June 9, 2013. Emma Carey still finds it strange just how normal she felt that day. She’d always assumed there would be a feeling or a sensation, something in the mind or gut that would ping before a life-altering event.
But as she climbed aboard the skydiving helicopter in the Swiss alps, five days into her European backpacking holiday, the buzz in her stomach was familiar – excitement.
“I’d been looking forward to it for so long, I’m such an adrenaline junkie,” the 25-year-old Sydney woman told Mamamia. “And then we jumped out, and it was just the most incredible feeling ever.”
The free-fall from 14,000ft lasted seconds, maybe less than a minute, before the instructor released their parachute. They slowed a little, but even as a novice Emma could tell it was not enough – the tangled parachute hadn’t opened fully.
By then the instructor had stopped talking to her, and Emma’s concerned questions hung in the air as they rushed closer and closer toward the ground.
“It’s so weird, because it would have happened really fast, but it was almost like time wasn’t real in that situation. I had so much time to think about everything,” she said. “I remember feeling absolutely certain that we were about to die. The ground was coming so fast. You know, no one is going to survive something like that.”
Emma landed on her stomach, fully conscious. Her instructor, though alive, lay limp and heavy, still strapped to her back.
“I tried to roll him off me so I could go and get help. And that’s when I realised I couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t get up, I couldn’t even wriggle my toes at all. And that was terrifying,” Emma said. “I was just so confused. I was doing the same movement I had been doing my whole life. For it all of a sudden to not work is just the most bizarre feeling.
“I knew nothing about spinal cord injuries and – even though I don’t feel this way now – at the time I thought, ‘If I’m in a wheelchair, no way do I want to live.’ I didn’t want to go through that. I wasn’t an emotionally strong person back then, so I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with that at all.”
Emma’s friend and travel companion, Jemma, landed safely shortly after with her instructor; “She said she could hear me screaming out to her, ‘I can’t move my legs! Help me!'”
Jemma recounted her thoughts in a post on Emma’s popular Instagram page: “Just tell her it’s just shock and that she’s got to stay calm. Wipe the blood off her face and tell her that she hasn’t actually lost any teeth. She’s crying. Jemma, hold it together. You have to. Her instructor’s not moving, but I can’t even look at him. Emma is all I can think about. Just keep stroking her hair and tell her it’ll be okay. It’ll all be okay. It has to be.”
Around 12,000 Australians live with spinal cord injury. Between 350-400 new cases are recorded each year, 80 per cent of which are the result of traumatic injury. As well as multiple broken bones, Emma sustained what’s known as an incomplete spinal cord injury, meaning only a limited number of signals are able to pass between her body and brain. Her legs were paralysed, her bladder and bowel control affected.
She was a paraplegic, doctors said, and would likely be confined to a wheelchair for life.
“I didn’t really believe that I would never walk again – I’m not sure why. It just didn’t sit right in my mind. When they told me I’d have to use catheters for my whole life I thought, ‘Yep.’ I believed all that, I was OK with that. But when it came to walking, I just had a feeling.”
Founded, it turned out. She can now walk unaided. It took a month of treatment in Switzerland, another three in Sydney, and years of surgery, physio and rehabilitation to get there. She still can't feel parts of her legs and her calf muscles don't function, meaning she can't run properly, jump or stand on her toes. But she considers herself incredibly fortunate.
"It's a lot to take in. I sometimes feel too lucky. I have so many friends in the same situation in wheelchairs, and they try just as hard as I do," she said.
To support them, on May 6, Emma will participate in the Wings for Life World Run, a unique fundraising run staged in dozens of locations around the world at the exact same time. It's unique in that there is no finish line. Instead, participants have to remain ahead of a 'catcher car', which (after giving them a half hour head-start) chases runners along each course, gradually getting faster until each one is caught.
Every dollar raised through entry fees and donations goes toward spinal cord research projects and clinical trials.
It's Emma's third year participating in the event; "The first year I did it I had just started walking and was on crutches, so I couldn't get very far and I had two friends basically carry me the whole way," Emma said. "But it was so cool to see the other people running and think, wow, they're doing it for me and for other people like me."
In spite of everything the past five years has held, Emma has no anger and no regrets.
"I actually feel better for it. I genuinely think it's the best thing that could have happened to me at that time. I don't really know why, but I feel like I needed a big wake-up call so that I could really enjoy life, that I could see it for the gift that it is," she said.
"Prior to the accident, I was never really excited about life, I wasn't happy to wake up each day, I didn't love life as much as I do now.
"I remember thinking as we were falling just how much I really want to live. I always say, it really sucks that it took me nearly dying to realise how much I wanted to live. I think that's why I talk about it so much, so that no one else has to go through such a huge wake up call to realise that. "
The Wings for Life World Run will take place on May 6. For information about your nearest event or to donate, visit the Wings for Life website.
You can even organise and stage a run in your area, via the Wings for Life app.