A tale of two nurses: Matt King OBE reveals how NHS care changed his life

Monday October 22, 2018

Just 20 seconds into his first professional rugby league match, 17-year-old Matt King’s life was changed forever.

During a tackle, his own team-mate’s knee smashed into him, leaving him paralysed from the neck down for life.

While waiting to be airlifted to hospital, the reality of his spinal injury overwhelmed him and Matt pleaded with paramedics to let him die.

At Leeds General Infirmary, he was put into an induced coma and scans revealed what he already knew, his vertebrae had been irreparably broken, with life-changing consequences.

Matt said: “There are many factors to an injury such as mine and the physical aspects certainly weighed heavy on my mind, but it was the psychological aspect that would be most important – though at the time, I didn’t think about that.”

For many weeks, Matt was trapped with his own despair, unable to speak, unable to do anything for himself, dependent on a ventilator for every breath and nursing staff for every need.

It was during this harrowing time that one nurse made a comment that tormented him in his anguish and, that 14 years on, Matt uses to illustrate the impact such throwaway remarks can have on a vulnerable patient.

By this time, Matt had learned to make a slight clicking sound with his mouth to communicate with others. But psychologically, he remained in a terrible place, a teenager trapped in himself, continually contemplating his own paralysis.

“I wanted to focus on the things that I could do and I have learned that anything is possible, no matter what your limitations are.

One night, he feared he was not getting enough air to breathe – was the ventilator failing? He was petrified but had no way to seek reassurance or help, other than by making his clicking noises.

From the corner of his eye he saw a nurse at the desk, so he clicked. Nothing. He clicked again. Still nothing. He clicked twice. No response.

Eventually, the nurse responded. She walked over, ignoring him but checking his monitors. Then she stood at the end of his bed and said the words that continue to haunt him to this day: “Patience is a virtue and there really is no need to become frustrated with your situation”.

This utter lack of empathy, care and attention further destroyed Matt’s well-being and compounded his depression. Fortunately, however, Matt’s story does not end there.

In time, he was transferred to the National Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, where the kindness, compassion and inspiring care of another nurse would help to transform his life, from that of a victim to a public speaker, helping others to appreciate what is possible.

Matt said: “Nurse Tracy was so much more than a nurse – she stayed with me, encouraged me and listened to everything I had to say. She was amazing and because of her, instead of accepting defeat, I was motivated to rebuild my life and continue living out my dreams.”

With patience, Matt set about rebuilding his life, one small step at a time, which over the months and years since have helped him progress leaps and bounds and to achieve things no other quadriplegic person has ever done.

Matt returned to school part-time, then read law at university before qualifying as a solicitor. He secured a job with the Williams Formula 1 team, wrote a book, became a mouth painter, skied in Sweden, completed the New York Marathon and even carried the Olympic Torch. But best of all, he has recently become a father.

Matt said: “I wanted to focus on the things that I could do and I have learned that anything is possible, no matter what your limitations are. Being paralysed from the neck down and dependent on a mobile ventilator has not slowed me down. I have gone skiing, competed in marathons, obtained a law degree and I am a father. I have achieved these things by focusing on what I can do and thinking positively.”

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