Perry Cross talks with Cure Crusader Steven Ralph about his journey below
Steven Ralph grew up surrounded by a happy blended family and an amazing community in the northern suburbs of Sydney amongst lush national park.
Steve describes himself as an ‘outdoors’ kid who loved to play sport.
“I didn’t play any sport well, but I played a lot of it! I loved cricket and played a lot of soccer.”
He loved school and hanging out with his mates riding bikes and bushwalking and when he got older, he really enjoyed kayaking.
After school Steve went on to do a business degree at Western Sydney University and then to work for Bayer, a big pharmaceutical business, a job that would have a huge impact on his life later.
“I landed a great job in animal health in the Bayer marketing team. I have a great love for animals, and this started my career with this great business.”
In 2018 Steve’s career progressed with Bayer and he moved interstate to take on a management role. It was at this time that his life would dramatically change.
“I was away for the weekend camping with mates in Port Macquarie and I jumped into a pool. There was a large step that jutted out about 2m and I just didn’t see it.”
“I bumped my head on the step, unfortunately. There was an instantaneous loss of sensation and movement. It felt like someone turned the lights off.
“I wasn’t even concussed or dizzy or anything. I thought I was fine. I was totally conscious, and I went to stand up and couldn’t move and that’s when I realised something was really wrong.”
When Steve remembers how his injury happened, he is struck by how simple it was, what an easy mistake it was to make.
“It wasn’t a big head injury or anything in fact it was easy to do. I think back and wonder was it simply the wrong angle? It was just a tiny split-second thing.”
“There is a million ‘what-ifs’. It can happen to anyone and it doesn’t have to be anything particularly crazy. You can get a spinal injury just doing the simplest thing.”
Steve lay face down in the pool, unable to breathe waiting for someone to notice.
“I was trying to get my head above the water and when I realised I couldn’t, I freaked out. I knew something was drastically wrong. I knew I had to just stay calm and hold my breath and stay relaxed. I was floating there looking at the bottom of the pool unable to move.”
“Luckily a bystander saw what had happened and flipped me over. It felt like forever.”
There was an ambulance onsite and so it arrived quickly, and the paramedics were able to move Steve out of the pool.
“I can clearly remember thinking a million thoughts at this time, but I didn’t realise the permanency of what had happened. Being young, fit and otherwise healthy I just thought I would be ok and that I would get better with determination. The permanency of my situation didn’t sink in for me for many months to come.”
Steve was then moved to the local hospital and was stable, so they flew him to North Shore hospital.
“I was trying to stay as calm as possible, but I was freaking out. That night and morning I underwent decompression surgery and woke up in the Intensive Care Unit.
“I was incubated and couldn’t communicate with anybody. My family was around me and it was stressful to not be able to communicate and say I was ok. I thought I was ok but not being able to communicate this to friends and family was pretty tough.
Steve was incubated for 9 days and then incredibly was able to breath on his own much to the relief of everyone round him.
“Being able to communicate was amazing for everyone around me. In fact, it was like I was healed because I could speak, and I knew I was still me. That was a huge moment.”
Steve then moved to the spinal unit and this is where the real battle began. Here the full extent of his injury was made clear.
“I moved to the spinal ward with lots of expectations. I didn’t want to let anyone down and I wanted to get better. This is when I started to realise the gravity of what had happened to me. I started to understand what a C4/C5 almost complete injury really meant.”
This was incredibly difficult time for Steve and his family where the reality of the situation they were in really started to sink in.
“I did have one of my fist physio sessions in this unit and all I wanted to do was use a manual chair, I was obsessed. I remember the physio saying to me ‘you are dreaming’. I had big expectations of myself and these were tempered by the clinicians around me. It was very difficult because my whole family was hanging off every word the doctors and the specialists said and so it was a really intense time.”
Steve was glad to move on to Royal Rehab where he spent the next 8 months. Here he worked hard on his physical and mental well being and started to come to terms with his injury.
“You’ve just got to work with what you’ve got.”
“Life took a twist and I had to realign my expectations and goals to suit the situation. It took ages to swallow this pill and come to terms with my injury and to realise its ok to change your path and do something different. I took a long time to get to this point mentally. My injury was a bit of a blow and it was hard.”
Thankfully Steve’s network was incredibly supportive, and this had a huge impact on his recovery.
“Bayer, the company I work for were really supportive through the whole thing including my workmates. I would not have been able to go on and accomplish what I have without everyone’s help – my family, friend and work mates.”
Eventually Steve was able to move back to the home he grew up in and start to rebuild his life with the support of those around him.
“A huge shout out to a mate from work, Mitch Tuffly, for literally packing everything up for me and shipping it all home. I stored my life at my mum’s place in a shed and actually one of the hardest things was going through all of my gear and donating my drum kit, surfboard and guitar. I figured I wouldn’t need those things anymore and facing that was really hard. It was like giving away a lot of my identity and what I felt was a part of me. It was hard but it had to be done so I could move forward.’
Steve has been able to return to work which has been a very positive experience. He is very grateful for this opportunity so that he can continue to contribute. He has also pursued independent living with generous fundraising support from Barney Miller and his local community to help him build a bespoke dwelling.
Rehabilitation continues to be an important outlet for Steve and one that he focusses on daily.
“Ongoing rehabilitation is so important, the physio never stops. I have to maintain my body and I’ve been really fortunate to find a local personal trainer who has been able to help me out one on one. He has become a mate and it is really motivating to work with him. I have found lots of efficiencies with doing more rehab from home during the pandemic.”
“I’ve actually found exercise, physio and rehab is a good outlet. Exercise makes me feel good and I’ve adopted it as a hobby to stay active.”
Despite Steve’s positive outlook, he has had to deal with great pain and many losses as a result of his injury. It is the simple things in life he misses most.
“It takes a long time to refocus. Nothing will replace the drums, surfing and the outdoors for me. I don’t want to sound defeatist but that is the reality . I can’t do those things they way I used to.”
“I am looking at doing adaptive sports like adaptive surfing and I’ve got a hand cycle on order and a four-wheel drive wheelchair . Those things will be amazing to go to the beach and fish with my mates again, just normal life.”
Steve is a wonderful Cure Crusader for the Foundation and has raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund a cure for paralysis.
“We need a cure for paralysis. There is so much complexity, angst and heartbreak for people let alone the costs and saving the taxpayer billions a year.”
“Being in this situation has given me a lot of perspective and scope to think about the broad impact of a spinal injury on not only the person with the injury but all of those people around them. The families and friends get hurt too, relationships change.”
“Fundraising has given me a bit of a purpose to help. If everyone does just a little bit to help us, we will find a find a cure. It all goes a long way, it all adds up and the more people can talk about it, the more people can contribute, the better for everyone.
Steve has followed the journey of the Foundation’s research and has enjoyed visiting the lab to get the full experience of the incredible work being done.
“I’ve had the privilege of visiting the lab and seeing the amazing work Griffith is doing. The success they have already had with real animals having recovered from an injury is incredible. It’s not a fantasy a cure is a reality.”
“The fundraising I have done is contributing money not to a pipe dream but to something that can happen and that is what gives me a lot of motivation.”
“I look up to Perry so to contribute towards funding a cure through the research his Foundation supports is really special.”
Steve has worked hard on his outlook and approach to life. His gratitude to those around him is so apparent and it is this positive way of approaching his situation that is most inspiring.
“I can’t even name all of the people who have supported me and helped me get back to living a positive life and honestly I can’t thank them enough.
Having this support has made the difference between completely going off the rails and not finding my way back vs having goals, a vision of where I want to go in the future and having self-worth. I want to say thanks to everybody.”