There are more than eight hours missing from Monique Murphy’s memory of March 29, 2014. Her psyche has swallowed entire conversations had with friends, new people she met, things she ate, drank. None of it exists to her.
The missing piece is the bulk of a ‘get to know you’ event held at her RMIT accommodation in Melbourne. The then-19-year-old was three weeks into a social work degree, and had her first assignment due the following day. (“Of course, I hadn’t started.”)
“I made myself one drink – my one drink for the night – and headed downstairs,” the 24-year-old told Mamamia. “That was around maybe, like, 6 o’clock.
“I can’t tell you anything else. I woke up from a coma a week later.”
Some time in the early hours of March 30, Monique suffered an accident that changed the entire course of her life. She fell off a fifth storey balcony at her accommodation onto the sloped glass roof of an adjacent building. She was alone when she fell; but there where people in the glasshouse who rushed to her aid.
Her jaw was broken, as was her left collarbone, right tibial plateau, and three ribs, which in turn punctured her lung. Her right tricep tendon was severed, her left knee mangled, and shards of glass were embedded in her neck. Doctors performed emergency surgery to save her life, but they couldn’t save her foot; the trauma was so significant they were forced to partially amputate.
When Monique first woke in hospital doctors and her family broke the news of the surgery, but heavy anaesthetic prevented it from sinking in. It wasn't until the following morning that she properly absorbed what had happened.
“I woke up in the ICU and I remember the doctors came round to check on me. I remember them being really sensitive and treating me like a bubble about to burst. Then they walked away. And I heard the word ‘amputation’ and ‘foot’. I looked at one of the nurses who was looking after me, and I said, panicking, ‘Did I lose my foot?’ The colour drained from her face.
“At that moment my mum and her sister walked in. [The nurse] looked at them and said, ‘I'm so sorry, I thought she knew.’"
Monique’s mother rushed to her bedside and clutched her hand. Through tears she explained to her groggy daughter how the impact on her jaw had saved her brain, how the impact on her foot had saved her spine.
“We sat there crying for a while, and it just sort of just sort of hit me that I was going to be OK," Monique said. "I never thought it would be easy, I knew it would suck. But you know, limbs are replaceable.”
With no witnesses, it's still not certain what happened the night of the accident. Doctors suspect drink spiking, but were too focused on saving her life to perform toxicology tests. While Monique still has questions about the fall, she tries not to dwell on it; she's focused on moving forward.
"I had to sign away part of my body."
It's that sense of pragmatism that informed Monique's later decision to amputate below the knee, a move that would give her better mobility. Though it was an easy decision for the active woman, actually picking up the pen and filling out the hospital forms was bizarre - "I had to sign away a part of my body, part I was never going to get back."
She now wears a prosthesis, and though she still cries occasionally over her missing limb and still battles with her mind to adapt to its absence ("I can still feel my foot even though it's not there"), she has learned to embrace her new body and what it's capable of. And swimming got her there.
A promising swimmer through her schooling years, Monique stopped competing before she started university. But after her amputation, hydrotherapy reconnected her with the water; in the pool she could move freely again, uninhibited.
Just one year after she woke up from the coma, she was racing at the national championships, and secured herself a spot in the 2015 IPC World Championships. Then, the following year, she swam at the Paralympic Games in Rio, where she won a silver medal for Australia in the 400m freestyle in the S10 classification.
"In that last 50 metres of the race all I could think about was my family up in the stands. I knew they were right there with me and I knew how much they would be cheering me on, so I was just pushing that last lap for them. And when I hit the wall and I turned around and saw the number two next to my name... It brings me to tears now thinking about it. There was so much joy, so much happiness that it had all paid off in that moment.
"I couldn't have given anymore in that race. For me, silver was gold, because you can't do better than your best. And that's exactly what I'd done."
Monique is currently training for the Pan Pacific Championship trials to be held in Adelaide in July, which means 10 pool sessions each week (some of which involve swimming 5-7 km in a single session) plus time in the gym.
But it's worth it. Swimming is what got her out of the house in those difficult early months after her accident, and it's still what keeps her motivated.
"I've learnt that you're allowed to be selfish when it comes to yourself and your mental health and especially taking that time to to look after yourself. Because, you know, you can't pour from an empty glass. So for me swimming is it, swimming is what makes me happy," she said.
Her achievements act as a salve for the trauma experienced in 2014 - both for Monique and her family. And in a way, she's glad for what she went through.
"The further down the line that we get, the more that we can look back at the accident. It will never not be a horrific, traumatic event in my life or my family's life. But it has turned into something incredible and given me so many opportunities," she said.
"You know, that accident brought me back to swimming and it gave me a second chance to fulfil a dream that I was really always capable of - the Olympics. So I'm really grateful for that and what I was able to share with my family."