'We had to believe he'd walk again'
Sally FitzHarris's son was told he'd never use his legs again after an accident. But he refused to give up – and what happened next was little short of miraculous
'Guy's OK, but he's had an accident and hurt his back..." It was a call from my youngest child about her brother: I was in London, and Guy, third son, in Accident and Emergency at a Sheffield hospital. But Guy had spoken on the phone, no need to worry.
Some five hours later, A and E were directing me to the spinal-cord injuries unit at the Northern General Hospital. Spinal-cord injuries sounded not quite so good: a passing doctor gave me an oddly compassionate look when I asked the way.
The learning curve was swift. Guy had stepped on to a dual carriageway, into the path of a large lorry. He was now L 1 complete: couldn't move or feel below the first lumbar vertebra. As we soon came to realise during his eight weeks in the superlative care of the acute ward, this meant that he couldn't stand, walk, pee or crap and, as his website puts it, "was only half a man".
After bed rest came rehab: learning to use wheelchair, catheter and rubber gloves. "It's not so bad when you get used to it," said the chief consultant. "You can still sit round the table and discuss Tony Blair with everyone else."
Consultants, physiotherapists and nurses were united in the mantra of "nothing will change". Hope was false, and to work for neural recovery meant you were "in denial". You could lead a full life from a wheelchair, they rightly observed. We were advised not to search the net for therapies.
Guy was 28, and this was 2003. It seemed impossible that spinal-cord science would not move forward in his lifetime. Denying hope seemed pointlessly cruel. "I don't want to play wheelchair basketball," he said, "I want to walk."
Plan A went into action one year later: in that first year Guy had driven thousands of miles in an adapted car, run a business, fallen in love (again). And we had all spent time on the internet.
Albert Bohbot was a Frenchman who had pioneered a therapy called "laserpuncture": an intensive form of acupuncture designed to open up neural pathways. Guy spent two weeks out of every 10 being treated in Bohbot's clinic, which adjoined a small château in the Loire valley. Exercise was an important part of the therapy.
The psychological benefits were obvious: a therapist who believed in hope, young people who encouraged one another to get out of their wheelchairs. The treatment improved circulation and muscle tone – both important for avoiding bed sores. In this benign atmosphere, patients noticed gradual changes in their condition and Guy grew fitter and stronger.
For a year and a half, Guy balanced this treatment with work: then, always mercurial in mood, he hit a wall of depression. We needed a Plan B.
In 2003, the story of Gemma Quinn had hit the headlines: the paralysed teenager who had walked again after treatment at the Mind Clinic in west London. I had dismissed this as media hype. But Laurance Johnston, a scientist interested in alternative therapies, had written a piece on the philosophy of Hratch Ogali, the "mind instructor" who ran the clinic. It was interesting.
Guy had his first treatment one dark January day in 2006. He emerged from the 30-minute session as one with a heavy burden removed. Ogali had promised he would walk again, but required total dedication to his regime of mind-directed exercise. "You do everything I tell you, you don't miss, cancel or come late to a session unless you are dead."
So began a regime of twice-weekly treatment in Ogali's clinic, with between four and six hours' daily exercise at home. A bedroom was converted into an exercise room, with standing frame, exercise bicycle and treatment bed. Work, alcohol and, to begin with, women were out. More difficult, it required a leap of faith. He had to banish all negativity and be certain that he could relearn to walk. Emotional and mental well-being is at the core of Ogali's treatment. He believes healing is impossible while the patient is angry or depressed. "When anyone is given the news of an illness without cure they go into silent shock. It is a depression you cannot quantify," he says.
For months, Guy was encouraged to keep a record of his feelings. Some sessions with Ogali were spent just talking. "Give me all your shit," he would say. Guy did. He looks back to the initial months: "I had to fight so hard against everyone's scepticism – my own, worst of all. Every day I would get up and exercise and try not to think, 'Is this working?'"
We learnt not to ask: "Any changes?" But soon there were changes. Placing a plate warm from the dishwasher across his lap one day, he said he could feel the heat. Repeated exercises, targeted at a particular muscle or area of his lower body, seemed to be sparking nerves into action.
For example, Ogali told him, as he lay on his side, to pull the uppermost knee up to his chest and then push it back down again. Impossible at first, repeated efforts began to show. Tiny, uncontrolled movements increased, bearing out his philosophy: "If I can get 1 per cent, I can get more."
One evening, he shouted downstairs from his bedroom. We went into his room to see him lying on his bed, swinging his left leg wildly in and out as he videoed it on his mobile phone. This was the stuff of miracles, impossible not to communicate. I sat down and telephoned my three best friends.
He explained: "My leg was just begging me to move it."
The next major breakthrough was being able to lock his knees, which would enable him to stand with less support. "Walking" had been an exercise since the beginning. Paraplegics can "walk" using full leg callipers and movement from the hip if they lean on a frame. Ogali wanted him to "feel" his knees, so insisted on ankle support only. Using a wheeled frame his leg movements became gradually more controlled, imitating more closely the natural walking motions. A GP cousin visiting at Christmas was impressed: "There's a lot of weight going into your feet," he said.
We watched the changes with a degree of awe. It was evident that internal changes matched the external. Guy appeared to have found a remedy for the depression that had bugged him since his schooldays. Then, as his walking improved to the point of taking a few steps supported only by crutches – making him a one-day media story, as TV news reporters responded to the Mind Clinic's press releases – he spoke in terms of "getting it".
It was almost impossibly difficult for the looker-on to describe. "Connectedness" seems the best way of understanding what was happening to Guy. Ogali's "mind instruction", practised in dozens of small and boring exercises for thousands of hours, seems to have taught an intense awareness of the body, so that Guy could speak finally of being "inside his legs". His experience, as he describes it, is that physical changes only occurred when his mind was fully focused on whatever muscle or part of the body he was exercising.
As he collapsed into his safety harness after a few exhausting steps in front of the camera, the newsman said accurately: "Still a long way to go." But the mental, spiritual and physical journey travelled so far by Guy has been immense.
The Mind Clinic: 020-7486 0202 Treatment: £125 per hour. Evening classes in self-awareness and direction: £15 per session
How the therapy works
Mind Instruction aims to put the patient back in control over his or her mental and physical health. Hratch Ogali of the Mind Clinic treats conditions as diverse as asthma, obsessive compulsive disorder and motor neurone disease.
* Underlying every treatment is the belief that physical health is rooted in emotional balance. First, the patient has to learn self-awareness and clear away emotional trauma. When the mind is cleared of all negativity via meditation, the patient must know, and focus, on his objective: whether he wants to get out of a wheelchair, halt neurological deterioration or clear away depression.
* Ogali regards the brain as a powerful tool, provided the patient has the will to use it. Patients are taught to instruct the brain to tell the body what to do. This can result in an SCI patient in the early stages, spending an hour or more devoting his whole focus on to a big toe and willing it to move.
* The Mind Clinic uses standard physiotherapy equipment. Sometimes patients are required to exercise the mind only, combined with breathing.
* Ogali does not claim a cure for all types of illness, but says that if a patient follows his instruction he will improve, even halting or reversing a progressive condition.
* Angus Wallace, Professor of orthopaedic and accident surgery at the University of Nottingham, says: "There is no doubt that personal attention and focused rehabilitation does make a difference to patients psychologically and, in some cases, physically. The trouble is that this is a lot of money for limited benefit. The NHS looks closely at new methods of treating patients but it has to take into consideration the costs and benefits and ensure that treatments provide value for money. This is a sensitive area, because it can create expectations from other patients and their families. There have been cases of patients whose hopes have been unrealistically raised and then dashed. It is important not to go wild about it."