An interview with Jane Blackburn about physiotherapy at Stoke Mandeville

Interviewer Jon Newman, August 2012

Jane Blackburn describes the Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy that took place at Stoke Mandeville in the 1960s.

Tell us about the regime that went through in terms of physiotherapy

Very strict. You absolutely had to do everything and sometimes, especially with the occupational therapy (that I was absolutely hopeless at) dressing even I couldn’t dress and my occupational therapy lady had such patience with me. She used to sit me up in bed and she’d give me my clothes and say “Right I’ll come back in half an hour, see how you can do”. And she’d come back , and because I’d got such long legs I was sitting up and my feet seemed to be miles away, I couldn’t even reach them, and I used to eventually sort of hook one sock over my big toe and she’d come back and that’s all I’d done. Because if I tried to sit up I just used to fall over and so when I got into the physio they used to sit you on a bench with no back and you had to do sort of balancing exercises, well I was hopeless, I was just all over the place.

And when I first looked in the mirror at myself I was shocked, because I had quite tight Levis jeans when I went in, and when I looked in the mirror I said to the physio “I think I’ve got someone else’s trousers on” because I’d lost… I think I was 9 [stone] 4 [pounds] when I had my accident and I’m 5 foot 10 inches [high] and I was 7 stone when I got up, so I’d lost a fair bit of weight and thought I had someone else’s trousers on. Also I had no hair here at the sides which was shaved off to put the traction in, and a sort of… (not Mohican because it was long)… but I just sat and cried. I thought “That’s not me” but then I thought “Well come on, you’ve got to get on with it and try and do whatever you can to get yourself fit” and I did have a boyfriend when I was still in bed; he used to feed me and be silly and drop food all over my face, and he said to me “You’re not so independent now are you” and I thought “Right, I will be, I hope, later” and I was at Stoke for nearly a year.

And your lesion meant that you were a tetraplegic and it was a much longer process?

Yes it was in those days, it doesn’t seem to be such a long process now but it was a long process on the physio side of it and with the OT. I must admit I did used to try and hide in the toilets when it was OT time because I was just dreadful at it. I couldn’t get in and out the bath, and although my lady had such patience with me and I was terrible at cooking and things like that (not that I’m much better now!) but just trying to do all that, I just hated it. But the physio I loved. I remember my mum saying to Ludwig, [Guttmann] “Why do you focus so much on her arms when we want her to walk?” and he said

Because your arms and hands are far more important, to her they’ll be far more important than legs

which of course you don’t realise at the time but how true that was, because you need to build up this part of you [points to upper arms] to be able to lift this bit of you which is so heavy. Well it’s heavier now than it was then I must admit!

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Read Jane's Paralympic biography