Sharon Baverstock thought about taking her own life in the weeks and months after she was paralysed during spinal surgery.

She says it is all thanks to one charity, the New Zealand Spinal Trust, that she is still alive and making massive strides towards recovery.

In April this year she travelled to Germany for major surgery on her spine. She had seven vertebrae fused together, using two rods and screws, and had cages inserted between the bones where cartilage should have been.

The operation was supposed to get rid of the excruciating pain she had lived with since her spine was severely damaged by an abusive partner many years ago but instead she woke up unable to move her legs.


The 49-year-old had been trying to get treatment in New Zealand but doctors offered medication and said they would only fuse two vertebrae together instead of the seven.

Sick of living with unbearable pain she decided to go abroad for treatment which would end the pain.

Paralysis was never even considered as a possible outcome and the doctors were stunned when they asked her to sit up after the surgery and she told them she could not move her legs.

The pain was gone but the changes in her back were so massive the nerves could not cope, leaving her unable to walk.

She called New Zealand Spinal Trust community and marketing manager Mike Brown, who she knew from her time living in Christchurch, from her hospital bed in Germany and it was "all snot and tears", she said.

"I had gone in to the surgery thinking, 'this is the last ditch effort, this is going to fix it. I'm totally going to be pain free'... So it was a major, major shock," she said.

"When I came back it was even harder because I came back to a life where I no longer had a life. I was stuck in a chair, I couldn't get upstairs to the bedroom, I couldn't get into the bathroom, I couldn't get into the kitchen. So I just got more and more and more down. It was really, really bad."

Sharon Baverstock says support from the New Zealand Spinal Trust saved her life when a spinal operation left her paralysed. Photo/NZ Herald Focus
Sharon Baverstock says support from the New Zealand Spinal Trust saved her life when a spinal operation left her paralysed. Photo/NZ Herald Focus

But she called on Brown and the Spinal Trust for help again and they did all they could to support her. Brown had experienced the same thing himself when he was hit by a car while skateboarding in Australia so understood how she felt.

They would spend hours talking to her whenever she needed it, encouraged her, gave her practical advice for living life in a wheelchair and helped get her physiotherapy and other rehabilitation.

"They never once made me feel like what I was saying wasn't valid. They always had time to help me, they understood what I was going through and they would follow up of their own accord - you just don't get that anywhere else," she said.

"I'm pretty sure that without their support I would have knocked myself off because I was in such a bad place. I'm not like that anymore and I really put it down to their support."

The Spinal Trust was continuing to support her and encourage her to push on with the rehabilitation.

She still needed a wheelchair to get around but could manage short distances on her crutches. She had recently managed to make it up the stairs on her crutches and was now aiming to walk aid-free by the end of October.

This weekend, the New Zealand Spinal Trust's first appeal month in its 23 year history will come to an end.

Brown said about three people a week found themselves in the Auckland or Christchurch spinal units facing the possibility their lives may be changed forever - and that was where the trust stepped in.

"You're in the ward and you've broken your neck and you have no idea what life's going to look like. You think your life is over. A common thought is, 'push me off the end of the wharf and I'll be done'," Brown said.

That's why staff and volunteers from the trust visited patients admitted to the Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch to offer support and advice from someone who has been there themselves.

"Just knowing that someone else is there is a basic thing but it means a lot - feeling like you're not alone on this crazy wee journey."

The also helped to organise ongoing vocational rehabilitation and help for patients once they were able to go home.

Brown said the return to work rate for spinal injury patients had increased from about 12 per cent to over 60 per cent with the Spinal Trust's help.

The Spinal Trust costs about $1 million a year to run but only 17 per cent of their funds came from the public sector. The rest came from grants and donations.

They were hoping to raise $50,000 by the end of the month to go towards covering costs and had organised an online video campaign to create awareness and raise money and had high profile public figures spend a day in a wheelchair.

• Visit the NZ Spinal trust website to see how you can help.


If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.
If you need to talk to someone, the following free helplines operate 24/7:

LIFELINE: 0800 543 354
NEED TO TALK? Call or text 1737
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 or text 234

There are lots of places to get support.
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