Family Affair: `Saddest thing is, Andrew can't play tennis'

Two years ago Andrew Pitchford, now 26, set off to back-pack around the world. While in Australia he dived into the sea, hit a sandbank and broke his neck. Andrew is now quadraplegic and has only limited use of the muscles in his arms, shoulders and neck. He lives in a specially adapted flat in Dorking, Surrey, and is training for full-time employment. His mother, 52-year-old Judy Pitchford, lives nearby

Andrew

I finished my maths degree at Manchester Metropolitan University and worked for a year, because I wanted to save up to travel in South East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. I had got to Australia and I was having a brilliant time. It was a very hot day and I went to Sydney beach with about 10 friends. I had already been in the water but it was blazing hot so I decided to dive back into the sea. The water was pretty shallow. I must have hit my head on a sandbank and I must have hit it hard. I knew something bad had happened. I was face down; I remember looking at the bottom of the sea and not being able to move my body. I remember feeling that I was drowning. It was not as terrifying as I thought it would be.

There were hundreds of people in the water. Luckily, my friend who happened to be a lifeguard saw me and realised I was in trouble. She turned me over and pulled me to the shore, where by chance there was a doctor sunbathing. He knew immediately what I had done. Everyone kept asking how I was. I was fine, no headache, nothing - except I couldn't feel or move any part of my body. In about half an hour, I was air-lifted by helicopter to the spinal unit at Sydney hospital. I was there for about three weeks and they operated on my neck. I could move my arms a bit, but that was all.

I was so tired I didn't think a lot about how this was going to affect my life. It was strange because I felt fine. In fact, when I first went into hospital I thought "don't tell my parents now - leave it a few days; they will only worry". I thought at the beginning that everything would be OK. My doctor was brilliant, very straightforward. If you asked him if there was a chance of walking again, he would think, and then say "no".

Back in England, what really helped me was being with so many people in the Stoke Mandeville Spinal Injuries Unit. Some were better off than me and some were far worse off. So you could always look round and think that it could have been worse. I was there for 11 months. In the first six months, you make all the progress you are ever likely to make. I spent a lot of time with the occupational therapist learning to get dressed and pick up things. I couldn't even write my name because of the lack of muscle movement in my arms. So to begin with, I had to have a splint and elastic bands to hold a pencil. I had to learn how to get dressed again. The first time, it took one-and-a-half hours. I found that putting on socks is the hardest thing in the world.

But I feel I have been very lucky. I have got great friends and a really supportive family. My friends came to see me in hospital all the time. And two friends travelled an hour and a half every week after work to see me. My university friend Dave Benzie said he would be my 24-hour carer if I wanted. That was great, as the thought of living 24 hours with a stranger was horrendous.

I now really appreciate what my friends and my family do for me, and the charity Back-Up has been particularly helpful. They took me to the Lake District and then skiing on special toboggans in Sweden. That was wonderful for my confidence. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to do those sort of activities again.

I used to play tennis every day. I miss it so much that I haven't yet been able to bring myself to go to the tennis club. Even watching it on television for the first time was hard.

I don't really look too much into the future. I know I want to be successful, but I don't see where I am going, although I can see myself with a good job. My flat has been adapted, and I feel good about getting my own space again. If I could get a car I could extend my independence to outside the flat.

Judy

had already been to all the places I was concerned about, such as Vietnam, so when he rang us and said he was in Australia, we toasted him and said "Well, 's all right." How ironic.

When we first heard about the accident, I didn't sleep at all. We just wanted to be with him. The hospital was very considerate. They rang us and made speak to us. "I am all right," he said.

I had never known anyone in a wheelchair before, so I knew nothing about how he was going to cope, or anything about the problems.

I prayed he would walk again. But was more realistic and said "that's silly; don't do it."

To begin with, he had to have everything done for him. He couldn't feed himself or brush his teeth. But gradually he was taught to use his muscles again, and it was just progress from then on. He just does things differently now.

A big boost to is knowing so many people. Friends have been enormously important to him, and very supportive of us. People have been so kind; the world is made up of some very good people.

Also, the children [Christopher, 24, and Hannah, 22] have been brilliant.

The saddest thing for is that he can't play tennis. When we get him up for a beer at the tennis club, I will feel we have overcome it, but he never grouses. Though it is devastating, you have just got to get on with life. These accidents do happen. We were lucky; he could have died. will be all right. By his own character, he will make the best of what he has got.

Back-Up's website is http://www. backup.org.uk. This year the Spinal Injuries Association (0181-444 2121) celebrates its 25th anniversary

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