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Debbie's Story

Free Hand

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Film by Andrew Dawson
Camera Assistant Roman Sheppard Dawson
Music Jonny Pilcher

Featuring Debbie Graham.

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‘It was 3 am and I did dives between a friend’s legs. I thought I would do higher and higher dives, so I got the lifeguard’s chair from the side and dragged it to the pool, and dived off that. For my finale I dived from the top of the chair. The pool was not deep and I knew it. So I dived in, missed the bottom and glided across the pool. Then I hit the other side and broke my neck. I like to be different. I went through the legs as well. It was one of those things. I have seen so many others hit their heads on the side without injury.

I knew immediately. Maybe I was destined to do it. I could not turn over and, face down, thought I would drown. Luckily I cut my head open at the same time. I could hear people messing around and then my friend said, “Oh my God, Debs is dead.” They turned me over.”

Debbie had a complete motor level break in her cervical spine at C5/6.

Debbie was determined not to be beaten by her disability, so when she heard of the pioneering Free Hand System programme that could allow her to regain some use of her hand she begged to be allowed to take part. The project is funded by the Inspire Foundation, a charity for improving the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries by developing electronic, mechanical and medical aids to assist their mobility.

The Freehand System involves placing eight electrodes under the skin of the forearm onto muscles. The wires are connected to a small receiver in the anterior chest wall, under the skin. This is driven by a radio transmitter lying on the skin over the receiver. The transmitter signals are determined in turn by movement of the subject’s shoulder via a shoulder position sensor or transducer attached to her or him. Then moving the shoulder backwards or forwards allows the hand to open and close.

“To use my freehand [on the right] I have to move my left shoulder. To pick a fork up I first position the fork in front of me, then I put my left arm round the back of the chair to stop falling over. I switch the system on by pressing a button on my chest and then I pull my left shoulder back and the right wrist is extended and the hand open. Then as I move the shoulder forward - slowly and a very small amount - the wrist and hand close. Small opposite movement will open and close the hand.

The shoulder movement is forward and back. Once my hand is gripping as I want, I flick my shoulder suddenly and it locks the system. Then I can hold with my clenched hand, without thought, and move my shoulder independently. When I want to release my hand I flick the shoulder again and the hand relaxes. Then I switch it off by pressing again.”

What the Freehand System, really gave her, is what she desired the most and that's her independence, so not only can she eat on her own, it meant that she could not only brush her hair, it meant that she could grow it.

From Still Lives; Narratives of Spinal Cord Injury by Jonathan Cole