“Don’t waste your energy figuring out why it happened and why things are the way they are. Focus instead on what you can do today.”Jeremy Lung
As a keen cyclist, Jeremy Lung regularly took a 60–100 km ride before work, until his life changed when he went over his handlebars and hit his head on a rock at 60 km/h. He was lucky not to lose his life, but he sustained a traumatic brain injury and a T10/11spinal-cord injury. The brain injury led to post-traumatic amnesia, and three to four months after his surgery, doctors told Jeremy he would probably need full-time care. Remarkably, within a year he was back performing complex surgeries.
Like many people who sustain a spinal cord injury, Jeremy admits he was in denial. The initial diagnosis of a complete spinal cord injury, which turned out to be mistaken, and potentially permanent brain damage was too devastating to come to terms with immediately.
“When the accident happened,” he says, “I felt like everything had been taken away from me. You think it’s over, all the training I’ve received, all the investment there is just lost.”
When asked about his biggest challenge after the accident, he replied, “Well, everything. You just can’t do the things you used to do.”
But while he was still in Royal Rehab, he was visited regularly by a renowned dental surgeon who had taken over Jeremy’s cases after his accident. This surgeon, whom Jeremy regards as a mentor, told him it would be a tremendous waste of talent for him not to go back to dentistry, having seen his skills.
Although Jeremy credits his mentor as the primary catalyst for spurring him back to work, he also praises the return-to-work team at Royal Rehab as “quite incredible”: “While you’re figuring out how to live again, they’re piecing it together for you.” They even connected him with another dentist who worked out of a wheelchair.
Jeremy comes from a family of dentists: his mother and father worked alongside each other in their Epping practice, where Jeremy joined them. The fact that the practice belonged to his father made things easier. Still, it was Job Access that funded the necessary workplace adjustments: a new entry, handrails on the walls, an accessible toilet and a suitable clinic chair from which he could perform the long, complex surgeries in his specialist field of dental implants. In addition to physical workplace adjustments, Jeremy’s close relationships with his assistants have made it possible to return to high-level surgery. His assistants operate the foot pedal that controls the speed of the drill while Jeremy uses his hands to perform the surgery. They have even learned to read his eyebrows!
But Jeremy admits there weren’t just physical obstacles to overcome. “At the beginning, I was very uncomfortable. I didn’t want patients to know that I was in a wheelchair, so I would do most of my consults out of a chair. Now I consult mostly out of my wheelchair, and a lot of patients have said, ‘My goodness, I didn’t realise you were in a wheelchair!'”
His patient’s surprise says more about the public perception of disability than Jeremy’s skills and abilities. It contrasts sharply with the attitude of his mentor, who said, “What’s stopping you?” which highlights the power of a positive mindset. It’s also the case that, sometimes, we may project onto others our own insecurities about being in a wheelchair.
However, it’s not all plain sailing. Jeremy suffers from neuropathic pain, which means fatigue is an issue that wears him down. He has had to come to terms with the fact that he can’t work as intensively as he did before his accident. Jeremy also acknowledges that depression plays its part in depleting his energy and motivation; admitting that he sleeps in sometimes. (Good to know that he is human after all!)
As for many of us living with SCI, physical and mental issues compound each other; physical problems create a mental low, and when you’re down mentally, you feel more pain. Very sensibly, Jeremy regularly sees a psychologist and a couples counsellor, which Jeremy sought out for himself and found “really rocks”!
As a self-described type A personality – competitive, ambitious, organised and focused on work and goals – he’s very proud of getting back to the top of his field in dentistry, often performing two – three-hour surgeries. He wanted to prove to himself and others that he could still perform at the highest level. But there are other type A personality traits that might have been a hindrance: feeling impatient when delayed, disliking wasting time and being intolerant of incompetence.
“When you’re able-bodied, you’re running hard and fast and have little time for incompetence or obstacles to achieving what you want to achieve,” he reflects. He’s learned to be more sensitive to people’s struggles and empathise with those less fortunate.
While dentistry is literally in his blood, returning to it after his accident made him realise that “I was truly made for dentistry”.
“When I engaged in dentistry again, I felt like my brain went into another gear. I remember feeling, ‘This is it!’ You’re in the flow, everything else gets blanked away, and you’re just thinking about the surgery in front of you.”
While we might not all be dentists, Jeremy’s advice for readjusting to life with a spinal cord injury applies to us all: “Don’t waste your energy figuring out why it happened and why things are the way they are. Focus instead on what you can do today, what you can get busy with, so your mind is not focusing on what you can’t do and what you have lost. Focus on the practical, the here and now.”
We wish Jeremy and his partner all the best as they try to start a family and move to the States later this year.