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Life after a broken neck: the Halo Brace experience

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The realm of medical science has never been one to rest on its laurels. Each ground-breaking medical advancement is only followed by another seemingly insurmountable problem to be solved. Technology has revolutionised the efficacy of hospitals, and research has found a plethora of cures for all sorts of ailments and maladies. A species that used to combat dysentery by eating boiled vulture lung, the human race has undoubtedly come very far in its treatment of illness.

And yet, we all live in a world in which the Halo Brace still exists. A device you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, the Halo is a bulky, ungainly apparatus consisting of a sheepskin torso and four pins inserted into the skull. The wearer is rendered completely immobile and looking comprehensively ridiculous. On first impression, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for some sort of Medieval torture device. Although mistaken, this supposition is not comically far from the truth. It seems almost cruel to force a man who has just broken his neck to bear the weight of a half-stone metallic garment for 3 months, but alas, due to lack of alternative, this is common procedure. Such has been my existence since June, ever since my brilliant idea to dive head-first into a shallow river.

            In the manual that was given to me on release from the hospital, there seemed to be endless pages of cautionary advice, imploring me to avoid staircases, the sun, and multivitamins (?). Glazing over the bureaucratic ramblings obsessing about common procedure, what caught my eye was a paragraph regarding human interaction. The NHS, in their panoramic wisdom, had included a few titbits of advice on how to deal with strangers’ reaction to me in public. Details included obvious warnings about staring and being afforded a wide berth on the pavement. What was particularly titillating, however, was the list of potential insults they so helpfully included, urging me to be thick-skinned if I was to ever be on the receiving end of such abuse. ‘How’s the connection on that thing’ was especially inspiring, likening the mechanism to a satellite, a simile both thought-provoking and innovative. ‘What’s it like up in space’ was less impressive. A more forgiving man may assume the joke was based off the fact that the Halo can make one look rather alien, but I fear that the bullies employing this insult would probably be instead making a ham-fisted comparison of the brace to the suit of an astronaut. This would be wholly erroneous, as a spacesuit is far sleeker and more spherical than the square-shaped angularity of the Halo headgear. However, the quip that topped them all was ‘nice scaffolding you have there.’ Not only is the imagery bitingly precise, but the motif of reconstruction relates nicely to the literal rebuilding of bone occurring within. I came away from the reading experience unsure as to what was more absurd: the thought that a stranger could be so mercilessly cruel, or the idea of a medical advisory board brainstorming various ways to mock any passer-by that happens to be donning a Halo Brace.

            Despite the pamphlet’s concern, the public reality I experienced was quite the opposite. Rather than abuse or belittlement, I found only sympathy and compassion. Initially, I was apprehensive about appearing in public places, fearing that I’d stick out like a sore thumb. However, when I finally did emerge from the crevice of the make-do hospital room in my house’s basement, I was mostly treated as if nothing was peculiar about me. Whether this was due to the classic British dread of offending, or a genuine apathy as to my condition, I was certainly thankful to avoid being called a satellite on my daily dog walk. Other than the inevitable questions asked by my friends, I can say with sincerity that the brace did not alter my relationships with others in any way. By the end of my Halo’s tenure, I had developed a story so concise that the conversation could move on within two minutes.

            A reasonably self-evident observation is that one of the more damning aspects of the Halo was the way in which it physically stunted me. As a man who has never broken a bone, I certainly jumped into the deep end (or, more literally, shallow end) by starting with my neck. Not only could I not play sport or partake in any meaningful form of exercise, but small tasks demanded gargantuan effort. Standing up for more than a minute was enough to drain my energy, and, at first, I walked with hunched shoulders trembling under the weight of the apparatus attached to me. The most difficult physical aspect of my experience was undoubtedly sleeping. One becomes accustomed to adopting a plethora of different positions in effort to fall asleep, a liberty that my brace did not afford me. My night-time routine was to lie on my back, head suspended in the air, and to close my eyes in the hope that eventually my body would shut down. Sometimes this never happened, and while infrequent, it certainly had the potential to develop into a vicious cycle of sleeplessness and lack of energy. I was lucky this reality didn’t come to fruition, but in my exploration of various Halo Brace blogs, some unfortunate writers had developed severe insomnia as a result of the discomfort of the brace.

            Having said this, the physical aspect of the brace pales in comparison to the mental toll that it had on me. A psychological concept by the name of the ‘spotlight effect’, denotes a phenomenon wherein a person tends to overestimate the extent to which other’s notice aspects of one’s appearance or behaviour. This is never more applicable than in the case of wearers of a Halo. I found myself reluctant to venture outside the safety of my home, convinced that socialising would be impossible while I had such an aberrant headgear. Not only was it a massive blow on my self-confidence, but the way in which it immobilised me and condemned me to complete inactivity cultivated a genuine sense of worthlessness. Visits from friends and support of my family certainly curtailed such feelings, but there were certainly some days where I felt entirely pointless.

            The Halo Brace should not, in this day and age, exist as the primary treatment of spinal trauma, not only because of the absurdity of still employing a device that was invented in 1959, but because of its impact on mental health. In a world completely unrecognisable from itself 20 years ago, perhaps the most salient marker of change comes in the remarkable progress that doctors and scientists have made in the field of Aesculapian study. So why is it that method of healing vertebrae fractures has come to such a standstill? One would hope the stagnation is a result of lack of viable alternative rather than lack of dedication towards finding one. Nevertheless, a creeping suspicion arises that, because of its healing efficacy (in the physical sense), the mental repercussions of the treatment are neglected. I understand the irony of chastising the method without suggesting an alternative. Whilst I may not be medically innovative, I hope that, through sharing my experience, I may raise awareness of the way in which mental health is not considered with the same seriousness that physical health is.

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