One glorious afternoon in October, I made a pilgrimage to Farnham Park Rehabilitation Centre in leafy Buckinghamshire to research my book, It Could Never Happen To Me: A Guide To Surviving Road Accidents. I drove to the red-brick Victorian house set in landscaped grounds, down lanes overarched with russet, green and gold. As the front drive which led up to the main entrance was closed, I went to the tradesmen’s entrance and found myself back 17 years.
One wet April morning when I was 17, I had been run over by a ten-ton gravel lorry while biking to my Saturday job. As I lay entangled with my pre-war Hercules, blood pouring down the drain with the rain, limbs paralysed and crushed, my life was changed irrevocably. I was only expected to live a couple of hours, but once I’d been pumped full of blood, saline and morphine, I managed to survive, allowing emergency surgery. I had five pelvic fractures, a crushed right elbow, a fractured spine, crushed ribs, concussion, my vagina had been split open by my bicycle seat and I’d been stabbed in the guts by my gears.
Expert medical care at Ashford Hospital, Middlesex, saved my life. A gynaecologist and an orthopaedic surgeon cancelled their holidays, rushing from nearby Heathrow airport to piece me together again. After two weeks on the critical list I pulled through.
I then faced the long haul of recovery. After several months in hospital I still needed rehabilitation. At first it was uncertain if I would walk again. I’d lost three stones in weight, was exhausted, scarred, confused and rapidly becoming clinically depressed. When lowered into a bath, like a dazed and drugged stick insect, my buttocks bruised, my right arm flapped like a broken black banana. I was in no fit state to go home; my parents were exhausted. Although the hospital had begun to winch me to my feet, I didn’t have the specialist care I needed.
Luckily, I was transferred to Farnham Park Rehabilitation Centre. I was utterly terrified as the ambulance crawled through the country; I seemed to be living an agonised recurring nightmare. As my wheelchair bumped into the oak panelled hall of the main house I burst into tears of apprehension, feeling alone, small, broken and helpless. Walking again seemed a far-off possibility.
Yet just six months later I was running down the lanes, doing press-ups, climbing wall bars, playing snooker and table-tennis, dancing at the centre’s parties and going to the pub with other “inmates”. My recovery was the culmination of an intensive regime of body-building diet, graduated exercises (beginning with wiggling toes, ending with the weight-lifting), occupational therapy (woodwork, weaving) hydrotherapy, excellent medical care and sheer determination. I was heavily drugged and there was no counselling. Inmates and staff pulled together, caring for 32 residents and more than 80 day patients.
The beautiful, peaceful gardens were particularly important for coming to terms with months of mental and physical pain, strain and struggle. Part of my rehabilitation entailed running a shop, going home for the weekends and a week’s holiday to acclimatise to real life again.
Eight months after, walking out of Farnham Park, I went to university and the following summer, climbed the Pyrenees. I now had my health, confidence, physical strength and although permanently disabled, my new life lay ahead.
Now returning to the house and grounds with its “village” of exercise and therapy cottages, gymnasium and workshops, I was filled with a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude. But my visit was to be marred. A security man came out with his dog to see who was intruding. I explained the purpose of my visit. He sighed. “You’re the second today,” he said, “but of course, you know the place closed down last Friday.”
Shocked, I soon discovered Farnham Park’s success was its downfall. People came from all over Britain to benefit from its general rehabilitation facilities, which cost East Berkshire Health Authority dear. However, it could not recoup money from other authorities because the centre had lost its regional status in the early 1980s. So the Health Authority sought special funding from the DHSS only to be told intensive rehabilitation was no longer a “national speciality”. New DHSS policy was to develop rehabilitation in local hospitals, doing away with centres of excellence.
A Farnham Park Trust was set up by Dr Williams, the Centre’s Medical Director for 23 years, raising £2 million to save it. On September 1, two weeks before contracts were to be signed, the health authority demanded an extra £323,000. Mr Brian McNess, East Berkshire’s Director of Support Services, said the health authority “didn’t have any alternative” and that money from the forthcoming sale would be used for “priorities” like the elderly. Meanwhile, the Health Authority’s “agents” are examining the centre’s commercial potential.
Wexham Park Hospital, Slough, has some rehabilitation facilities and has “absorbed” two-thirds of Farnham’s 40 ex-staff. But there’s no residential care and it’s only for local people. My worst imaginings see the site being “re-developed” into a hotel with squash courts, Jacuzzis and beauty parlours instead of exercise rooms for rebuilding wasted limbs. Maybe it’ll become a multi-storey car park or superstore. Whatever, its days as a centre of green-belted excellence for the seriously injured are over. Farnham Park is now, itself, the victim of a terrible accident in need of rehabilitation.
The policy that local hospitals should provide rehabilitation for the community is fine in theory, but post-Farnham there’s little comparable general residential rehabilitation care left in Britain. Clearly this places even more strain on patients, their families, GPs, hospitals, social services and the so-called “Community”.
In its 40 years, Farnham helped thousands of people to adjust their shattered bodies and lives. Co-existence with others who have experienced similarly devastating traumas is crucial to rehabilitation. For us all Farnham gave the future hope.