It was 2002 and I was on a skiing trip with friends in Utah.  I had somehow lost everyone on the mountain and was skiing home on my own on a typically glorious winter’s day.

The sun was low and while skiing down the final groomed slope to home I had failed to see an unmarked ten-ft drop in the middle of the piste (it was the base of a spectator’s stand that had not been cleared away or marked!).

I hit the hard-packed snow face down and slid forward.  I saw stars but never blacked out and was immediately aware that I was unable to move any of my limbs.  As a doctor I knew immediately that I had sustained a spinal cord injury.

Peter, Sue & Yarra

“As I lay there face down in the snow, unable to move my legs or arms, I knew I had damaged my spinal cord and that my life would change forever.”

After being helicoptered to hospital, scans and a neurological examination showed that I had not broken my neck but had ‘bruised’ the spinal cord itself resulting in an incomplete spinal cord injury.  This meant that I could not move a single muscle below my neck but I could breathe and talk.  The total lack of movement was due to a condition known as ‘spinal shock’ and not because the spinal cord had been cut in two.  This was good news since it meant that there was room for recovery given good treatment and rehabilitation.

After three days in intensive care I was transferred to a specialist rehabilitation ward that was well staffed with trained nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and psychologists.  Here was a model ‘American’ unit where all thoughts and actions were positive and nothing was impossible.  Just the environment that is needed (and totally different from my subsequent experience of the NHS after repatriation).

My son Julian and daughter Camilla (both doctors) flew out to see me in hospital in Salt Lake City (it was then that I realised that I wasn’t very well – as Spike Milligan famously put it!).  I was originally out there with my wife Sue and some Hampshire friends for our annual Christmas skiing holiday.

In the six weeks that I’d been in the University Hospital in Salt Lake City (Utah) I’d regained quite a lot of sensation and movement and had even taken a few faltering steps – with the help of a frame and three physios!

Following a major operation on my neck to relieve the pressure on my spinal cord and to stabilise the vertebrae in the neck,  I was repatriated back to the UK.  This was a nightmare journey that lasted 24 hours.

We had managed to get a bed in the regional Spinal Unit but this turned out to be a miserable experience and I felt I just had to get out of there.  This place plunged me into the depths of despair – I thought about doing away with myself but I was helpless and probably couldn’t even pull the trigger if someone was kind enough to hold a gun to my head!

A ‘friend’ brought me some old sailing magazines thinking that they would cheer me up – in fact exactly the opposite – they just made me even sicker at missing the old life; I’d always been an ‘action man’ – skiing in the winter and racing a small sports-boat in the rest of the year.  I knew now that I would never be able to do that again.

Luckily my wife found a private rehab unit in Aylesbury – we were prepared to sell the house if necessary to go somewhere where I could complete my rehab US-style..

This involved intensive rehabilitation for a further six weeks at the Royal Buckinghamshire Hospital in Aylesbury , where the attitude of staff was akin to USA – positive and never negative,  encouraging adaptation and building a new life.   Many of the staff had trained at the National Spinal Injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville but had become disillusioned by the NHS and moved to the private sector because they felt that they were more able to treat patients the way that they thought they deserved; they were great.

I was eventually discharged to my home in Preshaw near Bishops Waltham, in Hampshire on Good Friday, 81 days after my accident.  We live in part of a large old country house in the centre of a large estate and luckily the house has wide doorways and stairways.  After fitting a stair-lift, I had access to three floors and a terrace and garden.  It was simply wonderful to be home although it took a while to gets things optimised and to adjust physically and mentally to this new life.

I was now able to walk for about 50 yards with two elbow crutches but I later changed to a three-wheeled walker that I found more stable.  I was able to hold a knife and fork but had limited arm and hand function and getting the food into my mouth was a bit hit and miss!  I used voice-recognition software to help with computer access although my hand function improved so much over the next few months that it was no longer needed.

Emotionally I was pretty labile and would cry rather a lot, mainly out of happiness but dealing with people and things from my ‘old life’ was quite difficult and I was not my gregarious old self and did not enjoy social events as I used to.

I am unable to dress, shower, get in and out of bed or visit the loo without help.  To start with this was very frustrating and the amount of effort even simple things required left me exhausted.  I had to adjust to accepting help doing these things and saving my energy for other things.  Luckily I have a loving wife and a very happy marriage and Sue was a very willing helper.

I am a doctor and before retirement ran a large department of medicine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London.   I retired in 2001, a year before my accident.  My wife Sue is a nurse who trained at St Thomas’.  A neighbour introduced us to Canine Partners in 2005 about two years after returning home  from hospital.  They are a charity which assists disabled people to enjoy greater independence and a better quality of life through the help of specially trained ‘Assistance’ dogs.

I looked into the possibility of getting an Assistance Dog but unfortunately because I am unable to live independently I didn’t at that time qualify for a full assistance dog.  This was very disappointing to say the least but with the thought of ‘Nothing ventured, nothing won’ – I wrote a letter to the charity to say that I would be very interested in taking on an ex-assistance dog, where its skills could still be used regularly.

A year later I had a letter from Canine Partners that said that they had a dog that they thought might be suitable as a ‘companion canine partner’ for me. This was one of the most exciting moments of my life and I was on the phone to them immediately and fixed a meeting two days later!

Yarra (a yellow Labradoodle) was brought to our house and introduced to us by her ‘advanced trainer’ Clare.  She had been trained fully as a canine partner but for various reasons, couldn’t remain with her original recipient.  When I saw her it was love at first sight and after sniffing her way around our house and garden, she showed that she approved of us too!

A companion canine partner differs from full canine partner placements, because the person the dog is assisting is not solely responsible for the dog; and therefore family members or care assistants routinely help with the care of the dog.

Companion Canine Partners still receive the same high standard of training to assist recipients around the home environment by performing any number of different tasks, but they do not wear a purple jacket in public places and can’t go into any shops where pets aren’t normally allowed.

The Canine Partners assistance dogs are capable of so many tasks such as opening and closing doors, retrieving dropped items, taking items off supermarket shelves, pushing buttons on pedestrian crossings, emptying the washing machine and fetching the phone.

We were invited to the national training centre in West Sussex to be checked over by the Canine Partners team and Yarra’s puppy parents, who had played a big part in looking after her during her training.  This went well and we were able to take Yarra home for the weekend.  Over the next couple of weeks we were given basic training at home and attended some more training sessions with Canine Partners, before finally graduating.

From the very beginning, Yarra brought a new dimension to our lives.  She is such a happy dog and her happiness is infectious.   She loves to play and has a complete obsession with tennis balls.  My wife takes her for a walk each day at 7.30am, and then Yarra comes to our bedroom to say good morning.

I have a helper called Dagmar who comes in each morning and Yarra helps her with the daily routine by carrying out tasks such as fetching my flannel (and giving it a good shake) and shoes.

My main responsibility is Yarra’s afternoon walk.  This is usually around 3.30pm and we might go out on our own, with friends or even with Yarra’s boyfriend Zak who is a Hungarian Vizla from the village.

I use my ‘off-road’ electric scooter ‘Tramper’ designed and made in Hampshire ( that gives me access to footpaths, bridle ways and farm roads and I have all-weather gear that includes not only waterproofs but also electrically heated gloves and waistcoat for winter days.

Around my neck I carry a treats bag for Yarra, together with a walkie-talkie and mobile phone, in case of any mishap or breakdown.

Once we’re ready to leave the house, Yarra has been taught to open and close the front door, so on the command of ‘tug, tug open the door’ after a few barks, she will tug a cord and open the door then close it by the same method behind us.

In the five years that we’ve been together I have only missed two walks due to the weather or illness apart from time when I’ve been confined to my bedroom due to a broken leg.  If Yarra ever thinks that I might get myself into a compromised situation on a walk, due perhaps to a steep or sloping path, she barks to warn me and express her concern.  She has also learnt by herself to pull twigs and even branches out of my wheels when she hears them grating against the mudguard!

On several occasions I have dropped my phone or walkie-talkie and whenever that happens, Yarra is straight there to pick it up and hand it back to me.

She gives me a great deal of independence, which means I can leave the house safe in the knowledge she is with me.

Yarra loves running errands and being helpful.  She once terrified our roofer by picking up a card from his camera that he had dropped.  He was convinced she had swallowed it but she neatly deposited it into his hand, much to everyone’s relief!

She can hear me drop a pencil on the floor of my study in a different part of the house and is down in a flash to pick it up.

If I call her, she is with me in moments to find out how she can help.

Sometimes I find her sitting quietly beside me looking like she is begging, I’ve learnt that this means she has something for me that she carefully places into my hand, it’s  often so small you can hardly see it.

Having Yarra in our lives has helped to lift my mood enormously and I am very sociable once again, which is important for both my wife and me.

Yarra gives me a reason to get out and about, stopping for a chat with people from the village.  She is the most loving dog and it isn’t just her ability to carry out physical tasks that helps but also the psychological support she gives me, which is huge.


Peter Sonksen

20th  September 2012


Friday, October 5th, 2012