An adventurous life on wheels

2008-03-19 00:00

When Allan Peckham died last May he had lived for a half century longer than doctors had predicted. Paralysed from the neck down for 52 of his 68 years, he never let himself be defined by his disability and had worked full time as an accountant for Africa Enterprise for almost three decades, married, brought up three daughters (including me), and — with the help of his parents, his wife Alison and enthusiastic friends — enjoyed an active life.

Camping near his grandmother’s cottage at Umhlali in the July of his matric year, Allan, his cousin Moira and a group of friends found themselves in a cove backed by cliffs. Attempting to climb what looked like the easier part, Allan slipped. What had seemed like a manageably steep, upward climb proved to be a near-vertical descent. He landed feet-first on an outcrop, the impact jolting his spine and knocking him unconscious.

Moira ran to the cottage for help, on the way alerting a fisherman on nearby rocks. He proved to be an orthopaedic specialist who hurried to the scene to oversee Allan’s evacuation to Durban’s Entabeni hospital.

He did not think Allan would get there alive.

Allan was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1939 to teachers Mervyn and Clarice. They lived, with Allan’s sister Ruth and dog Wiggles, on the old Peckham homestead in Ormond Street. The family had an orchard and Clarice’s preserves won awards at the Royal Show. Grandpa Peckham leased fields from the nearby Duveen’s Blanket factory on which to graze his dairy herd. Allan and his cousin Leslie spent many happy hours with the two herdsmen, Solomon and Zebulon, roasting mealies round the fire.

One day, aged four, Allan went missing. A quick check revealed he had absconded with Wiggles and his tricycle — an adventure on wheels that would prove to be his first of many. Returning from his milk round, Solomon found Allan a kilometre away, up at Russell High School talking to the girls. It was after this incident that Allan’s mother taught him that his name, should anyone ask, was AllanPeckhamTwoOrmondStreet.

A highlight of his childhood was receiving a bicycle, the embodiment of freedom for a small boy.

“The opportunities for accident were multiple and magnetic,” Allan wrote.

This taste for adventure was further whetted by his becoming a boy scout.

The family were members of Victoria Road Methodist Church and it was here that Allan made a Christian commitment, a faith he would credit with carrying him through the dark times ahead.

In the days after his accident, Allan regained some movement in his shoulders and upper arms but the improvement ended there. Although he was not told he would never walk again, his parents were given scant hope and one doctor gave Allan only two years to live.

He was moved from Entabeni to Addington to Grey’s, where, lying in his bed, he was awarded the Cornwall Award, or “Scout’s VC”, and The Natal Witness was there to record the event.

“I couldn’t remember when I’d been brave enough for anyone to notice,” Allan said, “and felt I’d received it somewhat fraudulently”.

Later, a scout commissioner, Jack Withey, initiated a fund to send Allan to Britain’s Stoke Mandeville, a hospital with one of the world’s leading spinal rehabilitation centres. The people of Pietermaritzburg helped make this possible and Clarice accompanied him for the 11 months he was there. Because rehabilitation only began 14 months after the accident, it would be a painful process with limited results. But Allan would be under the care of Dr Ludwig Guttmann, a leading neurologist and founder of Stoke’s spinal unit, who would go on to found the Paralympics.

Inspecting the pressure sores that Allan had arrived with, Dr Guttmann entered into a six-penny bet with the ward sister that they would heal in three weeks. He prescribed straightening Allan’s arms, building up his strength and improving his general condition.

Contractures to Allan’s muscles meant he could only move his arms 30 degrees from the elbow. The target was 180 degrees and the “physio-terrorists”, as Allan called them ever after, set to work. He wrote: “One day a cadaverous, troll-like being arrived from the Department of Refined Torture and Prolonged Suffering, measured my arms for callipers and then slunk away with a sickening leer. The callipers arrived to the accompaniment of Saul’s Death March hummed by the slouching troll, who seemed disappointed that they fitted properly.”

Several weeks later Dr Guttmann won his bet with the sister and Allan could move his arms 140 degrees.

Allan enjoyed the camaraderie of fellow patients. Self-pity was short-lived and a dark humour helped ward it off. If a nurse dropped something in the ward, someone would cry out, “Oh these people with hands!”

Allan had a wry take on most of his difficulties, describing a scarf he made during occupational therapy as “a contorted strip of woolly something”, and his attempts at table tennis as “mostly ping without the pong”. Aided by a local scout troupe in fulfilling the necessary requirements, Allan was made a Queen’s Scout. In the South African press, a headline read, “Queen meets Allan Peckham”. What a big day it must have been for Her Majesty.

When Pietermaritzburg mayor C. B. Downes visited Allan, he was quoted in The Witness as saying: “Dr Guttman assured me that … [Allan’s] condition was such that he would never be able to propel himself in a wheelchair”.

Allan disproved the doctor and went on to get a B. Comm, study classical Hebrew, operate a ham radio, and take up photography and even golf. Actually, the golf-playing was a fiction he shared with his friend John Davies who would phone him at the office where Allan, within earshot of his amazed colleagues, would describe his latest “game”. Allan went landscape painting (“messing about with paints”) with David Moon, a friend he credited with taking a key role in his rehabilitation, and he went on nature rambles with Creina Alcock, whose delight in the environment he found infectious. He remained a keen bird-watcher throughout his life.

His sister Ruth was quickest to anticipate his needs and Allan called his parents his “enablers”: Mervyn built a contraption that enabled Allan to take portrait shots by biting the cable-release. He made a desk Allan could easily manoeuvre under, and pen and spoon holders. Hydraulic hoists enabled him to get into and out of bed and a car.

Some years after Mervyn’s death, Allan found a further enabler in the form of Agrippa Phungula, who helped him for many years at home and at the office. And later a nurse aide, Barbara Mkhize, whose bubbly personality was an important part of her therapeutic repertoire.

When, at 39, Allan met a young widow at a church gathering, he had to be persuaded by friends that marriage was an option, having long decided it was impossible. And so it was that AllanPeckhamTwoOrmondStreet married Alison Bang, a nurse with three daughters.

Allan’s health would be a challenge throughout his life, but Alison’s stamina and unstinting care coupled with their strong faith (and sense of humour) carried them through many a medical challenge.

He likened the struggle of his disability to being in a narrow gorge, with room for him alone, and into which friends could shout encouragement but never enter. Allan wrote: “The love of my heavenly father, my family and friends, turned existence into living.”

When Allan died, his nephew Barry Coombe shared this memory of a family visit to Cape Town: “Some friends who lived four kilometres away invited us to tea. I offered to push Allan but as we left home I realised that if I were to go at a walking pace we wouldn’t make it on time so I asked if he would mind if I tilted the chair back and ran with him. He enthusiastically agreed and off we sped. I can still remember the laughter and complete abandonment of fear and the full trust he placed in me, a 16-year-old. This is what Allan was about … trust, trust and if all else fails, trust some more.”

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