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“I broke my neck when I was 13 diving into a pool. After five months at the Spinal Unit I returned to school, but this time in a wheelchair. I had to relearn how to do everything. It’s a very long journey, one that’s ongoing.”

Now 15 years into that journey, Lee was at the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit as the Minister of Health, Andrew Little, announced $110 million in funding for a new purpose-built Spinal Rehabilitation Unit to be housed at the Manukau Health Park.

Sitting next to him is Sally Barkman, whose life changed suddenly five years ago.

“I was cycling home and fell off into a ditch,” she says. “My husband was just behind me. I went round some people, and didn’t see the ditch cause it was dark. I hit the bank with my face, knocked out a lot of my teeth, and broke my jaw in quite a few places. I was in the Spinal Unit for 10 weeks, which seemed like forever.”

The 20-bed Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit at Ōtara is one of only two facilities in New Zealand that provide specialist spinal rehabilitation services for spinal cord impairment. It hasn’t been significantly renovated since the 1970s.

“It’ll be interesting to see what they come up with for the design of this new one, ” Sally says.

“There are little things that can make a big difference for people with spinal injuries. We normally have a lot of pillows for legs and backs and things, and then when you’re up where do you put your pillows? I’ve heard the unit in Burwood now has a pull out drawer beside each bed for pillows. It’s so cool they thought of that.”

“When you first arrive at a spinal unit it can be a big challenge mentally,” she says.

“It’s really difficult, imagine it: you’re stuck in a pokey little dark room and the person beside you never opens their curtains so you cant see the daylight. It’s incredibly depressing on top of an already depressing situation. I did a lot of crying.”

Sally says that simply being in a nice environment can help with the recovery process.  

“If you go into a nice place you feel better instantly.

“Dealing with this sort of injury, a lot of it is mental and if you can keep your brain in the game then you’ll be fine.

“So if you start off in a nice room that’s bright and light, it’ll make a huge difference.”

Lee agrees that both patients and staff have been making do with the constraints of the old facility for far too long but sees a range of possibilities now available.

“In the new one I’d like to see spaces for whaanau support. There’s a lot of people from out of town that come here and there’s currently nothing on site for their families to spend time with them comfortably.  

“It would be helpful to have spaces people can hang out together and stay. For some people, having their whaanau around them is the key part to their recovery”

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Auckland Spinal Unit funding ministry of health rehabilitation

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