Pia’s Story: A place of hope
Holly Cobb, University of Oxford Intern at Horatio’s Garden (a charity supported by the National Garden Scheme), tells the story of Pia, an 18 year-old student who was supported through her darkest days by Horatio’s Garden, Stanmore.
In September 2022, Pia was just beginning a new chapter of her life.
“I’d just moved from Newcastle to London to begin a degree in Economics and Management at King’s College London.”
When, in November, Pia caught a common cold, she thought nothing of it. A combination of Freshers’ Flu season and winter weather meant Pia and many of her friends and fellow students were all suffering with some sort of cough or cold.
Yet her condition rapidly deteriorated. Within 48 hours Pia was experiencing paralysis and was admitted to critical care at the Royal London Hospital. From carefree student to seriously ill patient with a C2-T2 legion on her spinal cord, life suddenly looked quite bleak.
“I was suddenly contending with a diagnosis of Acute flaccid myelitis, a rare condition with only 5-600 cases worldwide.”
After four weeks at the Royal London Hospital, Pia arrived at the London Spinal Cord Injury Centre at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in Stanmore, where she would come to discover Horatio’s Garden.
Initially, she was terrified; paralysed from the neck down, Pia no longer knew what her future would look like. However, following extensive physiotherapy, incredible determination, and support from both NHS staff and Horatio’s Garden, she is now walking again.
Whilst on the ward, physiotherapy helped Pia improve her gait, coordination and core stability. Pia’s dad, Ash, himself an intensive care doctor, made sure to learn which exercises would be most effective from the physiotherapists so that she could practise in the gym and Horatio’s Garden over Christmas and the Bank Holidays, the first couple of months being a crucial period for improving outcomes.
“I still have some weakness in my left arm, but I hope that this lessen with time and more physiotherapy.”
Pia acknowledges her injury did not just affect her. Speaking of the trauma that her loved ones experienced, she says “especially in the early days, there is a lot I did not remember. My mum and 7-year-old brother were 290 miles away at home in Newcastle, while my dad took a leave of absence from his work to be with me full time.
“No one knew the full extent of my injury in the early days, which made the situation even more worrying for everyone at home.”
The first few days and weeks were incredibly challenging; Pia was sedated, often experiencing nightmares and hallucinations. In ICU, she went for a month without feeling any fresh air on her skin.
Yet Horatio’s Garden provided Pia with the opportunity to experience normality again, to experience life as it was before she became ill.
Remembering when she was in her wheelchair, Pia recalls how accessible the garden is: “when you are in a wheelchair you feel every bump, so the smooth paths through the garden are so important.”
As a child, Pia always enjoyed arts and crafts, interests which were overtaken by school work and sports as she got older. However, since spending time in Horatio’s Garden, Pia’s rediscovered her past passions.
“Coming here has allowed me to reconnect with crafts and it’s a good method of relieving stress.”
Horatio’s Garden has been a place of hope for Pia; a place for physical and psychological rehabilitation, a place to escape the sameness of the hospital ward. From yoga to pottery, from live music to photography, Pia has had so much to break up the usual rhythm of the day. In January, this even included an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners Question Time with Head Gardener of Horatio’s Garden London & South East, Ashley Edwards.
For Pia, the garden is also the place where she found some calm in what was otherwise a very turbulent time. It also provided much needed community. As Pia’s dad, Ash, observed: “She is only 18 years old; to be cut off from so much so suddenly would have been hugely detrimental, yet Horatio’s Garden provided an environment away from the hospital for all of us to be together.”
“You don’t feel like you are in hospital, it is very healing and peaceful. The heated pods are very user friendly and if it is like this in winter, I can just imagine what it will be like in summer.”
Four months on, the future looks so bright for Pia.
Since returning home to Newcastle in March, Pia has been putting lots of time and energy into rehabilitation. She hopes to return to playing netball and is looking forward to being back at university with her friends in September.
Hoping to use her experience to help others, she would love to come back to volunteer in the garden and see it in full bloom this summer.
“Horatio’s Garden has made a huge difference to me and I’m sure it will continue to make a huge difference to patients like me. It’s an amazing organisation and it would be really lovely for everyone to support and do what they can to contribute to the charity. That’s exactly what I hope to do.”
The experience has changed not only Pia’s outlook on life, but also that of her family.
As Ash says, “Our approach of taking one day at a time, knowing that each day is a new day, has been fundamental in turning Pia’s journey into one of no hope to a lot of hope.”
“This has been a truly eye-opening experience for me; as an intensive care doctor, patient and person. I truly believe that as all hospitals have patients, they should all have a garden like Horatio’s Garden. It is a physically and emotionally healing place.”
Watch Pia’s story on video below:
This content forms part of the National Garden Scheme’s annual Gardens & Health Week – for more click here
The National Garden Scheme has been supporting Horatio’s Garden since 2015, and in 2019 committed funding for the completion of gardens at all 11 spinal injuries units across the UK. For more details CLICK HERE