Rio 2016 Paralympic Champion Professor Guttmann

I was privileged to run in the Spitfire 10k Commemoration of the Battle of Britain race on Sunday at RAF Cosford.

Each runner had the name of one of the servicemen killed in action pinned to their back. It was a humbling experience, to be running in the memory of so many ex-service men and women who had given their lives.

Whilst running I had time to reflect on this. As a solicitor with a special interest in both spinal injuries and military claims, it made me think how closely sport, injury and the Military Services are interrelated.


Innovative approach to treatment

In June this year, Lanyon Bowdler sponsored the 50th anniversary of the Guttmann lecture, hosted by the Midlands Spinal Injuries centre at the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Hospital. I was honoured to be an attending delegate sitting amidst the country’s leading spinal and rehabilitation experts.

Whilst running it had poignantly reminded me of those war veterans who were not commemorated, those that had returned, but had done so with shattered lives, either from devastating physical injuries or emotionally scarred from Post-Traumatic Stress disorder. How, thanks to the innovative approach to treatment and rehabilitation through sport advocated by Professor “Poppa” Guttmann; he had given hope, inspiration and direction to spinal patients recovering from war injuries by way of physio and rehabilitation, and more inspiringly had been the instrumental founder and pioneer of today’s Paralympics Games.

60 patients were saved

By way of background, Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann, a German born Jew, was an internally renowned neurologist but was forced to flee Nazi Germany just before the second world war. Following violent attacks on Jewish people and properties, he had been banned from practicing medicine professionally. During Kristallnacht on 9 November 1938, Guttmann ordered his staff to admit anyone into the hospital without question. The following day he justified his decision on a case-by-case basis with the Gestapo. Out of 64 admissions, 60 patients were saved from arrest and deportation to concentration camps.

National Spinal Injuries Clinic at Stoke Mandeville Hospital

After coming to Britain with his family, he continued his spinal injury research at the Radcliffe Infirmary. In September 1943 the British government asked Dr Guttmann to establish the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Initially he hated what he found at the Spinal Unit.

Patients care in those days was merely palliative. Most prognoses were terminal. Paralyzed patients, including many of the returning ex-service men suffering from horrific injuries, were consigned to their beds and incarcerated in plaster. Eighty per cent of patients died within three years, from bed sores, urinary tract infections and other complications. Morale amongst staff was low.

Left able to walk after 26 years

Dr Guttman transformed the place. He would not accept a fatalistic care regime, challenged the negativity in both staff and encouraged patients to fight back. Crucially he introduced the idea of physiotherapy as a medical treatment. He was a huge advocate of using sport as a way of building muscle strength and combatting depression. He turned to the military and hired an Army physical trainer to come in encouraging/insisting the patients train using weights, play table tennis and take up archery. By making them move, providing encouragement, giving hope and support through singled dogged determination, it transformed patients.

One World War one veteran, who had been lying flat on his back for 26 years, came to the Unit to try one of their new wheelchairs. Six months later, he left able to walk with the aid of just a stick.

First Stoke Mandeville Games

Dr Guttmann organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled persons on 28 July 1948, there were just 15 ex-servicemen competing in a wheelchair archery competition, coincidentally the same day saw the start of the London 1948 Summer Olympics.

Dr Guttmann used the term “paraplegic games” for national games he held in order to encourage his patients to take part. This came to be known as the "Paralympics." By 1952, more than 130 international competitors had entered the Stoke Mandeville Games.

Rio 2016

Today, Equestrian rider Lee Pearson is Great Britain's flag bearer for the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. This is a proudly fitting testament to the inspiration and foresight of one individual, carried on by the dreams and determination of others, namely the 264 team GB participants, international representatives from all over the world, as well as the innumerable other patients who, over the decades have, and continue to benefit from his innovative treatment philosophies and practises.