Last month, a mountain biking crash in the Whakarewarewa forest left Laura Stuart a paraplegic. Today, she begins a weekly column, sharing her journey as she learns to embrace her new reality.
HI, I'M LAURA and I love mountain biking. So much so that my love for riding was a motivating factor for moving to Rotorua one and a half years ago.
I've always been a bit of a reckless rider. From day one, about 10 years ago, I began teaching myself to jump and often ended up flying over the handlebars. That has always been my approach to riding - pushing the limits of what I'm capable of and always trying to ride beyond my skill level. I think there are more videos of me crashing than nailing jumps!
I don't regret my approach to riding - I would never have been able to ride all the best trails in the Whakarewarewa forest had I not just swallowed my fear and gone with pure stubborn determination.
On 12 February 2016, I came to what I like to call a small pause in my riding journey when I gave myself a birthday present that changed my life. I was on one of my favourite trails that I hadn't ridden for a while when a poor decision sent me front-wheeling off the trail and flying several metres down the bank into the luscious ponga-laden floor of the Whakarewarewa forest.
As soon as I landed the feeling of numb disconnect set in from my ribs down. I knew that this was no ordinary crash. I spent the next two hours in that spot surrounded by wonderful strangers who kept me entertained and smiling while the ambulance and the rescue helicopter were frantically trying to locate my whereabouts. After being winched into the chopper and laden with 10 blankets to stop my uncontrollable cold shakes, I was flown straight to Middlemore Hospital in Auckland - another sign that this was pretty serious.
Up until that moment, I had never broken a bone. However, when I do things I don't like to do them half-pie. I fractured three vertebrae in my neck and "multiple" ribs - no one seems to know how many, I completely smashed my T-5 vertebrae in half and gave my T-6 a good hammering also. I am now a T-4 paraplegic with no sensation from the middle of my chest down. How a few seconds can change your life so drastically - and I missed my birthday dinner that evening at Abracadabra! (The things we worry about when the world turns upside down.)
I spent the next two weeks at Middlemore. Hospitals are crazy places - they give you morphine on demand, feed you through your nose if you refuse to eat ice-cream and jelly for every meal and force a litre of laxative juice down your nasal tube if your intestinal tract isn't behaving! The hospital is underfunded but the staff are lovely and all the nurses could do for me was slap on some nappies and keep my pain-relief medicine up until I was ready to be transferred to the specialist unit. What got me through those two weeks was the incredible amount of love and support and visitors I received. My partner made it to the hospital from Wellington before I arrived and my cousin, a doctor, was fortunately (or not) working in A&E when I was brought in (she was taken off shift for the rest of the evening after that). So I was lucky to be surrounded by family from day one and being surrounded by positive happy people has hugely affected my outlook. Things could have been a lot worse - at least I have my hands and I am not having to type this with my nose.
When I was transferred to the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit I felt like I was arriving in comparative paradise. I had a shower for the first time since I was 28 years old and was able to wash my hair which had turned into a greasy birds nest. It wasn't so much of a shower as a bed which converted into a bath and I didn't do the washing myself. However, the feeling of cleanliness was absolute bliss and all I could think of was that some people pay hundreds to lie back and receive such relaxing spa pampering. The best part was being able to have a clean neck brace - you can only imagine what two weeks of neck sweat, dinner and vomit worked into the foam padding would smell like. It is a wonder that my partner kissed me good night, let alone came within two metres of me!
I have now been at the Spinal Unit for just over three weeks and I am working towards being able to integrate back into real life - this time on a wheelchair. We are starting with the real basics - like trying to teach my bowels to move in the morning rather than whenever they feel like it or, more often, when I least want them to misbehave. I also have to reacquaint myself with the vertical world. After spending two weeks mostly horizontal, my blood pressure drops to the floor with the slightest degree towards vertical. I spend an hour a day on the "tilt table" slowly winching up to standing until the blue and pink clouds come over and my eyesight finally fades to a bright white light. Because of my neck fractures, I am limited in what I can do as I am not allowed to put much weight through my arms and shoulders. However, next week I will finally get my next set of x-rays to see how my bones are mending and hopefully the brace will come off. Once the brace is off I can get into some real rehab work. I can't wait to try sitting up and balancing (I have no core strength in my torso), swimming and jumping into the sailing simulator.
I am also becoming acquainted with my lower half again. It is the most bizarre feeling, I feel like I am a mermaid with my feet locked in a tail I can't move or wrapped in a cozy warm plaster mould, and maybe one day they will escape their little prison. My legs have taken on a life of their own, starting with the occasional toe twitch, they now like to tap rhythmically or have a full on spastic boogie. Recently my bum and torso have decided to join in on the party and often they try and push me out of my wheelchair. My upper abs also like to squeeze my ribs so hard that I feel like I am being crushed in a vice. It's all fun and games until I try to sleep and then my dancing feet are like having a restless partner in bed at night except I can't kick them to stop moving the sheets because they are my own!
What a funny world I have dived into. This is a world I knew absolutely nothing about, apart from seeing a few people roll about in wheelchairs, avoiding the disabled parking (now there are perks of being a paraplegic) and watching a bit of the Paralympics every four years. I have so much to learn and so many amazing people to meet. I need to learn not just about my own rehabilitation, but about all the science behind the amazing spinal cord that sends messages from every part of our body to the brain, and about all of the amazing opportunities that this new life has opened up for me.I can't wait to be unleashed on the world again - watch out for me, I will be the girl in the wheelchair with the L plates jumping the kerbs and dropping down the steps. Please pick me up if you find me sideways :)
-Laura's Journey will run every Saturday in the Rotorua Daily Post and at rotoruadailypost.co.nz