After a swimming pool accident, Rhiannon Tracey was told she’d never walk again. Now, seven years later, she can walk up to 500 metres at a time on crutches. Here, she shares her story (as told to Kahla Preston).
I was 20 and on holiday in Bali when I had my accident. My mum and I would go to Bali every year for our girls’ trip, and this visit was meant to be really special because my best friend had come with us and she’d never been before. We were actually celebrating her birthday the night my injury happened; obviously the world works in wonderful ways.
I dove into a resort swimming pool that was labelled ‘deep’, but the sides of the pool were shallow. I hit my head on the bottom with a very hard thud, and remember thinking, ‘Crap, what have I done?’ Somehow, I stayed fully conscious. I must have a bloody hard head.
I was face-down in the water and realised pretty quickly that I couldn’t move, but within a few minutes my friend realised something was wrong and pulled me out. My mum had gone back to our resort at this stage, and she had to receive the phone call any parent would dread.
I was put into the back of a van, which was considered an ambulance in Bali, and taken to hospital. A CT scan confirmed that I had broken my neck and back, which rendered me a quadriplegic instantly.
Doctors told us I needed emergency surgery immediately. There wasn’t enough time to fly me out to another country because the fragments of the broken vertebra were piercing both sides of my spinal cord, which could completely sever it. If that had been the case I would’ve died.
Rhiannon and her mum in Bali before the accident. (Image supplied)
I was moved over to the main hospital in Denpasar to have the surgery, but while we were waiting in the trauma centre Bali had one of their biggest earthquakes ever. The hospital was falling to pieces around us and everyone got up and ran out. I was convinced I was going to die; I even said to my mum, "This is it, we're goners."
My 'emergency' surgery ended up happening about nine hours later. I spent almost three weeks in hospital and my conditioned worsened every day. I had travel insurance, thank God, but by the time the company flew the doctor and the nurse over to bring me back to Australia my family were already saying their goodbyes.
The doctor and nurse took one look at me and went into panic mode. It turns out both of my lungs had collapsed because they were full of pool water and hadn't been drained properly during my surgery. I was totally bed-bound and paralysed with pressure sores all over my body and blood clots in both my legs. My body was shutting down from all kinds of viruses from the hospital.
Eventually I was well enough to be sent home, but as I was being put onto the air ambulance one of the local doctors gave me an injection that it turned out I was allergic to, and I went into anaphylaxis. Honestly, I think my whole hospital experience in Bali was more traumatic than the actual injury.
When I got back to Australia, I would have fallen to the ground and kissed it if I could have. I was taken to Austin Hospital in Melbourne, where doctors put me into isolation and did a CT scan that showed the surgery in Bali had failed. My neck wasn't even secure on my shoulders; they had basically wired everything up with stainless steel.
L-R: Rhiannon in hospital, and hanging from the ceiling of the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre. (Supplied)
I needed two surgeries to correct what had been done, and a third to stop the blood clots from moving into my lungs. I was in an induced coma while all of this was going on.
Everything was a blur when I woke up again, but I remember my mum standing over my bed one day with my laptop. She was showing me photos of all these people with spinal injuries who were doing incredible things, saying, 'This is going to be you, Rhiannon. I don't want you to think about anything that the doctors are saying.'
At this point, the diagnosis was that I would never walk or even get out of bed again; doctors told my parents that it would be "a bonus" if I could feed myself again. I was two months away from my 21st birthday, and it was like my whole life had just been ripped from me. I spent a huge amount of time asking why it happened to me. I wasn't a party animal, I didn't go out and do stupid things. I was a vet nurse who worked full time and studied.
I didn't think there was going to be any kind of life after this; I fell into a deep depression and asked my parents numerous times to put the pillow over my face and end it. It's easy for someone with this injury to give up, which is a scary thought. In the six years since my accident, five people I was in hospital with have passed away, either due to suicide or the fact they've literally given up. When this happened to the first person I knew, it scared the crap out of me. I didn't want to be that person. I still wanted to be here.
For me, my overall goal was to walk again. My recovery started as soon as I came out of that coma — while I was still an inpatient, my mum would sneak different kinds of therapists into my hospital room, and she'd move my legs around and stimulate my body in different ways.
L-R: Rhiannon training at The Next Step, and out of her chair. (Supplied)
I looked at what happened to me as an injury, not a disability. I spent those first four years literally working out like an athlete, training every single day and I even went over to a spinal cord injury recovery facility in America.
I also tried different holistic therapies like massage therapy and acupuncture; I don't know whether it was a coincidence, but two weeks after starting acupuncture was when I started getting my feeling back. Eventually I started horse riding, and it's been one of the best therapies for me physically and mentally. You get to be outside in nature, and your horse does the work your legs can't do anymore. I have two horses now.
This September will mark seven years since my accident, and I can walk anywhere between 200-500 metres at a time with crutches. I'm constantly working on my endurance; my goal is to one day walk down the aisle, so I'm just waiting for my partner to hurry up and put a ring on it. I also have full feeling and sensation. I do still have bladder and bowel issues, and suffer from chronic fatigue, muscle tension and complications like that.
After dedicating four years of my life to getting better, I realised I didn't actually have a life outside of training. So the next part of my recovery was to have a life and a purpose.
I actually went back to Bali over Christmas in 2013. I needed to do this. I was being told time and time again that I was "lucky to be here", to be doing the things I was able to do. It drove me friggin' crazy; I'd think to myself, 'I've worked my ass off and given up everything just to be able to get out of bed each day.' But when I saw the state of the hospital I'd been in, I realised I was really, really lucky to be alive.
That was a huge eye-opener and motivator for me. I realised I could ask time and time again why this happened to me, but it wasn't going to change the fact it did happen. So I decided to start educating the public and advocating for people with spinal cord injury, because before I had mine I didn't even know it existed — the only people I knew who were in a wheelchair were Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve.
In early 2014, I opened my recovery centre, The Next Step.
Exercise is so important for someone with a spinal cord injury. As soon as I stop moving around, I know I'm going to get a urinary tract infection or a cold or some other health issue. So it's a lifelong commitment to get out of bed and get moving every day. That's what my facility preaches. We work with exercise physiologists and complement that with holistic modalities — we know that 'recovery' doesn't mean everyone is going to walk again, and we definitely don't promote that. What we do promote is a better quality of life.
Sometimes, I don't know how the hell I'm going to do half the things I commit myself to doing. Having a spinal cord injury is like a full-time job in itself. I pull myself out of bed every morning and it does take a bit of time; if my alarm goes off at five I'm not out of bed until six because I need to have a really good stretch and fight through the fatigue. Sleep deprivation is one of the complications with this injury; I haven't had a good night's sleep in seven years.
After I get up and feed my animals, and myself, I'm off to The Next Step. I spend a good chunk of my day there running the place with my fellow full-time director, Mel, and doing my own training and exercise physiology. The centre is my baby; it's what I did to create a purpose for my life again. We're a non-for-profit organisation so I have to fundraise my butt off to keep this organisation.
Rhiannon and her partner Mark at last year's Wings for Life World Run (Image: Instagram)
If I'm not at the clinic, I'm usually out and about. I'm involved with a program called Spin Chat, so I go and talk to schools across Victoria about injury prevention and awareness. Because I can drive a modified car, I usually get sent to all the regional schools, so I'm generally on the road.
I also got involved with the Wings for Life World Run last year as an ambassador. It's a remarkable initiative, and I know it's going to make a huge difference for the spinal cord community. It's also a really fun event — my goal in last year's race was to push five kilometres in my wheelchair, and I did eight and a half. So this year I'm going for 10. It took me two weeks to recover last time, so hopefully this year is better.
At the end of last year I realised I needed to do something for myself that didn't have anything to do with spinal cord injury, so I decided to do a revision of the makeup course I did when I was 17. I'm now accredited with Napoleon Perdis, so if I'm not at the centre and not doing Spin Chat I'm beautifying faces.
My biggest mantra is that we can't take responsibility for the things that happen in our lives, but we can take responsibility for the outcome. I've turned my negative into a positive, and used what happened to me to help others in my situation.
The Australian leg of the Wings for Life World Run is happening in Melbourne at 9pm on 8 May. All entry fees are donated to the Wings For Life Foundation and spinal cord injury research You can register here.