Francis’ story

“I will admit that prior to becoming ill I had never heard of the Benevolent Fund for Optometrists. Blissful ignorance perhaps, but a great discovery nonetheless.

I qualified as an optometrist at the first attempt in April  2008 aged 24, working in Morecambe, at  a new, expanding practice. I enjoyed the job. Like many newly qualified optoms, I was working full-time with an hour travel from home and after a few months started to locum on my days off. Looking back everything was 100mph, although being young and healthy I didn’t think anything of it. I decided to leave the store to locum permanently, so with a heavy heart handed in my notice. September would be my last month and coupled with my extra days I only had two days off including a day return to London to watch Utd away at Chelsea. I diligently arranged a meeting with my bank for an income protection plan in early October, continued my AOP membership and booked up my calendar with work until Christmas.

I woke on Thursday 9th October feeling off but with a first day in Cleveleys ahead there was only one thing on my mind: perform. It was mid-morning in an unfamiliar test room where I can remember my neck feeling stiff as though I had slept peculiarly. I was pre-occupied thinking this was due to the new chair or computer positioning. I got through the day and managed to drive to a snooker match that evening. As top stick I was first up and on my fourth shot the cue fell out of my hands. My hands were like jelly, similar to pins and needles but with no movement. I walked outside for air and to stretch thinking it could be a trapped nerve. On my return I sat down and people were saying I didn’t look too good. I was moving my legs at this point but realised I couldn’t feel them.  Then they stopped moving as this strange sensation passed down my back. No pain whatsoever – just an awareness something was wrong. On arrival in hospital every test under the sun was performed with the M.R.I. confirming the diagnosis – transverse myelitis: a rare but known inflammatory condition of the spinal cord, which affected my cervical spine.

Initially I was paralysed from the chest down and the prognosis was bleak: no specific treatment and certainly no cure – you will get back what you get back. Time, healing and physio was the order of the day and everyone on the Neuro ward seemed to be receiving steroids and antibiotics regardless of their condition. Where’s my operation I thought?! I left the ward after 3 months and went to a spinal rehabilitation unit for more intense therapy. It was here that I first heard about the Benevolent Fund through a family friend. I left the unit in Februay 2010 after a gruelling 14 months. I certainly left in better shape than I arrived but still a long way from being back to ‘normal’. I was embarking on life as a wheelchair user with limited hand function.

After contacting the Fund I was visited at my new residence by a member of the Board – a local Trustee, Ian. He was concerned about my well-being, financial situation and progress. At this point recovery was still my main focus, swimming 2/3 times a week with regular physio sessions. Ian was keen to help with offers of equipment or treatment, anything which could be of assistance. As time progressed my thoughts turned to work. Through his experience he put me in touch with (as we thought) the only optometrist practising from a wheelchair, for a brainstorming session to see if I could get back to the profession. I returned to a previous practice for an afternoon in the test room but due to my hands not being 100% I could not complete all that is required for a safe consultation. Since being out of work for nearing two years I wondered if I could work in diabetic eye screening as a retinopathy grader, where I could keep myself in the ‘field’ and get back into a more familiar routine. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to work within a local screening service once we had identified the appropriate people to contact and I enrolled on the City & Guilds Level 3 Certificate in Diabetic Retinopathy Screening. I would keep the Fund’s secretary updated with progress reports of how I was getting on and speak to Ian from time to time. I managed to get vertical again in early 2011 walking with callipers and a frame but it’s extremely tiring and not an independent activity. The Fund assisted me with financial support to cover my gym membership and provided me with equipment as necessary. This was particularly useful as the bank did not come through with the insurance for various reasons and the disability world is an expensive one.

I’m writing this article to improve our profession’s awareness of the Benevolent Fund and to advocate it’s positive work. I would like to remind people, young and old, to consider their health and remember the work/life balance.

P.S. If anyone out there has any brainwaves as to what I could do careerwise I’m open to offers. I’m currently working part-time for the NHS whilst still trying to regain as much recovery as is realistically possible but I want to balance that with a suitable career.”