Awesome Humans 26 Aug
My Journey becoming paralysed and learning to walk again
By Sarah Wise
One moment you’re ‘living your best life’, and the next, you’ve hit rock bottom. Life can change in an instance, and that’s what happened to me when I was 24 years old while working and living in London.
It was October 2019, and I was at my favourite band’s concert on my then-boyfriend’s shoulders. We fell, my chin hit the ground, and I was instantly paralysed from the neck down. I couldn’t feel the ground beneath me. It was like my body no longer existed.
I was diagnosed with a spinal cord injury (SCI); in technical terms, C3 incomplete quadriplegia ASIA D. I had two 8 hour surgeries and now am the owner of a titanium neck. Two rods, 16 screws, and the replacement of my C7 vertebrae with a cage. This marked the start of a journey I never expected to be on.
A body I thought I knew completely had forgotten how to do the most basic tasks. I used to be an elite gymnast and cheerleader. I was able to pick up new skills with ease and knew the limitations of my body (there weren’t too many!). But now my body didn’t respond to what I told it to do or decided to do something else! It was like my brain was the parent, and my body was a toddler.
Doctors told me that it was unlikely that I’d ever walk again. But I didn’t believe them. I asked every person the same question “will I walk again?” No one could give me the answer I was looking for. I will never forget the look on their faces - deep pity.
At the beginning of my recovery, there wasn’t much hope. At first, my knees started moving and then on day 12, I moved my right big toe for the first time. It was the best moment of my life, and I knew in my heart I would walk again.
I spent the first four weeks of my recovery staring at the white ceiling from my hospital bed before I was allowed to sit in a wheelchair for the first time.
I had always seen wheelchairs as a hindrance my whole life, but now I viewed it as something to give me freedom. It was a tough start, though; sitting upright was a massive task in itself.
Alt text: Sarah sitting in her wheelchair, enjoying a night out on the town with family and friends. All pictures: Sarah Wise (@sarahjwise)
Getting into a wheelchair was both a high and low point in my recovery journey. I was finally able to see outside the white walls of my hospital room. However, this was the first time I was exposed to living my life as a person with a disability. I hadn’t socialised with anyone in weeks; I craved connection. But anyone who I caught eyes with quickly looked away. People I spoke to would reply to the person next to me. I was treated differently. But I was still me? My wheelchair made people feel uncomfortable.
I impressed my medical team with my recovery progress and was told they had never seen someone recover as quickly as I did for the level of injury that I sustained. I used this and each tiny improvement as motivation to keep going.
I spent just over three months in hospital before returning to Sydney, rehabilitating my body and learning how to manage my new life. At five weeks, I took my first steps with assistance and surprisingly, I found the process of learning to walk more fascinating than frustrating.
I now refer to myself as a “walking quadriplegic”, but you’ll have to stay tuned to part two of my blog to find out why.