the tollgate area close to Seven Up and I was attended to quickly.
How did your family react to the news of the accident?
They were devastated because most families celebrate the New Year on January 1 but mine had to rush to the hospital to see me. It was an emotional one for them.
Where else did you receive treatment?
I was transferred to the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital at Ikeja and later referred to a hospital in India. I was actually flown to India for corrective surgery. I have done the surgery and I am recuperating very well now. They (LASUTH) couldn’t provide a solution. They didn’t give me hope; they actually gave me so much doubt that I would ever be able to do anything again. I was on a stretcher and could not sit, it was that bad. I saw dead bodies being carried out almost every day. I had to be flown (to India).
What did you mean when you said you weren’t given any hope at LASUTH?
The doctors came to me–I don’t want to mention names–but I remember one of them said to me, “Madam, you can’t walk again.” Because I am a Christian, I told him, “You don’t have the final say. I will walk.” As of that time, I really didn’t know my fate; I was still positive that I was going to walk and that was the courage that kept me going. But there is a lot of improvement now. Even when I returned (from India) I visited them at LASUTH and they were surprised.
They have to do a lot of work now. Having a terminal injury is a lot of sorrow, so when a caregiver adds a little light into our lives, it goes a long way. The healing process begins from that relationship. Mine began from my rehabilitation; I heard a lot of positive things and they helped me to be what I am today. So, doctors should try to be positive, not lies but encouragement; don’t tell a patient they are asking too many questions or shut them up. They shouldn’t shut the patient up because that patient would enter a new phase of life.
Foreign medical care is expensive. How did you raise the funds for the trip and surgery?
I got support from my family, mentor and a former boss. I had a lot of support. When I got to India in February, the doctors there wished I had come earlier. They said I should have come a week after the accident when the chances were higher. But despite that, they were still positive. I went through a lot of therapy, physiotherapy and after the surgery, I was rehabilitated. I spent about nine months in the hospital in India and it was worth it. I got to a stage where I could sit again; I had to be taught how to do that and some other things.
When I returned to Nigeria, I had a new orientation. It was in India that I learnt that every treatment given to a patient had to be explained to that patient. If I was to be given an injection, the doctors would tell me how long the drug would work and what I should expect. If I was to be given an oral drug, they would tell me everything. But it is not the same in Nigeria. One cannot just mix an injection and not tell me what to expect. We need to work on our health system. More lives could be saved if doctors improve the way they communicate with their patients. To date, I communicate with the doctors (in India); my neurologist and physiotherapist still check on me and that is how patient-doctor relationship should be.
How did you adjust to using a wheelchair?
I’m happy that the news was broken to me when I was in India because the doctors had prepared my mind. All the relevant specialists did their job so I was prepared. They did not make me see it (using a wheelchair) as a death sentence. They made me see it as a stage I was going to overcome. They were very positive and that’s why I am very positive with the help of God today. The doctors worked on my mental health and that’s why I’m a better person today.
I was married before the accident happened and my youngest child was a year old as of that time. I had to leave her for almost a year and when I returned, it was difficult reuniting with her because she kept looking at me and wondering who I was, so I had to do a lot of explaining. But now that she’s older, she understands and I’ve made her an advocate (for persons with disabilities). She tells people I could still do certain things despite being in a wheelchair.
However, I wouldn’t say there was no problem adjusting in Nigeria; there was the problem of poor accessibility. In India, it was easy for me to go out, so I was not prepared for that challenge in Nigeria. It is difficult to board buses and enter buildings in Nigeria; it means I cannot move around in Nigeria if I don’t have a personal vehicle. I can’t use an Automated Teller Machine because it is too high. I can’t enter a bank because the passages are too small. That is why we are advocating for accessibility and begging the government to work on it.
How did your husband cope?
Men would always want to hide their challenges and pain but because I known him too well, I saw his pain. He travelled with me and was with me throughout my stay in India. I saw the challenges he went through but had to remain strong for me. He is still a great support for me. I can do a lot of things because of his support. He is proud to take me anywhere and that alone is a healing process and a good one for me mentally.
What has been your experience interacting with people? Do you face discrimination?
I have to be very honest here, I have never faced discrimination; maybe it’s because of my personality. I have heard and read stories of people who say they face discrimination but I have not.
Has your current state affected your career as a teacher?
I have been teaching for over 15 years. My students are very supportive and it is easy to relate with them. They made it seamless and I sometimes didn’t remember that I was in a wheelchair. They are more cooperative, maybe they show empathy, but some of my colleagues tell me my class is usually quiet.
I presently work with a children’s language school where I teach Yoruba language online to both Nigerian children and international pupils, also as a special needs educator. I work with children with learning difficulties, specifically dyslexia, through Dyslexia Help Africa.
You talked about support from your families and other people. What is the implication of the lack of it for PLWDs?
Without support, they are nothing. They need support from all angles. If I want to go to a supermarket, the support starts from the driver being able to assist me, to the attendant in the supermarket. We are still creating awareness among students. One doesn’t have to wait for an accident to happen before creating awareness. There should be ramps everywhere.
Do you belong to any advocacy group?
I belong to the Lagos State Spinal Cord Injury Association and personally, I work with TheseAbilities Foundation. I also work with others. I don’t have any NGO of my own at the moment but through these platforms, I advocate for persons living with disabilities. I believe God permits everything that happens in life. If I say I have regrets, what am I going to do about it? Regret dampens your spirit; it makes you feel the world is coming to an end.
But I have to say it’s not easy to transition from my former life to my new life. It takes a lot of courage because you have to learn to do a lot of things differently. But you have to keep the spirit of ‘I can’ and that is what I have been working on. And I am living like every other person; the only difference is my means of mobility. We are all ‘normal’.
Any lessons learnt?
The greatest lesson about having a disability is the need for one to be good. I have heard people complain about not having a support system. So, one just has to be good because no one knows what tomorrow holds or from where help would come.
From most of the meetings with PLWDs that I have attended, a major challenge is self-pity. I am not a party to sympathy, so no one should tell me sorry because nothing is wrong with me. I tell some persons with disabilities that the fact they have a disability does not mean they cannot do anything. One should not always expect people to give alms. One could create their own source of income. Everybody with a disability is not a charity case. There are still discriminations out there. For instance, having spoken to you on the phone, I don’t expect to introduce myself again if we meet. Some people could be shocked to see me in a wheelchair after talking to me on the phone. Being in a wheelchair doesn’t stop my productivity. We have to change our mindsets. But we are hopeful it will get better.
Another challenge faced by PLWDs is rejection when it comes to relationships. Do they complain about it to you?
They do. A lot of females tell me that after talking to people on the phone, it is at the meeting point that those people shy away. So, I tell them that if they are going into a relationship and are meeting someone on the phone, they should tell the person what the challenge (disability) is immediately rather than waiting for a physical meeting. I have seen people with disabilities getting married and having children.
What should persons who recently sustained spinal cord injuries know about living a normal life?
For persons living with spinal cord injuries, it might seem long. The brain is connected to the spinal cord, so it could take a lot of time. They have to know it is not magic; their physiotherapy is very important. They also need to have positive people around them because depression can set in. They need to believe in themselves. If possible, they should interact with other persons with similar injuries to share their experiences. They should not keep to themselves; they should socialise and let people know them and get used to seeing them sitting in a wheelchair. This applies to people with any form of disability.