On International Day of Persons with Disabilities Annabelle Bridges, a tax associate, shares her incredible recovery journey after suddenly losing the ability to walk, and how you can be more inclusive to people with perceived disabilities every day.
I’ve always had a zest for life and a passion for adventure. Before joining the firm in 2019, I travelled and worked in Australia – living in a campervan for months! I also spent three summers in New York through Camp America, where I worked with children and adults with disabilities. I really enjoy keeping busy and seeing friends, so my weekends would often involve driving to different places to meet up with friends.
I knew something wasn’t right
I knew something wasn’t right when I started struggling to walk. Last summer, I started to get what can best be described as continuous pins and needles in my hands and feet. This got worse, and walking became extremely difficult. After many trips back and forth to A&E, I was then admitted to hospital, which was the start of a ten-week hospital stay across three different hospitals.
I spent six weeks paralysed from the waist down, unable to move and with no idea what was happening. I was then fortunate to undergo a plasma exchange treatment at St. Georges Hospital, which removed, cleaned and replaced the plasma in my blood. I will be forever grateful for this treatment as it was following this that I started to get some movement back. So, if anyone reading this donates blood, thank you. It really is invaluable.
Learning to walk again
I was diagnosed with transverse myelitis, which left me with a T4 spinal cord injury, and I had to learn to walk again. I was transferred to a spinal rehab centre where I undertook intensive physio and rehabilitation to learn to manage my new way of life in a wheelchair, and take my first steps in learning to walk again.
COVID-19 wasn’t my biggest fear during the experience – leaving hospital and wondering how I’d cope was far scarier! While I was in hospital, I received fantastic care from amazing doctors, nurses, and physios, but I knew I would not have that support as easily accessible once I was discharged. If something went wrong in hospital, someone was always there to help get you back on track.
I was then diagnosed this year with active relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS). The biggest challenge I have found with this is that there is no cure for MS. MS also varies considerably from person to person, so it is hard to explain what is happening. It can also vary, in that some days I feel quite well, and others I become quite fatigued and need time to rest.
I felt like I lost my independence almost overnight. My diagnosis means there are many aspects of life that I now need help with, and I find this quite difficult. I moved back home with family, which has been lovely, but at the same time felt like a step backwards when I have lived away from home for so long. I have always really enjoyed driving, and this was something which I was keen to be able to continue again. Having declared my health conditions to DVLA and having passed their medical driving assessment (convinced this was harder than my test!) I am now back driving again.
I’m truly grateful for the support I’ve received from my team and the firm. I was apprehensive at the start of my return, as it felt like I had forgotten aspects of my role and had lots of questions on things I should have known or did know before. I did a phased return to work over three months, and this really helped me figure out how to manage work alongside many other health commitments (physio, occupational therapy, MRIs, medications, appointments) and allowed me return to working full-time by January this year. I couldn’t ask for a better team – everyone has been so supportive throughout and regularly checking in on me. It’s the little things like that, and the firm’s reasonable adjustments process that has made the transition back to work as best as possible.
Agile working allows me to flex my time. Whether it’s for medical appointments or studying for my ACA qualification, I can work in a way that suits me and enables me to deliver my projects. Since being back full-time, I have also taken on a 40% secondment to our Diversity and Inclusion team. In particular, as a secondee, I helped to shape the firm's strategy around disability.
I am currently doing ok and walking (though wobbly!) with crutches. I am also enjoying swimming as a form of physio. I still use a wheelchair on difficult days, but fortunately, these seem to be less and less. I receive Tysabri medical treatment every four weeks, but I’m looking into a more aggressive medication which, unfortunately, isn’t widely used in the NHS, so I’ll start fundraising for this treatment next year.
Remember that not all disabilities are visible
People often comment that I look really well or I look like I am doing much better. MS is just one of many hidden disabilities, and although I may look fine, I am just as ill as I was while in hospital. There are many aspects of my condition which are hidden. For example, I can’t regulate my body temperature, and I do not have full sensation in my legs. If I spilt a hot drink on my legs, I wouldn’t know if it was hot until I could see that my skin was burnt.
I think it's really important that people actively take time to ensure they are inclusive and consider that they may not know everything about someone’s life outside of work.