The resurrection of John Wren
Monday, 8th December, 2014
By Michael Murphy
The city’s last “picture showman” put on his greatest performance of all in a rehabilitation centre in Adelaide.
John Wren entered rehab with the very real prospect of spending the rest of his life staring at a ceiling - he was paralysed from the neck down.
He was told he would never walk again.
The drama began in the winter of 1997 when his body began to send out warning signals. He was having trouble putting on a jumper, and he didn’t like the look of his hands.
“I thought, shit, my fingers are looking like dead twigs on a tree,” John said. “I didn’t realise that blood was being drained from them - I thought there’s something strange happening to my body.”
The doctors were baffled at first, various scans in Broken Hill did not show anything, but a trip to the specialist in Adelaide revealed a cancerous tumour on his spinal cord, up towards his neck.
The prognosis was not good.
“The surgeon said to me: ‘I’m not saying you’re a dead duck, John, but if you don’t have the operation before the 12th of December, you are going to stop breathing’.
“’If you have the operation, you could end up being a quadriplegic for the rest of your life’.”
John chose life. A team of specialist surgeons worked on him for about nine hours. They found the cancer had not “grown legs”, and they were able to remove it in “capsule form”, but the cancer and operation still took a toll on John’s body.
He spent the next six weeks in intensive care and the spinal care unit of Royal Adelaide Hospital. When he was shipped out to Hampstead Rehabilitation Centre, he was still completely paralysed.
John needed three porters to turn him four times a night so he didn’t get bed sores, he had catheter to drain urine from his body, and he got a daily dose of suppositories.
“At that stage, I was in bed thinking why me, why me, why me — and then I changed my tune.
“I thought, why not me ... I thought it was better to be me than someone else.”
The crew at Hampstead built John an electric wheelchair with a small joystick, so he could scoot around the facility. But he still could not feed himself, he could not lift his arms.
“In the mess where we used to have breakfast and everything ... every day I tried to lift a spoon up to my mouth, and it took months, and when I finally did it, I cried .. I had done it.”
John would scoot outside, and when no one was looking, try to stand up to get some strength in his legs.
“I learned how to stand up from the wheelchair, and one day a nurse walked in and caught me and she said: ‘You’re trying, John, you’re trying’.”
He still had a catheter, he was still getting turned over four times a night, but he slowly got some strength in his legs.
He learned how to get his legs over the bed and his feet onto the floor to stand up.
He pleaded with a nurse to remove the catheter so he could stand up and walk five metres to the toilet, on his own.
The specialists had a meeting to discuss it, and they gave him the nod, but he had to beat the clock.
They would pull the catheter out at 6.30am, and John had to take a leak by noon, or it was going straight back in.
“So they took the catheter out,” John said. “Ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, I thought, God ... being a Catholic boy, I did pray.
“Then I thought, what would James Bond do.
“And I thought cool, calm and collective, John, just remain cool, calm and collective ... don’t let it worry you.
“And then I could feel the wee coming, so I walked over at a snail pace ... and I had that wee before 12 o’clock.
“That was the last time I had a catheter on, mate.”
It took John nine months to go to the toilet on his own. His next performance ... exit stage left.
He was determined to walk out of Hampstead. He’d heard only one in a hundred manage to walk out, and he did it.
They sent him a wheelchair a few days later, but he ended up sending it back. He still had a long road to recovery in front of him, but he was on his way.
The first thing on his mind was making a comeback at the Silver City Cinema. He still had to make repayments on it, and he still owed money on his house.
When the specialist first diagnosed John in 1997, he told him the cancerous tumour began to grow in 1993, a tumultuous time for John and his family. It was a period that John felt he had let a lot of people down.
“The specialist said the tumour had been there all that time.
“I thought to myself that was when I was going through all that stress.
“Honestly, stress, worry, turmoil does cause problems to people’s health.
“I am the living proof of that ... I am quite convinced.”