August 19, 2007 / 4:12 AM / 12 years ago

WITNESS: Back to work with a broken neck and useless limbs

Peter Apps is a Reuters correspondent who was badly injured in a car crash in Sri Lanka on Sept 5, 2006. He lost the use of his limbs and is now confined to a wheelchair. He describes his struggle to return to employment and the difficulties he faces in his daily life.

Photo of Peter Apps at his desk in the Reuters offices at Canary Wharf, London, England on July 13, 2007. REUTERS/Jonathan Bainbridge

By Peter Apps

LONDON (Reuters) - Nine months to the day after breaking my neck on assignment covering civil war in Sri Lanka, I was wheeled up to my new desk in London to get back to work.

The journey from a dusty roadside, not far from rebel territory, to a sleek desk in the Reuters headquarters in London’s booming Canary Wharf financial district proved brutal, isolating and hard.

There was the unwelcome, if not surprising, realization that the damage done to my spinal cord when our vehicle slammed into the tractor was too bad for me to recover use of my limbs, leaving me needing everything to be done for me by carers.

That costs money I cannot afford. I was rendered dependent on a British welfare state already openly struggling with limited resources and an ageing population.

Having spent two years posted overseas and lacking an address in Britain, I didn’t even have a local council I could ask for care and support.

Even when I began renting a flat at my own expense to get into the system, social services and the British National Health Service spent months wrangling over who would pay for me.

I was stranded in agonizing limbo in hospital far west of London, far from people I knew and with little to do, simply clinging to hope of a more useful life — brutally aware that in many countries I would already be dead from lack of care.

Back at work, the world has mercifully opened up again. Supported by a live-in carer and a government funded support worker in the office, I have got back into London life and work much faster than anyone thought possible.

But in truth I would much rather be back at my desk in Sri Lanka, even in my wheelchair, no matter how hard that would be.

Reassigned to Reuters AlertNet, a charitable website run by the Reuters Foundation covering humanitarian issues with and for aid agencies, I am carving out a role covering the same sort of issues I wrote on from southern Africa and Asia.


In one week, I might cover shortages in Gaza, peacekeeping in Darfur, the near impossibility of delivering aid in Somalia and the killing of relief workers on my old patch in Sri Lanka.

Using voice recognition software, I write as much as some of my able-bodied counterparts.

Attending meetings and conferences in central London and Whitehall and unable to push my way up to senior figures and diplomats to ask questions, I send someone else to drag them over to me instead — something I could get used to, but which for now still makes me self-conscious.

After only a couple of weeks I became something of a fixture in the pubs and restaurants around Canary Wharf — fortunately one of the most wheelchair friendly places in Europe.

In less accessible parts of London, I have had to be carried up and down steps into bars in my chair by several people.

By and large people are tolerant of the inconveniences I pose. They have got used to wheeling me about, feeding me beer through a straw, and are less phased by the violent spasms that twist my wrists sideways and throw my legs up from the chair.

There are huge restrictions. It takes two people to get me up and put me to bed. If I had two full-time carers, I could do as I chose but with only one I am tied to when a second person comes in. Being home for bed at ten limits my social life.

And after an all too brief but rewarding time covering some of the world’s grubbier corners, I find it hard being restricted to the skyscrapers and shopping malls of Canary Wharf.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Sometimes it is tough, particularly as the first anniversary of the crash approaches next month.

What keeps me going is the thought that many people with my sort of disability disappear from society altogether.

So as long as my health allows, I keep going. (You can read more Reuters Witness stories by clicking on the URL here or by typing it into the address bar of your browser)

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