Meeting Tristan Sturrock now, you’d never know that in May 2004 he was facing potential paralysis and an end to his acting career. Years later, he’s not only made a full recovery, he’s made a show about it. We caught up with him to find out more about the events of that fateful evening and how with a bit of help from Mary Shelley, they’ll be coming to life on a stage near you.
Tell us a bit about yourself at the time of the accident and how it came about.
I was on a break from filming, and my wife, Katy, was four months pregnant. We were down in Padstow doing bits on the house and getting involved in the May Day celebrations.
I was supposed to be getting chips at the time of the accident. My twin sister has a shop in Padstow, so I met up with her and we were going to get food but there was this big queue… Anyway, we kept meeting people and catching up with friends and just got caught up in the celebrations.
I eventually realised that I should probably go home (and that Katy was probably really hungry) so at about 1.30am I made my way back one way and my sister went the other way. Half way up the hill my phone rang – it was Katy. I was on this kind of winding stairway to our house. Half way up there was a little low wall next to a hedge. I answered the phone in that kind of absent-minded, half-drunk sort of way, saw the wall out of the corner of my eye and thought that it carried on up. Anyway, I sat down and leant back, only to find that I kept going back and that there was actually a gap between the hedge and the wall that went down for about 10 feet. I landed directly on my head.
At which point Katy (still on the phone) was alarmed – but then it was May Day and everyone goes kind of crazy. I think she just had a kind of sixth sense that something wasn’t quite right. She managed to convince a neighbour who happened to be a paramedic to come with her and they retraced my route – luckily there were only two ways you could potentially get to the house.
Were you conscious?
When they found me I was conscious. I don’t remember any pain but as soon as I landed I realised something was wrong. Normally when you fall over, you get up. But the minute I fired that thought nothing happened…
It was very frightening, but it was tempered by the fact that I accepted it immediately. It’s a weird thing the way your brain works. I didn’t feel any panic – I guess I just knew there was nothing I could do. I tried to shout but my breathing had gone. Control had been completely taken out of my hands. It felt a bit like the tide coming in.
With accidents like this you instantly go into a thing called spinal shock. The core of the spinal chord sets itself by sending loads of chemicals to the area to make it swell. This protects it from anything that might be pressing against it. It’s a very weird feeling. I realised I was just involuntarily being pared down to my essential functions and I just had to go with that really. I actually found it kind of bizarrely amusing – I was thinking ‘This is it. This is how I’m going to die. I’m wedged between a wall and a garage. This is how I’m gonna go.’
I remember all the weird questions they ask you; ‘What’s your name?’ ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’, and thinking how ridiculous they were because in my head I was being really lucid, but I obviously wasn’t communicating properly. And then noticing weird sensations in my hands, like when you’re frozen and you come inside into the warm; kind of like white noise – pleasant and uncomfortable at the same time. They’re like that all the time now.
Exactly what injury had you sustained and what were your options once you’d made it to hospital?
The break was to my C5 vertebrae – a teardrop fracture. The most highly unstable break you can have.
I could either have this thing called a halo brace – which is like a kind of cage of rods, drilled into your skull and bolted to the front and back of a solid waistcoat that you wear that keeps your back rigid while it heals naturally. You can be in it for six months to a year and I was going insane after a just few days of being hospitalised. Or, I could have an operation where they shave the top of the vertebrae and the lower part of the C4 and then drill 4 bolts and 2 plates into it so that the top of the C5 fuses with the bottom of the C4, giving it strength. Then the bolts go through and kind of Meccano together the two layers. Like a necklace, basically. They go in at the back of the neck where they can part the muscle.
It’s an incredible procedure because it’s also linked to your neurological system. My surgeon, Tim Germon is a real hero and an artist in his own right. The spinal chord itself is an incredible thing, it’s the first thing that’s formed when you’re an embryo, and then the brain comes after. It’s the messenger that enables you to do anything to perceive the world.
The trouble with the operation is that they never know how you’re going to recover. The procedure is only really to stop shards of bone from moving. After that it’s a waiting game. Any kind of intervention is the most dangerous option you can go for. They’re millimeters form the chord, if anything goes wrong or there’s a slip you can lose motor function or sensation…
So what made you decide to have it?
It was just one of those really weird things. I immediately had total faith in Tim. Just something about him… he wore really weird ties and had a twinkle in his eye. And plus, even though I knew it was very risky, by that point everything had turned upside down for me mentally. The dreams I was having were completely normal – to the point where they had become my daytime – and then when I was awake everything had switched. Like a living nightmare. I just wanted to take the route that would lead most quickly to stabilisation.
I said to the Tim, ‘If you were in my position what would you do?’; and he replied ‘I’ve done this procedure hundreds of times, but we all have our off days…’ and I just thought, ‘You’re brilliant, I’m going with you.’ I had total faith. Gut instinct or whatever… I mean there were so many factors but there was an extra little something I got from him.
What was the recovery process like?
I remember waking up no longer surrounded in plastic – up until then my neck had been completely incarcerated and the thing I longed for was just to turn over on my side and not have all this apparatus in the way. Looking up at the same ceiling tile day after day is maddening. You can’t distract yourself, it’s so difficult to describe… really frightening. You haven’t really addressed the fact that you can’t move at all, and then there are all the strange pains and sensations and the claustrophobia. You’re just open to a kind of soundscape, and the soundscape of hospitals is horrific at the best of times. It was relentless. It felt like purgatory. And that’s before I’d even begun to really think about the long term implications. I was just consumed by dealing with the minute by minute supression of fear and panic. Riding the waves.
So I remember waking up in a morphine bliss and all of that being gone and revelling in the fact that I actually felt vaguely human again. The next day they got me to sit up. It felt like balancing a table – you become very aware of how heavy your head is on your own body, this immense weight – especially because I’d become very thin and depleted. My arms were completely useless – I had to very gradually build muscle back a little bit more each day and to take lots of very basic cognitive tests. It was a real sensory explosion. I had woken up from the operation a completely different person physically which was very alarming. Everything had wasted away and not only that, I actually couldn’t feel in the same way at all any more. The sensations in my arms and my shoulders were completely different.
Getting into a bath for the first time really showed me what was there sensation-wise and I think that was the moment I realised I was going to be ok. It was the most liberating thing… a real stripping back and peeling away of all those weeks laid up in a hospital bed, and one that really accelerated my confidence in recovering. But then I think it’s true that anything that doesn’t kill you does make you stronger and from the minute the accident happened a survival instinct kicked in.
Is that something you are you able to tap into it now?
No – it’s so specific to that moment. Accidents are accidents. The only difference is that I’m not afraid of them anymore. I look forward to them because of the unique way that they change you and make you who you are. So in the show I try and list everything that’s ever happened to me; every cut, scrape and break, because they’re all moments where your life suddenly changes direction and you grow and you change because of them. This was the one accident that I tried to pretend didn’t even happen, but actually it’s something that’s really important to me now for lots of reasons.
Is that how the show came about?
Not really – it’s not something I did for myself for any sort of catharsis or anything like that. I had been wanting to do a show for a while and because of the accident I had a lot more time to read and since the nature of it had brought up all these big questions for me about why we exist I ended up reading quite a lot of philosophy. Not in a religious way – I never got spiritual about it. I think it was just that suddenly I was really examining life because I had to, which was a real gift actually
The idea for the show came about from reading Frankenstein for the first time. I found that the creature in it was so lucid and came up with all these questions that I’d come up with and was more or less describing how I felt when I was in hospital. And then I started reading about Mary Shelley and her life which was just incredible and developed a rough idea that I’d tell my story as a back story and then merge the two together.
However because of the richness and narrative layering of the book I found it was easier to tell my story, and that it was actually quite funny to compare my life story Mary Shelley’s – her with her incredible pedigree and then me with my Mum and my Dad – there was an obvious comic value in that comparison.
So that was how it started off, but gradually the Frankenstein thing kind of fell away because I realised the story I was telling was much more immediate. But there was still the poetry of Shelley and the links between the two stories; questions that the speaker asks about science, passages in the book that just described so eloquently whole sections of my story. I was also intrigued by the notion of a creature made up of dead people and the story of a particular arm or leg… I had been effectively medically decapitated by the accident so the idea of being a composite creature felt very strong. So, I kind of grave-robbed Shelley in that respect.
So, if it’s not a show for you, who is the show for?
I think the show is for anyone who’s ever had any kind of trauma or accident in their life or ever been afraid of it – and I think that’s most of us.
I remember the first accident I had when I was ten and how after the initial shock I felt really glad that I’d had it. Accidents are unavoidable. Sometimes they are tragic but they can change you in a brilliant way.
Does it address what would have happened if you hadn’t recovered?
With one of the characters I do play around with this, but it’s a delicate area – it’s almost too horrible. I want to suggest it in a way that is right but it’s very difficult because people do live with that. I’m just presenting my perception of the event in as accurate a way as I know how in order to entertain, because although it does sound strange, I did find moments of it hilarious. And there is something quite uplifting about it, not to make light of it, but it’s a life enhancing thing because I know that I’m incredibly lucky. At the beginning I’m upfront about it – the audience know I’m telling my story and I’m standing right in front of them. I obviously didn’t die, so it begs the question, ‘Well, how did you get to there…?’.