For the majority of people, our legs are something we take for granted. They take us from point A to B and that’s about it. For many of us, they’re even a source of anxiety—we worry about whether they’re too big, too thin, too short. But can you imagine waking up to learn that you could never use them again? That you’d be in a wheelchair for the rest of your life? It sounds like something that only happens to people in movies or to the 0.00001% of the population who just happen to be incredibly unlucky. Not to us.
But in 2013, that’s exactly what happened to Emma Carey—a normal 20-year-old Australian. Like many people her age, Em worked multiple jobs at a childcare centre, chemist and bar so she could afford to go backpacking around Europe. And in June that year, she did. She packed her bags and boarded a plane to Europe for a three-month trip she had been looking forward to for years. Just five days into her trip, the self-confessed adrenaline junkie found herself in a helicopter in the Swiss Alps, about to jump out. It was her first time, but she wasn’t nervous.
“Skydiving over the Swiss Alps had been a massive dream of mine for as long as I can remember, so I felt nothing but pure excitement and elation that it was finally happening,” Em says. “We were flying high above the alps, looking down at the tiny mountains which looked so big from below just five minutes earlier and as we were getting higher and higher, I remember thinking to myself ‘remember this moment’”
Em says that feeling of free-falling was something she’ll never forget. “I had always expected it to be a lot scarier but I can honestly say it was one of the best moments of my life,” she says. “An overwhelming sense of calmness washed over me and I remember feeling like in that moment, I was exactly where I was meant to be.” However, her daydream soon turned into her worst nightmare when the free-fall stopped. “I felt the parachute come out and slow us down a little bit but we were still going straight down and even though I didn’t know anything about skydiving, I knew it was way too fast,” she says. “The next minute, I’m lying face down on the ground with an unconscious man strapped to my back. When I went to roll him off me, I had the most brutal and heartbreaking realisation of my entire life. I couldn’t move my legs. At all.”
Em later learned that the emergency parachute had come out at the same time as the main chute, which isn’t meant to happen. The two got tangled together, so they couldn’t open properly to slow them down. The cords also wrapped around the instructor’s neck and strangled him—”he survived, thankfully!” Em says. But because he was unconscious, he couldn’t do anything to untangle the parachutes so they continued to fall rapidly. Em landed on her stomach and because the instructor was strapped to her, he landed on top.
Em recalls that not being able to move her legs was the most bizarre feeling in the world. “One minute I was a carefree 20-year-old, backpacking around Europe and literally the next, I was laying on the ground thinking I would never walk again,” Em says. “I couldn’t comprehend it and I didn’t really believe it. I was in total shock.”
Things got even more surreal when she arrived at the hospital. After she was taken in for scans and surgery at the hospital in Switzerland, doctors told her she had spinal cord injury at L1 and was now a paraplegic. “My mind went from not having to think even an hour into the future, to thinking about the rest of my entire life in a matter of seconds,” Em says. “How would I go to Rome tomorrow? How would I be able to run again? How would I play with my kids when I have them? How would I even have kids? How would anyone fall in love with me? How would I ever feel happiness again?”
Em had two surgeries over in Switzerland and had to wait a month before she could fly home. Luckily, her mum flew over to Switzerland so she could be by her side every day. “I then flew back to Australia and stayed in a Sydney hospital for another 3 months” Em says. “For the first month I was completely unable to do anything besides lay flat in bed, I couldn’t even sit up without needing to vomit.”
Once the initial shock had worn off, Em says it was the little things she missed about not being able to walk. “Like the ability to stand up and hug someone I love, being able to feel the sun on my legs, having independence and not having to rely on help for everything, being able to go to the bathroom without a second thought, being able to get places that a wheelchair can’t, like the beach, mountains or waterfalls,” Em says. “It was the tiny things we all take for granted.”
Em was told she would never walk again. But always the determined soul, that wasn’t going to stop her from trying. She embarked upon a rigorous rehabilitation process, including physio twice a day, wheelchair lessons, occupational therapy and psychology. Em admits she had her dark days, but a newfound appreciation for life kept her going. “I definitely had down moments in hospital and it was nowhere near easy, but underneath it all I knew that the alternative for me going through this, was me not being there at all,” she says. When Em wasn’t doing rehabilitation, she spent a lot of time reading.”A book I LOVED while I was in hospital was ‘Beautiful’ by Katie Piper,” she says. “She is an incredible woman who went through a horrific experience and came out better for it. Seeing what she was capable of made me believe that I was too.”
She also spent a lot of time drawing—a passion that has now become her career. “I originally started drawing pictures to give to all of the nurses and doctors, but quickly realised it was actually very therapeutic for me,” Em says, “Even though I couldn’t use my legs, I was in a spinal ward where most people couldn’t even use their hands, so I became super grateful for the use of my hands and wanted to make the most of them through drawing.”
It’s this positive attitude paired with her incredible tenacity that allowed Em to do what the doctors thought impossible—make a full recovery. Over the months, she slowly began to regain use of her legs. “It was a very slow process and there wasn’t one specific day when my legs starting working again,” Em recalls. “Eventually I could wriggle my toes, then my ankles, my knees, then finally my hips.” Wriggling eventually evolved into walking. “I started with leaning heavily on a walking frame, then used the parallel bars, two crutches, one crutch, until finally my legs were strong enough to walk with no support,” she says. “I remember the first time I walked with crutches, I was so excited and had so much energy that I felt like I needed to run around or something to get out my excitement. I couldn’t do that though, so my physios brought me out a boxing bag that I could punch from my wheelchair. It was such an amazing feeling.”
To say that Em’s experience has given her a new lease on life would be a huge understatement. “My view and outlook have completely changed since my accident,” she says. “I am so much more aware of the fragility of life, as well as how lucky I am to be in a healthy body which mostly works exactly as I want it to.” It’s changed her perspective on health and fitness, too. “Exercising and taking care of my body is now my number one priority,” Em says. “Before my accident, I used to just go to the gym to have a ‘better’ body and improve the way I looked. Now I work out because it feels amazing to be able to do so and also so I can improve my leg strength and walk better. I feel so beyond grateful that I CAN work out, because there was a time when I would have done anything to be able to just get out of bed, let alone move my body.” Em says she’s currently experimenting with different types of exercise, but loves long walks and reformer pilates. She also loves to get out in nature. “I thought I would never get to use my legs again, so now that I can, I want to make the most of them every single day,” she says. “I want to climb mountains, walk on sand, swim in the ocean, sit on cliff edges and do all of the things I can do with my legs that I never would have been able to do in a wheelchair.”
Em has also been involved with theWings for Life World Run (a global running event where 100% of the proceeds go to spinal cord research) for the past 3 years. “The first year I did it, I could barely walk and had two of my friends under my shoulders, basically carrying me the entire way,” she says. “It was such an incredible feeling to look around and see that everyone competing was (in a way) doing it for me, and people like me.” She plans to compete in the event again this year. “I love their motto ‘run for those who can’t’ and that’s exactly why I’m doing it again this year,” she says. “I’m competing so that one day, everyone else who has been in my situation can be as lucky as I was when I got to take my first steps again.”
Now 25, Em spends her days making art and inspiring others. She shares her words of wisdom on her Instagram account (where she’s amassed more than 100,000 followers) and blog and often speaks at events. She leaves us with this piece of advice, for anyone who is dealing with a situation where it feels like the odds are stacked against them:
“No matter how horrible, hard or painful the experience is, it’s very possible for you to turn it into the best thing which ever happened to you. I’m not saying the situation will necessarily get easier, but you will become stronger, wiser, more resilient and learn a whole lot about yourself. It’s through doing this that you can become the kind of person you’ve always wanted to be. One of my favourite quotes is ‘rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life’. I never used to really understand what this meant until I completely changed and created a new life for myself. The best thing about being at your worst, is that you have nothing to lose. When you have nothing to lose, you can take risks, make mistakes, start from scratch and no matter the result, you’re always going to be in a better place than you were before.”