Actor Tristan Sturrock was last seen at the 2006 Festival as the male lead in Kneehigh Theatre’s popular Tristan & Yseult. Few in the audience were aware that two years prior, during May Day celebrations in Cornwall, the actor had suffered a traumatic injury that threatened to end his career and change his life forever. Here is Tristan’s personal account of the events he portrays theatrically in his one-man show Mayday Mayday.
My fingertips were fizzing and numb, my breath fast and shallow. I tried to move but couldn’t. I felt like I was buried in sand with the tide coming in. I could see people in the distance and started to shout for help, but my voice was a whisper. It was the middle of the night and I was wedged between a garage and a wall, totally paralysed. I had an overwhelming need to sleep but I knew I had to stay awake to survive.
I broke my neck in the early hours of May Day, 2004. I was 37, soon to be a new dad and enjoying life. My girlfriend Katy and I were decorating our first house in Padstow, Cornwall after I’d recently finished a run of Tristan and Yseult. I’d been performing with the renowned Kneehigh Theatre Company for more than 20 years–everywhere from the National Theatre in London to Broadway and Sydney–while combining it with a career in TV and film.
Our DIY at the cottage had coincided with “Obby Oss,” a May Day festival that has been celebrated in Padstow for centuries. That evening I’d been in the Golden Lion, merrily toasting the birth of summer with friends; Katy was at home waiting for me to bring her back some chips. At 1:35am I was climbing the steep hill to our cottage when my mobile went. It was Katy, wondering where I’d got to. I sat on a nearby wall to take the call, and leant back. I thought there was a hedge behind but there was nothing but a 10ft drop.
The phone line went dead. Katy instinctively knew something was wrong. She woke our neighbour Andy, a former paramedic. It took them an hour to find me, lying at the bottom of the wall, about a quarter of a mile from the cottage. I remember hearing them searching in the darkness nearby, unable to feel most of my body or let them know where I was. I recall thinking–what a stupid way to die, wedged drunk between a garage and a wall. Finally they found me, having heard what sounded like an injured animal whimpering somewhere near the bottom of the wall. Andy spotted the reflective stripe on my trainer.
“Can you hear me, buddy?” he asked, shining a torch in my face. “You’ve had a bit of a tumble. Your girlfriend’s phoning the ambulance. They’re on their way, so you stay awake for me…”
When the ambulance arrived it took four paramedics two hours to get me out. They eventually managed to strap me to a spinal board, pumping up an inflatable “coffin” around me to stop any movement, and I was airlifted to the spinal unit at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth. Strapped to the gurney with my neck clamped in a plastic vice, all I could see was a succession of ceiling tiles and strip lights. I was aware of my body but couldn’t feel it. X-rays, MRI scans, IV drips, needle tests, catheterisation, blood pressure, pain relief, machines that went beep and weird dreams all followed.
I woke up and the smell of boiled cabbage hit me. All my senses seemed to be in a state of heightened awareness–especially my hearing. If someone knocked into my bed it was like the Blitz. I stared at the ceiling tiles for hours on end, pain and panic creeping up in waves. The next day Katy pinned the first scan of our baby on the ceiling. All I could make out was a beautiful, tiny, perfect spine.
“You’ve a flexion teardrop fracture of the C5 vertebrae, roughly where your Adam’s apple is,” explained Tim Germon, the consultant neurosurgeon. “Imagine the cervical vertebrae is like a necklace of bone protecting the spinal cord. That’s been dropped to the floor and broken in three places.’’
He said the break site needed to be stabilised urgently as three fragments of bone were floating around my spinal cord, which was at risk of permanent injury. They couldn’t do anything immediately as the cord was bruised and had gone into spinal shock. The nervous system was unable to transmit any signals, which explained why I could not feel or move my body. Although spinal shock can last weeks, it is not the same as permanent paralysis (when the cord is severed or severely damaged). But at this point, the surgeon couldn’t tell what movement or sensation would come back, if any.
I had two options. The first was a halo brace (known as “the cage”) bolted to my skull to keep the vertebral column rigid, allowing the bone to heal naturally.
“The downside is you’ll have to wear it for 12-18 months, day and night,” said Germon. “And there’s still a chance your neck may ‘snake’ out of position because of your loss of motor and sensation control.”
The second option? “We operate, fuse the vertebrae together using surgical titanium bolts–then get you up on your feet as soon as possible. But working so close to the spinal cord, there’s a small risk it could be damaged further, which would mean tetraplegia or, worst case scenario, asphyxia and death.”
I asked what he’d do in my position.
“I’ve done this procedure many times,” he replied. “But there are no guarantees.”
I spent the next few weeks strapped to the bed, waiting for the swelling of the spinal cord to reduce. Every two hours I was examined: needle tests, blood pressure, catheter, heart rate. Not forgetting log rolls to prevent potentially lethal pressure sores. I was trapped in my own head, my dreams becoming my reality because my reality was a living nightmare.
Visiting time was wonderful–as was Katy, who was there every single day. But the lighter moments passed too quickly and I was back to the same grueling routine–and the pressure to make a decision. Halo or operate? Eventually, I made up my mind.
The operation, about three weeks after the accident, lasted six hours. When I came to, I could feel someone’s hand on my face and it was my own. I was lying on my side, a little hazy on morphine, but alive. The next day, the nurses helped me sit up for the first time in a month. The change in blood pressure was immense–it felt like I was balancing a dozen tables on my head. By the next week, I could swing my legs round off the bed. On the count of three, I was helped up onto my feet. I practised this for days until I was eventually able to take a step. First with a zimmer frame, then a wheelchair and finally, alone. The feeling in my legs came back slowly and it took many more weeks for me to learn how to walk properly. I vividly recall looking in the mirror for the first time since the accident and wondering: “Who is this old man with spaghetti arms and legs?” At first, even lifting my arms proved enough of a workout. I graduated to pesto jars, then books–from Frankenstein to Touching the Void. After three months, I was able to move into my parents’ home in Bodmin Moor, attending physiotherapy and massage at hospital as an outpatient. I went swimming to rebuild muscle and did resistance work involving large rubber bands, as well as performing detailed dexterous tasks such as turning screws.
Thanks to the efforts of the medical team who bolted and stitched me together, my recovery gathered pace. My son Hector was born in September and I was thrilled to be present. And 12 months later I was back on stage leaping around. It took months of rehab for feeling to return, very slowly, to most of my body–but not everywhere. Nerve damage has left me with permanent numbness and altered sensation in my fingers, arms, shoulders and feet, which will fizz like ice and fire forever. But I’m exceptionally lucky. More than 1,200 people in Britain are paralysed by spinal cord injuries every year, the majority confined to wheelchairs for the rest of their lives. My spinal cord, it seems, had not suffered permanent damage, thanks to the operation to stabilise the bone.
For years afterwards, I wanted to forget my accident, but then I began writing a show about Frankenstein that later evolved into Mayday Mayday, the story of my fall and its aftermath. I recently took a role in another true story involving disability, a BBC Two drama called Best of Men about the birth of the Paralympic Games. Ironically, I play one of the few able-bodied characters and one of my first lines is: “I don’t know anything about paralysis, sir.” Until May Day, 2004, that was true. But not anymore.
By Tristan Sturrock for The Telegraph, 30 Jul 2012. Reprinted with the author’s permission.
Tristan Sturrock will perform Mayday Mayday at Emmett Robinson Theatre at the College of Charleston May 32 – 27.