A few years ago, in the course of some research I was carrying out, I visited Stoke Mandeville hospital, where spinal injuries are treated, and the disabled re-habilitated. There I had the privilege of interviewing some of the patients. Some of those interviews I recorded, and here is one of them:
Riccy Littlewell, was an ex-rugger man. As could perhaps be expected with a name like his, Riccy had stood six feet five inches, before a motor car 'tackled' him. His friend had been driving them to a rugby football match, when something appeared to go wrong with their car's steering; it suddenly ran off the road and turned over; the driver got out uninjured but Riccy's neck was broken, with all that entailed. I found we had much in common, with our previous love of this sport, as I had also been a player and disabled in a car accident, although not to the same extent as Riccy.
As Riccy explained, like myself, he had played lock forward for his county, and the way he now missed the fun of it, I wondered how he could talk so dispassionately about it all, with no evidence of self-pity; above all, how could he remain so cheerful? It made matters seem even worse when I heard that Riccy had not long been married at the time of his accident. How his young wife had to go out to work now, to earn the money to pay off their mortgage, and that she was likely to have to do so for the foreseeable future.
'How terrible!' I ejaculated the words involuntarily. I saw the dismay in his eyes, as Riccy hastened to say,
'But my wife has been absolutely wonderful throughout all this business. It's only been through her that I've been able to bear up and face the future.'
After reflecting on these words for a few moments I replied that my own first reaction after I lost my leg, when once I was able to think clearly that is, was how fortunate I was not to have anyone dependent on me, now that I was so helpless. Riccy grinned,
'You're still living with Victorian ideas, old chap. In these enlightened times most women choose to be equal partners, with the opposite sex in every way. That means we men are dependent on them to the same extent as they depend on us, and that's how it's worked out in our case. I just can't bear to think how I'd have managed without the knowledge that I had my wife's support and loving care bearing me up throughout all the trauma and pain.'
'Unfortunately, as our house is the other side of London - two hours journey - and she doesn't finish work till five o'clock in the afternoon, she can only come to visit me here at the weekends; and that's not half often enough for me. Every Saturday morning regular as clockwork she comes and we spend the night together in the hostel. Then she returns home on the Sunday evening. We were thinking of starting a family you know, when I had this accident nine months ago, so I've got to count my blessings. It would have meant she couldn't have kept up our mortgage repayments if she'd had a new baby to cope with.'
Riccy's remarks had triggered a line of thought that my mind had been doggedly trying to avoid. Now, my apprehensions surfaced, and I nervously sought for the right words.
'Er... I mean... isn't it almost impossible for a healthy young woman to remain happily married to someone who's no longer... well not a complete man any more, you must know what I mean.' Riccy, however, was not inhibited in these matters and hastened to explain:
'But you mustn't think that; I certainly am a "complete man", as you put it. I know what you're thinking, but strangely enough it's not like that at all. Of course you'd naturally think that with everything down there paralysed, sex would be a thing of the past, but that's not how it works out - at least not with me. It seems that messages don't have to travel down the spinal cord from the brain to enable a man to become sexually aroused. I think an erection must be brought on by hormones or reflexes, or something like that.'
'Anyway, no matter how it happens, my wife and I are okay in that way, incredible as it may seem. Perhaps we're lucky, because from what I hear all patients aren't the same. It's a bit rough I suppose, me not getting any feeling from it, but as long as it's all right for her, I'm not all that worried. This is like a lot of other things, you know; it's travelling along the road where most of life's fun lies, not so much in the arrival. In one sense you were right though; the doctors say that it's very unlikely that I'll be able to father any kids, as sperm production is affected by our condition.'
I left with the feeling that I'd been given a glance into the life of one of this world's unsung heroes.