A Man On The Right Track
When Chris admits to having been a self-confessed car enthusiast from childhood you could be forgiven for thinking that the person we are talking about is a petrol head with a need for speed. “I knew all the makes and models from an early age and soon began tinkering with my father’s vehicles and I suppose it just grew from there” reflects Chris. Indeed the passion soon developed into a career and his own business in vehicle mechanics and restoration which he ran successfully alongside his older brother.
It is this inquisitive mind and attention to detail that has served Chris well throughout his life. Some twenty four years ago, aged 37, Chris began suffering from an enduring headache which just wouldn’t go away. “At the time, I feared the worst and hoped for the best outcome” Chris vividly recalls. “Being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis was actually a relief at first” he continues.
That said, Chris was unprepared for what was to follow. “All down my right side there was the constant sensation of pins and needles. This would often result in my right leg collapsing from under me. From diagnosis the progression of the disease was gradual and I battled with fatigue and the increasing need for mobility aids. In time I had deteriorated and went from using a walking stick to needing crutches and then finally needing to use a wheelchair. There is no doubt, it wore me down and bouts of depression followed. I had been such an active person and suddenly found I was unable to carry on as before. It was a difficult time to say the least.”
For many years Chris struggled to find alternative ways to carry on in his business as well as coping with a debilitating and chronic illness until finally he had to relent and give his share of the business he loved to his brother. “For a workaholic this was difficult”, he suggests. “So too was other’s perception of me. For example when I used crutches people naturally assumed that I had broken my leg and then you have to go into the whole ritual of explaining that, it is not the case. However, you do learn to adapt and after I stopped working with my brother I started a part time “Sign making” business to give me a purpose and something to focus on.” But just as Chris had taught himself how to fix cars unknown to him he was one day going to set about learning what actions he could take to make repairs to his own body.
Chris came across the Samson Centre for MS through a chance encounter. Fortunately for him Carol Kitching, a Samson Centre for MS volunteer happened to be organising one of her charity collection days on the high street in Dorking. Upon noticing the wording on the blue collection boxes, Chris immediately made enquiries. A few days later he joined the Samson Centre for MS and immediately grasped what it could offer him with both hands. “From the day I first walked into the building in 2013 three stone heavier than I am now through lack of mobility I might add, I have never looked back”.
It is a bold claim and one that is evident from my own eyes. Chris sits comfortably on the settee beside me. The only outward sign of a mobility aid is a walking stick. He looks younger than his birth certificate would suggest. He appears lean, fit and with a healthy glow about him. “I have had an unbelievable support network behind me here. With physiotherapy and exercise I have come a long way. It hasn’t been like pulling out of the pit stop in pole position at Brand’s Hatch but a slower, more gradual acceleration to where I am today.
I have been able to move forward at my own speed as this was never going to be a race but a test of strength and endurance both mental and physical. Along the way I have been given support and guidance about how to get the best out of my body. But I have also been lucky and my body has responded well. With multiple sclerosis no two people will have the same experience. It is an individual disease and a personal journey and you don’t know how your body will react”.
Part of that support included advice on the wearing and fitting of an FES (functional electrical stimulator) which is a control box no bigger than a pack of cards that Chris wears. This clever, concealed device sends small electrical impulses directly to the nerves in muscles that have been affected by the disruption in the nerve pathway to and from the brain, ultimately caused by the multiple sclerosis. Chris trains three times a week and works in circuit training and indoor rowing alongside his physiotherapy and other exercise programme.
It was during one of his sessions on the rowing machine that Robert Hall a rowing coach noticed his natural stroke and invited him down to the river on a Friday morning to have a go at the real thing in an adaptive rowing boat. “That was it, I was hooked” beams Chris. Now I can immediately see traits of the boy racer. The engine is on and he is about to hit the throttle. “The Friday morning sessions are for people with disabilities and I love every minute of them. I am also keen to encourage others and help out with training some of the junior members. It is a great way for young people to overcome anxiety issues and to gradually build their confidence and realise that there is nothing from preventing them from moving from juniors into seniors and integrating with able bodied adults. I can’t help but ask whether he will ever consider rowing competitively and Chris smiles “I already have!”
We end our conversation there and I look over and his wife Sandra is waiting in the wings. She has been busy helping out by making teas and coffees and herself aptly demonstrating what the Samson Centre for MS is all about – people not only helping themselves but people helping others too.