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19 August 2017Last updated
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‘Being strong was the only choice I had’

In June 2015, an unfortunate rock-climbing accident left 31-year-old Australian Pilates instructor Caroline Leon with a shattered body. Seven surgeries later (and more scheduled), she tells us how she fought against the odds to walk again

Louisa Wilkins
17 Jan 2016 | 10:25 am
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  • Caroline went back to her Pilates roots to find a way through the pain and to reconnect with her body.

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At 4pm, I leave my crutches at the foot of the stairs in my apartment and, book in hand, I slowly limp up the steps using the railing to push myself up, one step at a time. I throw the book on to my bed and head for the shower. Laying towels on the floor, I undress and crawl on my hands and knees into the shower. I relish being able to shower myself, to sit on the floor, shave my legs, shampoo my hair and just feel the water fall over me. The privacy is so sweet. I savour every moment of independence. It is a stark contrast to the constant exposure my deformed and scarred body had in hospital where, at 7am, nurses would clean me with wet cloths and soap, one limb at a time. They would slowly remove the hospital robe, gently lift the catheter bag on to the bed, disconnect the cannula on both wrists, and lightly lift the four surgical drains that were inserted into my feet, hip and spine – each drain would pool blood from that area into a bucket.

Once I was clean, I would lie there naked while the seven surgical dressings around my body were changed. All the nurses would manoeuvre around the external fixture that was surgically attached to my thigh bone. The metal protruded out of my leg and was attached by ropes to an 8kg weight that hung at the foot of my bed. By 9am, I was wrapped in blankets and ready for the team of doctors to arrive.

I bring my mind back to the present as I crawl out of the shower and sit on the floor of the bathroom on a towel, drying my body. Then I delicately wrap the towel around me and crawl into my bedroom. I plug in the hairdryer and start drying my hair. In the mirror across the room I see the scars on my feet. Purple, deformed and swollen. I notice how the skin looks so different both in colour and texture. I sometimes imagine, ‘If I had chosen something different, where would I be now?’

It reminds me of the quote by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice. For it is not the same river. And he is not the same man.”

I shake my head to dismiss the ‘what if?’ thoughts. I hoist myself on to the bed and limp over to the wardrobe. I put on my underwear and my dress for the evening, braid my hair and put some eyeliner and mascara on. I walk limp back, dragging my right leg slightly.

I sit on the bed and mentally work out how I’m going to wear sandals. This will be the first time I wear shoes. My feet are so swollen that the straps won’t do up, so I decide to tie them together with cotton strings and just hope that this will last the night. With crutches in hand, my husband and I leave for the ball.

At the ball

As we enter the ballroom area, we are surrounded by people. Beautiful men and women grace the floor – their colourful gowns and suits decorating the space. Dresses, skirts, kilts. I’m the only person ‘disabled’, but tonight I’ve decided to leave it all in the past – the accident, the injuries… I am determined that I am going to be a normal girl going to a ball.

But the truth is I can’t leave it behind. Somehow this is now a part of me in every way imaginable. The more I hide it, the more it comes blaring through in its bright, vividly coloured way. It is now my weight that I have to carry, and it hangs on me like any other limb.

A woman I know but haven’t seen for a while is walking towards me. Her cream gown elegantly slinks from side to side as she walks. She says, “I had my back fused a few months ago. I was in so much pain… The doctors told me I needed a fusion and that, if I had it done, the pain would disappear. But it never left. I’m in constant pain. I don’t know what to do. Every time I go to another doctor all they want to do is more surgery… on my sacrum, on my hip… it never ends.” She paused, then she asked, “What happened to you?”

The fall

I tell her, “I had a rock-climbing accident. A friend and I were climbing an outdoor rock-climbing wall unharnessed. It was just fun until the peg came out at the top of the wall and I fell on to a bed of rock and gravel. I fell about five or seven metres from the top. I had no insurance, I had no harness. I was in hospital for six weeks.”

She looks shocked and I can see she feels silly for complaining about her back pain.

“What injuries did you have?” she asks.

I speak almost mechanically, as if it had happened to someone else. “The impact from falling from that height, along with the surface of the floor I landed on, destroyed a vertebral body in my Lumbar spine, which disintegrated into tiny pieces and exploded into my abdomen. When I got to the hospital, I was rushed immediately into emergency surgery for a posterior spinal stabilisation procedure. This means they inserted metal rods on either side of my spine to make sure that the rest of my spine didn’t collapse into the space that had been created.

“In the weeks that followed, I had an external fixture inserted into my femur, attached to an 8kg weight. Unknown to me at the time of the accident, my right foot had ruptured through the skin and had partially come out.

“The foot was cleaned and inserted back inside my body, stitched and bandaged.

“I had an anterior spinal surgery, where they inserted an artificial vertebra through the cavity in my right lung. My right pelvis was reassembled with metal rods and screws. My pubic bone was reattached with another rod, which was later removed, and both my feet were reconstructed.”

As I speak, my mind travels back to the day of the accident. I remember falling, floating though the air, seeing a hand try and grab me, missing it, and feeling everything crush as I landed.

Rolling to my side in a foetal position, I had held my chest with both hands and listened to the beating of my heart. It was the only sound not silenced by shock. It was the only thing that kept me conscious.

Everything seemed to blur. I remember hearing a lot of commotion and people panicking. I felt like I was going to pass out. So I just focused on me and my breathing, and my beating heart. I lay like that for 45 minutes, broken and bleeding, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

I am jolted back to the present when the woman at the ball speaks to me with tears in her eyes, saying, “You’re so brave.”

“I’m not brave,” I reply. “I was very stupid for doing this to myself. But you never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.”

Truth be told if I were to ever have the gift of being able to change something in my life, I would, without a second thought, immediately erase all of the events leading up to that moment when I decided to climb that wall and fell. And that’s not brave at all. This experience has been the war of my life. And now I’m a coward in retreat.

“Are you in pain?” the woman asks. “No not at all,” I reply.

“Sometimes uncomfortable?”

“Sometimes awkward,” I admit. “After being completely immobile in a hospital bed for six weeks, and after that a wheelchair for two more months, I’m still teaching my body how to move, how to walk…”
 I see her eyes light up. She asks me, “How are you doing that?”

The recovery

I explain to her that in the initial weeks after the accident, I thought I was going to be paralysed and that I would never walk again. My right foot was completely numb. I couldn’t feel it and I couldn’t move my right leg. I knew what that meant and so I was flooded with fear. I rode the wave of conventional medicine. I let them pump me full of medication, drugs, painkillers, blood thinners, blood transfusions, antibiotics, anaesthesia meds and morphine every hour for six long weeks. I watched myself slowly get thinner until, by the day I left hospital, I weighed just 48kg. I could barely lift my arms. I couldn’t read words. 
I couldn’t concentrate enough to watch a movie. I peed myself and had no knowledge until my legs felt wet beneath the sheets. My stomach ached from all the medication… it was bloated and sore and distended.
I cried. I wanted to give up because enduring it all was too hard, too painful. Every part of my body was in agony. Shooting electricity, stabbing me until every tear came out of me – until I was so delirious from pain that I couldn’t breathe.

When I left hospital, I decided to do everything in my power to make myself better, without pain medication and without doctors. I was determined to give everything a try. I knew that I had chosen this life. I chose to climb that wall, and I chose to continue...
I chose my fate and now I had to find a way out of it.

As the woman and I walk down to our seating area at the ball, I know that I have just helped someone find a solution for her own pain... even if it is just the courage to continue.

This whole story comes down to this: If I can get better, so can anyone else. The doctors tell me that I should be very grateful – that normally people with only one of the injuries I sustained never walk again. And that things will not ever be the same but that I will walk unaided, and that in itself is amazing.

I look back on it now and I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know how I had the strength to endure it all. The truth is, I’m not 100 per cent there yet. I still crawl on the floor but I’m not ashamed of it. I am still in discomfort and I can’t sleep on my right side. But when I think back to how it was when I left the hospital, I know the magic that’s happened inside me. What
I want to say to everyone out there is that, when you hit a tough time, know that you will get through it.

This experience has taught me that no human being is a singularity but we have strength when we are united in a community, family and friendship. These are the things that are important and meaningful.

I’m excited about starting a new year... Although this has been one of the hardest experiences of my life – and it is far from over – I feel revitalised by it. I am so lucky to not be paralysed. And because of that, I want to really live my life more than ever.

10 tips for healing yourself

Here are Caroline’s tips for finding the strength within to heal yourself physically, mentally and emotionally…

 

1 Listen to your body

“Make sure everything you decide is because it’s right for you. Sometimes we hand over our power to people of authority, like doctors and caregivers. Yes they are extremely knowledgeable, but you need to do what’s right for you. There were many times doctors tried to persuade me to have more surgery, but I urged them to find another way. Because
I asked, they found one.”

 

2 Nourish your body

“The first few weeks out of hospital I drank a litre of organic vegetable juice every day. My family and friends made me vegetable soups, roasted vegetables and raw salads for every meal. If your body is recovering, go for home-cooked, organic, wholesome fresh food.”

 

3 Vitamin C therapy

“Vitamin C is an extremely potent healing vitamin. At the Dubai Herbal and Treatment Centre (DHTC), you can have an
IV drip of vitamin C.”

 

4 Ozone therapy


“It helps to bring more oxygen into your blood system, which helps to speed up healing. Also available from DHTC.”

 

5 Exercise


“For me this is the most important aspect of my healing journey. When I left the hospital, I couldn’t walk and was in constant pain. I started with hydrotherapy and swimming every day for an hour. Now I do Pilates for 45 minutes every day. It’s kept me pain free and is the reason I am walking. For anyone with any type of injury, make sure you mobilise the area when it’s ready and then start some strength training. The stronger your muscles get, the more they support the skeletal structure and diminish pain.”

 

6 Lean on people


“You will not get through hardship without help and support from others. My husband and my friends and family still look after me to this day, and I will always cherish them for that.

 

7 Sleep a lot


“My family set up a hospital bed for me in our living room. At first, I slept 22 hours a day. The following month it was 18 hours a day. And then 14 hours. When I was sleeping, my body was fixing itself. I would wake up each morning being able to do something I couldn’t do the day before. Now I sleep eight hours a day, but I still feel progress.”

 

8 Detoxing


“Our bodies will not function optimally if they are undernourished and toxic. There are many ways to detox, from coffee enemas to colonic hydrotherapy.”

 

9 Count your blessings

“Keep your mind on the milestones you have achieved and focus on setting yourself realistic goals that keep you motivated and moving in the right direction.”

 

10 Love and time


“It sounds silly as these are the most intangible concepts of human existence, but if you give yourself a little love and enough time, all wounds heal.”

Louisa Wilkins

By Louisa Wilkins

Editor