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Making strid des in recovery; One of the Nort th East's leading g rehabilitation centres has been helping a Tyneside student who suffered brain ntn damage to get his life back on track. MARTIN GREEN N reports.


Aho ain his ked ethis STUDENT w suffered bra damage when h drink was spik in a Thailand bar is g ting ready to move into h own home and live ind pendently. Athletically built and sta ing almost 6ft tall, music stud Paul Belk had the world at feet. He was goalkeeper for Tyneside team, played the dru in a rock band and went ski whenever he got the chance. dendent his r a ums ing Like every other adventur student, Paul wanted to travel world. But a backpacking trip Thailand in the summer of 2005 w to change his life forever. ous the p to was As Paul relaxed in a bar on tropical island of Koh Tao, robb spiked his drink with a cocktai drugs that left him paralysed. T one drink shattered a lifetim worth of hopes and dreams. the bers l of That me's Paul slipped into a coma a remained there for the next th months, following his moth Carol, around the room with eyes but unable to speak. and hree her, his When he finally regained full awareness, it became clear he h brain damage. Doctors told Paul would never walk again. had l he taff tion nary his ery.

But thanks to the efforts of s at a Gateshead rehabilitat centre - and Paul's extraordin determination - he has taken first steps on the road to recove With the help of a frame and expertise of two physiotherap at Chase Park Rehabilitat Centre in Wickham, Gateshead, is now able to take tentative st again after four long years of f and doubt.

the ists tion , he eps fear Now he plans to take the bigg step of all - moving out of the cen and into his own place, a building an independent life. gest ntre and Paul, 24, said: "Obviously wh you go through a thing like I h been through you will never be same again, but I just want to liv normal life." hen ave the ve a On the surface, his life soun like that of any normal guy in mid 20s - curry on a Friday nig pub with his mates on a Saturd going to St James's Park whene he can, the odd trip to the cinem But Paul is unable to do many the simplest tasks for himself a relies on constant care. nds his ght, day, ever ma. y of and Almost three years ago moved to the Chase P he Park Rehabilitation Centre and th hey have been helping him gain the skills he needs to live independently. The centre's service development manager, Alistair McDonald, describes it as a step-forward centre - the stage between hospital and living in the community. The facility supports the relearning of everyday skills and stimulates the senses.

Paul's dad, David, said: "He's learning every day. He has to do constant repetition and practice. It's a bit like teaching a newborn baby to walk."

Paul lives a special apartment with his own front door and kitchen equipment. He has personalised the room with posters. Alistair said: "We are working with him on independent living skills. Our clients can become quite institutionalised. The front door makes a big difference.

"We want to get him ready for the next step, so that when he moves out he already has a lot of the skills he needs."

Instead of inviting consultants and medical staff into his bedroom, Paul can choose to meet them in the on-site caf or the leisure club, meaning he keeps his personal space.

Alistair said: "Quality of life is a huge part of what we do. We provide a tranquil, social environment in which people can go through their rehab process."

The centre offers a full package. Paul and his Dad regularly go for a swim in the hydrotherapy pool or exercise in the gym while Paul's mother gets her nails done in the beauty centre, and then they all go for a drink in the caf.

This is designed to make Paul feel like he is living somewhere more akin to normal society than a hospital. And the results have been very positive.

Alistair said: "We are trying to make Paul mentally ready. We offer a holistic package and all of that has led to him getting the skills he needs. He is looking forward to his next step into the community." Staff are careful not to set an exact date, but it is hoped he will be living in a specially adapted bungalow in Harton, South Shields, by early next year.

"The bungalow is half a mile away from his parents' house, and Paul will live there with two staff, called "enablers", who will care for him. I want to physio. I retake some and I will human physiology I have grown because through Alistair said: "We are really going to miss him. He is a lovely guy to have around but we have been trying to get him to this stage, so we will be proud to see him move on."

One thing that stands out when talking to anyone who knows Paul is his phenomenal determination.

Alistair said: "Paul is very determined indeed. That determination has enabled him to get as far as he has done. He continues to surprise us all with the progress he makes. Paul himself has never given up and we have never given up on him. He is highly focused on his physical ability to walk."

Paul's dad agrees fully with this sentiment. He said: "We were told that 50% of the recovery has to come from the person, 25% is down to the skill of the physio, and the rest is down to the individual case and the way it develops.

"Determination and willpower has got Paul through."

Equal to Paul's determination to walk again is his desire to become financially independent.

to be a have to A-Levels to study biology, anatomy. an interest I've been process Before that fateful trip to Thailand he studied music at Newcastle University and they have kept his place open for him.

However, it is unlikely Paul will be able to go back to playing the drums, so he has his sights set on a new career path.

He said: "I want to study to be a physio. I will have to retake some ALevels and I will need to study human biology, physiology and anatomy through the Open University. "I have grown an interest because I have been through the process myself. " Finance manager, David added: "He has had close experiences with physios over the last few years and probably knows more than the professionals!" Paul, who spends most Saturday nights with his mates at a pub called the Northumberland Hussar, in Heaton, Newcastle, said: "I just need some beer money."

But David was more forthright about his son's future. He said: "He wants more than just beer money.

"At the moment the Bank of Dad pays for his expenses, and earning beer money would be great, but full financial independence will be a very important step for him."

Paul eventually aims to move to Heaton, where his friends all live. He said: "I meet my mates every week and we go to the pub, but I want to be closer.

"Everything will depend on whether I am back on my feet. I was initially told there was no chance I would be able to walk again but I am improving every day.

"I am far too slow at the moment but it is getting easier."

Each time they attempt the walking process Paul finds it more natural, but it is a slow process, such is the nature of recovery from a brain injury. David said: "He can move his left leg, but the physio still has to pull his right leg for him."

His posture and balance are also improving. The fact that Paul can now tie his shoelace represents a massive achievement.

Alistair, whose centre just received three stars from the Care Quality Commission, hopes Paul will still be involved in an ambassadorial role once he has moved on. He feels that people in a similar situation can learn a lot from Paul's courage and determination.

He said: "Paul's is a very emotional case and we are all really proud of him. He is particularly interested in music and I share this passion. I spend most of my summers going to music festivals and we are aiming to have a music festival here, on the grounds, with a playing stage.

"I hope that Paul will be on the committee for helping to get that festival."

Paul's parents, who also have a daughter, Sara, 22, spend a lot of time at the centre. Alistair said: "There is a sense of them getting rehabilitated as well."

When David first saw Paul in Thailand he was stunned.

David said: "He was completely unconscious and had tubes and wires linked to machines. I was terrified. It was only then that I realised just how serious the situation was.

"I was told his survival chances were 50-50. We are very grateful for all the support he has received in helping him get better."

David warns against the dangers of complacency when abroad and said: "Make sure you get travel insurance. It probably saved my son's life."

Paul said: "I'm not really angry. I try to remain as positive as I can."

Instead he concentrates all his efforts on his recovery. He said: "There is no plateau and I am at the right age to keep improving."

In the meantime he will follow his beloved Newcastle United, watching every televised game and heading over to St James's whenever he can.

He said: "We have the best team in that league. I just hope we get promoted straight away so we don't lose our best players."

Hopefully one day he will be able to walk over to the ground himself and buy a few beers with his physiotherapy pay packet.

Given Paul's winning determination, it's only a matter of when rather than if.

Support scheme IN 2008 Chase Park Rehabilitation Centre pioneered a pilot outreach scheme to support patients returning home.

The initiative has extended its rehabilitation and support services beyond its doors to bridge the gap back into the community. The Pathways to Opportunity scheme has enabled patients to have the continuity of specialist rehabilitation services, giving them the confidence to move home and the support once they are there.

Les Holmes of Blaydon, Gateshead, suffered a rare spinal stroke and spent eight months in the centre before being transferred home with support from the facility.

Mr Holmes said: "Chase Park was the stepping stone to getting me to go home.

"I had more freedom and gained my independence while I was there which gave me the confidence to do things like take the bus."


PLANS - Paul suffered brain damage when his drink was spiked on holiday. He is now planning to become a physiotherapist HUGE PROGRESS - Paul Belk is learning to walk again at Chase Park with the help of physiotherapists Sarah Flegg and Andrew Harlow. He was initially told he would never walk again. HUGE PROGRESS - Paul Belk is learning to walk again at Chase Park with the help of physiotherapists Sarah Flegg and Andrew Harlow. He was initially told he would never walk again.
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Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Nov 23, 2009
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