Craig Henry was 29 years old when he experienced a life-threatening surgery for sciatica that spiralled out of control and almost left him bedridden for life. "My life before my back problems happened was going very well," recounts Henry, over a zoom interview recently.
A postgraduate in Theatre and Performance from Warwick University, UK, he was keen to make a mark in the world of theatre and acting. At the age of 19 he ventured out to New York to train as an actor and then came back to London to work in the arts where he co-founded a theatre company devoted to writing plays before his health condition forced him to relook at life.
"I was very happy as my career was developing well," he recalls.
However, one day when he was around 26, he began experiencing a niggling pain in his back, which soon increased in frequency and intensity with each passing day. "The pain and discomfort were getting worse and soon I was walking with a limp and struggled to even bend down to sit," he says. When even powerful painkillers did not provide him relief, he began to get a little worried and considered consulting a doctor.
Although he had an aversion to long-term medication triggered by the memory of his mother battling and losing the fight to cancer when he was just 8, Henry reluctantly decided to approach a physician seeking relief from the severe pain he was undergoing.
Four months of tests and multiple appointments later, the young man was diagnosed with severe sciatica.
While deep down he was relieved that he had finally discovered the reason for the pain, his worries were only beginning. Apart from the severe pain that was leaving him incapacitated in many ways, he realised that the only way forward was to undergo spinal surgery. After more than a month at a government hospital, where he was admitted following severe pain, he moved to a private one for his spinal surgery.
The surgery itself went off well. "But a few weeks after my operation I had an infection, which took me back to hospital for eight days," he says.
Initially, the doctors believed that the infection had affected his spine. "I was told to ‘prepare myself’, which I took to mean my life was possibly in danger." Luckily for him, he recovered after a prolonged stay at a hospital where he was continuously monitored by doctors and a team of health care workers.
During his extended hospital stay, Henry slipped into deep depression as he struggled to do the most basic tasks. From walking and bending to even using the washroom, it was impossible for him to do anything without assistance. It was at this time that he realised the importance of health care workers. "I was totally reliant on the kindness of others. Every nurse, doctor and physio that helped me did so with humility and care making sure I was treated with respect. When you are giving up on life, little moments of kindness – like a cup of coffee being made for you or just someone listening to what you have to say – can change your day for the better," he says.
The lowest low
One of the lowest moments he experienced was a time when he lay sobbing in bed one night, wishing his life would come to an end as he was struggling with the unbearable pain that was wracking his body. At that moment, a nurse walked up to him and asked him what was wrong. "I told her I wanted it all to end but she held my hand and did not overreact but simply asked – ‘why?’
"We spoke for a long time and she made me realise that all hope was not lost and even if I was at my lowest, life could get better and that there is a reason to endure. That moment will stay with me forever." In many ways, it was a turning point in his life. While battling with depression, the side effects of heavy medications, the loss of mobility, and an unexpected infection that plunged him further into a state of uncertainty, Henry began to make the most of his time by maintaining a personal diary. Recording moments that happened while he witnessed them unfolding in the harsh realities of a hospital environment seemed to help alleviate his pain in some way.
What resulted was a 178-page, heart-wrenching book aptly titled, The Cared For, a gripping account of his experience blending humour and darkness with raw and unfiltered emotions of a young man fighting for a chance at life and love.
Recalling the time he didn’t think he’d make it through he shares how his relationship with his girlfriend, Lizzie Melbourne, blossomed through the hurt and pain, even though she was only 24 and he 28, both dealing with the uncertainty of life and the pains of being with a bedridden partner.
"You lose your personality when you’re so medicated," he explains. "Our relationship survived because she was there with me and she just turned up and sat there beside my bed. We wouldn’t talk sometimes, but she was just there, each day, showing up along with our families." To this day, Lizzie has not been able to read the book, although she has discussed it and supported him through it, from start to completion.
Paying it forward
Keen to make a difference and grateful for having received a "second chance at life", Henry decided to repay in some way the kindness he received from health care workers. "The health care workers who cared for me were from diverse backgrounds and cultures. The spirit and compassion they possess is a true blessing. The care they provide goes so much further than practical medical processes and action and they have a unique ability to respect you as a human, and make you feel special even if you are on a verge of wanting to end your life."
He has pledged half of all profits from the sale to the UK-registered SASH Charity (sashcharity.org), which raises funds to assist hospitals. Since its publication in October last year, he has raised several hundred pounds from the sale of his book.
"Through my book I am also trying to give hope to those who find themselves in a similar situation," he says. "When you think you’re going to die, it’s the scariest thing to experience. Writing the book let me relive everything and be thankful for what I have today because so many people don’t make it through. If anyone who reads this book and thinks, ‘If he could live it, then so can I’ then I know that I’ve helped them."
Craig is slowly getting back his strength and fitness. "I am not bed bound and am getting better. My back is healing well and with regular exercise, stretching and knowing my limitations, I feel my body is in better shape," he says.
He has also started to adapt his book into a play for theatre hoping to complete it in the Summer of 2021, when he will submit it to London theatres for production. He has also started a podcast called ‘Got Grief’. "We have received very positive feedback and have had over 150 downloads of our maiden episode in under a week."
Craig is also pushing his physical limits – recently he completed running a half marathon, "which considering I could not walk 18 months ago is a massive achievement to me". He is aiming to run a full marathon within the year. Now at the age of 31, just 18 months since he was bedridden during his hospitalisation from March to June 2019, this is a major accomplishment for someone determined to show others that healing is possible through hard work, positivity and hope.
The Cared For is available on www.amazon.com. Many people have donated to the SASH charity after reading about Henry’s account of the health care workers who went the extra mile for patients unknown to them. For signed copies that could be owned or gifted to friends, Henry can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.