Ian Waterman is famous for relearning how to walk and function despite having no sense of proprioception. He lost all his sensation below the neck at the age of 19 after contracting a virus when working as a butcher, but after years of effort and persistence he made himself independent again. This book (and film) is his portrait and story, the product of a detailed collaboration with neurologist Jonathan Cole.
Jonathan Cole has written a detailed portrait of nearly 200 pages, comprising not simply the story of Ian Waterman’s recovery, but a full picture of his personality and the characteristics which enabled him to surmount the challenges involved. Not surprising perhaps from an English physician who chose to have an elective in the USA with Oliver Sacks, the doyen of medical portraitists. Cole also features as the narrator and investigator in the BBC Horizon film from 1997, a film which takes Waterman’s story as the focus for a fascinating study of proprioception and its role in human movement. The film uses visual images wonderfully to convey some of the abnormalities of Ian’s walking, but the narration is essential to add the sense of what is involved in this relearnt skill. There is no film of how Ian was when he first lost sensation – just the recollections of Ian and his mother. In the film Ian’s walking and movements are stilted but remarkably skilled. We only get a sense of how disabling this condition is when we see shots of Charles Freed, another person with the same condition, filmed in Pittsburgh, USA (at the opening and around 30 mins into the Horizon documentary). The documentary analyses Waterman’s loss of proprioception in the context of visits to the hospital where he was originally treated, but also looks at toddlers learning to crawl, and astronauts relearning to move in earth’s gravitational field, as well as filming Ian’s functional challenges when out shopping and Freed’s movement difficulties. So the documentary covers more than Waterman’s plight and personality.
In contrast the book Pride And A Daily Marathon takes us on Ian’s journey, both since his original infection, and through his daily tasks. Words and descriptions help to give the feeling of what no sense of the body is like, in a way that a film cannot. For example, Ian talks about how when he picks up a suitcase ready for a journey, the amount of stability required to enable him to generate the force in his arms to pick it up might vary hugely according to how much is in the case. He can only tell whether he has made the correct feedforward commands (in the absence of sensation from his muscles) by using his eyesight to monitor whether he is picking up the bag as he intends, or is pulling himself towards it!
This is a prime example of analysing how the body’s control systems work by examining in detail what happens when a component is lost. Proprioception is such a vital part of motor control that all physiotherapists and movement scientists are well advised to view this documentary and read the book.
In addition, Ian’s feelings of abandonment as the clinicians proved useless to help him, are necessary reading. He was awkward and persistent, as he himself acknowledges, but proved that practice, practice, practice could get him a lot further than any of the therapy team imagined. It must never be our role to take away hope from our clients.
A vital resource.
Documentary film, The Man Who Lost His Body, BBC Horizon 1997, available from
https://media.coventry.ac.uk/Player/1294 complete (CU username and password needed).
Or in 4 segments on YouTube