Stop the Shadows: Your Story

Artist Dustin West shares his remarkable story after being involved in life-changing accident

Dustin West besides his artwork

Dustin West was involved in a life-changing road accident 13 years ago, here he tells ABLE2UK his journey back to recovery and his amazing artistic skills.

Back in January 2011, I was returning home on my motorbike after finishing a late shift with the British Transport Police at around 2 in the morning when I was struck from behind by a drunk driver on an unlit stretch of motorway. The driver did not stop and left me fighting for my life, thankfully someone saw and called an ambulance. I spent the next 6 weeks in a coma while also undergoing several operations as I had suffered a fractured spine, fractured pelvis (both sides), femur, elbow, ribs, collapsed lung and a spinal cord injury amongst a few other bits and bobs. 

I woke from my coma only to find myself in a hospital, completely confused as to where I was or why for that matter not to mention why I couldn’t move or even talk. Turns out I had a tracheostomy so I couldn’t talk, you can only imagine how scary that was. I had no idea I had been in an accident and still have no recollection of it to this day, although that may be a good thing.

I eventually learned what had happened and was promptly informed by my consultant that I suffered a spinal cord injury and would never feel my legs, move my legs or walk again, you can only imagine what was going through my mind at that time. My entire life, sorry my families, had been changed in the blink of an eye all because of one person's irresponsible actions. 

Soon after my time at Kings, I went to my local hospital where I waited for a bed at Stoke Mandeville National Spinal Injury Center [NSIC]. Those two weeks were awful. I was put on a mixed ward with patients of mixed ages, although most were elderly. I also had one who had issues which became very apparent within minutes of arriving when he became aggressive and confrontational towards my wife, going toe to toe with her while I laid helplessly beside her doing the only thing I could do which was scream and shout.

My local hospital doesn’t have a spinal unit and I was simply left to my own devices, although they did try and transfer me to a stroke ward but I refused. I managed to get into a wheelchair while I was there and was taken for a stroll around the hospital. This was where I got to see how I had become, entering a mirrored lift and realising what I looked like scared the hell out of me, I had no idea where my life was going to lead me.

Eventually I got Stoke Mandeville and found that I had other issues that had only started to become apparent at the end of my time in Kings. I had also suffered what is known as Heterotopic Ossification or simply put, excess bone growth. When bone fractures it normally adds little extra when repairing but mine went into overdrive due to extreme trauma and I am now riddled with it. My worst is my elbow which I fractured and had screwed back together. My elbow kept on fusing with this excess bone and no matter how many operations I had to remove the bone, I would have a day of being able to touch my face before it would grow back. Eventually I gave up and now have a permanently fused elbow at 90 degrees, along with my shoulder, my neck, my back, pelvis, legs and knees. So when it rains, it pours.

I spent the next 7 months at Stoke Mandeville learning to adjust to life in a wheelchair, while continuing to have operations and learning to come to terms with my newfound disability. 

During the day it was fine, if you can say that. My wife was there every single day alongside the rest of my family. Between them and my new friends (other patients), the days were manageable. Everyone supported and encouraged each other and you became an extended part of each other's family. 

You were all there for the same reason, just at different levels which meant different levels of disability, with some requiring more help than others. I often would look back and think how bad my injuries were and my disability is until I remember the other guys on the ward and saw what they are going through and could see what they were going to have to deal with for the rest of their life. 

When I thought about ABLE2UK Stop the Shadows, my first thought was about my time in hospital. During the day it was different. Lots of staff around, consultants doing the rounds, physio sessions, hydro sessions, family visits and classes. All keeping you busy and your mind occupied but nights were different. Once everyone has gone home, classes have finished and it's just night staff around, you have a lot of quiet time, time to reflect. The silence in the wards is deafening and you realise just how lonely life can be. Your whole life has changed and you cannot see which direction it's going to lead you or whether it will be anywhere near the same.

During my time there I remember mentioning an old habit of drawing something I hadn’t done since I joined the police as I had no time. It was something I had always done as a hobby but nothing more. I was approached by one of the volunteers who did an art class once a week and she asked me to join. I was very reluctant as I was still trying to come to terms with my accident and my new found disability and didn’t think right then was the right time for drawing or colouring in, not to mention I also had this issue of a fused arm which restricted any movement in my arm and hand but eventually I tried it. I was useless but I persevered and eventually found a technique that worked for me, stippling or pointillism, simply drawing with dots which needed limited movement.

Not only did I find this new technique working for me, I also found that it became the perfect coping mechanism.  I literally switched off to the world and engrossed myself in my drawings. Soon they were getting to look a bit like what I had intended them to look like and decided that, if interested, I would donate some of them to charity. The Spinal Injuries Association was the first. They helped me during my time in hospital and I have been continually donating drawings to them ever since. Their events often have a few of my drawings going up for auction which gives me great satisfaction too. During COVID, I did one of Ed Jackson, a rugby player who also suffered a SCI and was raising money by climbing the height of Mount Everest but via his stairs at home, continually going up and down in his climbing gear till he met the distance. I shared my story with Ed and gave him the drawing just to thank you for being an inspiration particularly during such challenging times. Ed in turn introduced me to the team at Wings for Life, a charity that raised money for spinal research, who loved my work and have continually used pictures I have donated to them to raise both money and awareness of spinal cord injuries and spinal research.

Since leaving a hospital where you are in a protected environment, where everything is designed with you and your disabilities in mind. I have become more aware of how difficult life actually is for those with disabilities as a whole.

Day to day life is a challenge, it’s not all accessible and perfect, it isn’t all designed with you or the disabled community in mind. There isn't a day goes by where there is some sort of issue which will be because you are disabled. It might be the ignorant drivers using disabled bays when they have no blue badge and will only be 5 minutes or shops with narrow aisles you can’t master your chair around or even those that aren’t even accessible. Not to mention how limiting travelling around can be, London Underground is a fine example. I always remember Boris telling the world how accessible London was during the Olympics. I gave up working in London because it wasn’t. 

Events are always a struggle too and you often miss out as accessible spaces are very limited, holidays too are a minefield in itself, too much to go into there. 

I can go on forever about the struggles but find that no sooner are you complaining about one thing, you’re on to the next. It's wearing. You feel lonely because you feel like you are constantly fighting these issues and no one else can see what the problem is or if they can, don’t want to do anything about it, no one is held accountable.

Anyway, my drawings keep me busy and I hope that my story gives you a bit of an insight into me and my disability and hope that I can help contribute something towards Able2UK.

[ More of Dustin West's artwork can be seen on his Instagram page. ]

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