How would you cope if I were to tell you that you will never walk again?
What if you wake up from a sleep to discover that you have been in a coma for a month?
Do you think that you could deal with this?
This is the true story of a man that I met in the Isaan region of Thailand. Two years ago Colin was knocked off his motorbike by a car which was going the wrong way down a dual carriageway and which proceeded to turn his life upside down.
I was in the North East of Thailand and doing a work exchange with Colin and his wife Wichien on their small-holding. I had learnt about them via the Workaway website (which I have used many times over the last few years). I was very quickly made to feel a part of their family.
Colin who is originally from the north of England married Wichien five years ago. They set up home together and after working in the remote mountains (that in itself is a fascinating story) they returned to her home village and they built a house.
Wichien is a school director and Colin quickly established an organic farm, selling fruit and vegetables and fish and eggs from his bantams. And then on the 4th October in 2013 their lives were turned upside down.
The accident left Colin with the 4th and 5th vertebrae in his back shattered, a broken hip, pelvis and femur. He had four broken ribs, a torn diaphragm and his lungs collapsed several times during his time in hospital.
While he was in his month long coma, Wichien fought relentlessly to get him the best surgery; spending all of her time either at the hospital sleeping on the floor underneath his bed or travelling to and from her work at the school.
The doctors pinned Colin’s spine back together with four titanium rods and forty screws, but when he finally woke from the coma they had to give him the news that he was a paraplegic and he would never walk again.
Coping with bad news
I asked Colin what were his initial thoughts on being given this news.
He told me, ‘I wanted to do away with myself. I can’t live like this. I would have to get someone to do it for me though because I was unable to lift a hand off the bed. I was now a paraplegic with no feeling from the chest down. I begged Wichien to kill me. Without Wichien I would certainly wish that I was dead.’
Prior to moving to Thailand Colin had a good job in construction in the UK. He is a master stonewaller and he is the sort of man that can turn his hand to most things.
He told me that his dreams and aspirations prior to the accident were to get their organic farm up and running. It was just beginning to take off and he was establishing a steady clientele. Often Thais spray formaldehyde on their fruit and vegetables in the markets to keep them looking fresh but Colin refused to even use weed killer on his land.
And what of Colin’s aspirations now?
Colin said, ‘It’s a hell of of a thing to be told that you will never walk again. My hopes for the future? Not that I will walk again because I know that can never happen. I hope that we both continue to have the good relationship that we have now. I have no hopes or plans to go anywhere. I’m happy at home. I’m in a wheel chair but I never get bored.’
In the four weeks that I was living with Colin and Wichien I witnessed his determination to continue with as normal a life as possible. He has designed a couple of hydraulic hoists to enable him to get in and out of bed and into the car and he is adept at catching escaped chickens and planting, weeding and harvesting his crops.
Much of his vegetables are in a series of raised concrete rings and beds. My first task was to construct a cement ramp for his wheelchair so that he could access yet more of the garden himself.
It must have been incredibly frustrating for Colin to watch me slowly mixing the cement and trying to smooth the path with a trowel, but give him his due, he was incredibly patient as he explained everything to me.
He did confess that he sometimes takes his frustration out on his wife and he wondered how she ever puts up with him! He knows that he has become more bad tempered, but consider for a minute how frustrating it must be to find yourself suddenly in his position.
Colin and Wichien go to their local hospital every three weeks for physiotherapy and a check up. That in itself is a drama as I saw for myself the time that I tagged along.
Firstly, the porters who used to ignore Colin and leave him in the car for ages now virtually run to help to transfer him onto a trolley. He have had to resort to bribery/tipping them, despite this being a ke part of their job.
The day that I was there Colin had to hang around in the car park on a trolley for ages because several members of staff had parked their motorbikes at the bottom of the wheelchair ramp leading into the physio department.
Even after the porters went and explained the situation, half of them came out and stood around waiting before they could eventually be persuaded to move their bikes!
Colin told me that in the early days after his accident he actually requested that the surgeons amputate his legs. They are after all no use to him and he would be able to move himself around a lot easier if he didn’t have them – but they refused to do this.
I asked Colin if he is a glass half full or half empty sort of person. He didn’t hesitate. ‘Half full’ he replied.
And then I asked him what his biggest fear is.
He said, ‘Previously – none. Now – losing Wichien. If that happened I would kill himself. I wouldn’t or couldn’t continue’.
And what is Colin’s message to anybody who is reading this?
‘Make sure that you always wear a helmet on a motorbike – or don’t go on motorbikes on Thai roads. (Colin was wearing a helmet at the time of his accident)
And finally – Is there anything that you (Colin) regret not doing in your life now that many doors are closed to you? ‘No, nothing’.
Life in the Thai countryside
During my time with Colin and Wichien I worked on the land during the longest drought in that part of Thailand for years. The temperatures topped 44 degrees every day for a week and there was little respite during the night when I would forgo my mosquito net and drag a mattress out onto the terrace where I could catch whatever breeze was there.
I learnt all about the life cycle of the cricket and how to rear them, harvest them and cook them and I learnt how to eat sticky rice with my fingers.
Under Colin’s guidance I learnt how to use an angle grinder and a chisel to remove a bit of old wall and I rebuilt it. I made friends with the people in the village and I saw scorpions, a snake and a zillion insects.
I learnt so much about the Thai (Isaan) culture and family life from Wichien who cooked every meal from fresh ingredients and not one tree or plant in her garden couldn’t either be eaten , had medicinal properties or couldn’t be made into something.
While this is Colin’s story, it is what it is because of the quiet strength of Wichien. Educated, intelligent and with a wicked giggle and a beautiful smile, Wichien works tirelessly and with a calm serenity.
She reminded me very much of my maternal grandmother who had more sense in her little finger that many people acquire in a lifetime. Brought up in the countryside she capably caught the scorpions which invaded us after the rain, cooked amazing dishes with spices and herbs and would give alms to the monks when they passed the gate early in the morning.
Live life today. Tomorrow may not be what you expect.
I bring you this story to remind you not to waste your days doing things that you will regret. Embrace your life and try to pack it with the things that you want to do. It can all change in a heartbeat, no matter how careful you are.
If you want to know more about how you can make the most of your day to day life and embrace new challenges, click here and learn more about The Smash the Pumpkin Project.