HOW IT FEELS TO HEAR YOU’LL NEVER WALK AGAIN
Living after a life-altering accident
Have you ever had your whole life change in an instant? A split second that you never saw coming — and after which everything changes for ever?’ asks Suzanne Edwards. ‘Well, that’s what happened to me.’ On 26 January 2011 at 8pm, on a surf- club roof terrace in Morocco, Suzanne, then 23, was looking out to sea, checking the surf, when the balcony railings she was leaning on suddenly gave way. When she toppled, she fell 20 feet, crashed through a roof on the level below and landed hard on a marble floor. (And no, there was no wild party. And she hadn’t been drinking.)
In that moment she fractured her spine in two places and seriously damaged her spinal cord. Today, paralysed from the waist down, she deftly manoeuvres out of her wheelchair to stretch out more comfortably on the sofa at her sister’s house in London, where we meet. It has been a long day, her first day back in physiotherapy after a recent operation on her back. Three times a week, Suzanne drives herself, in a specially adapted car, once for the 290km round trip from her own flat to her rehab gym, then twice to another location 210km away for still more physiotherapy boot camp.
Being paraplegic is not just about sitting in a wheelchair: it’s unremittingly hard work. ‘Now I am living my life on wheels instead of legs,’ says Suzanne, who has begun a blog, Sorry About Your Legs, describing her learning curve as a 20-something in a wheelchair who still wants to go out for cocktails with friends. She hasn’t finished grieving for the life she had before – but makes you laugh with her stories of arachnophobia for the disabled: ‘My legs swung out of bed and my feet did a massive jump. I thought, “My God, that’s amazing!” I’m that scared of spiders… Maybe they should look into that!’
Only just over two years ago, Suzanne was enjoying an extended gap year, skiing and surfing, unable to decide on a career despite her degree in business economics. ‘It sounds a bit of a cop-out,’ she says, ‘ but I paid for my trips myself. I’ve never been workshy.’ Mad about surfing since her teens, Suzanne arrived in Morocco on 2 January 2011 to join her friend Aaron, who was already working there as an instructor. Three weeks later she had her accident, and that carefree life was over. Aaron heard her scream as she fell. ‘I was lying in a pool of blood and he assumed the worst,’ she recalls. ‘He said I groaned, and then I said, “Do you think the railings broke because I’m fat?” And he thought, “Thank God, you’re still you.” Because that’s the kind of thing I’d say in any situation. I don’t remember much after that. The ambulance had no spinal boards or neck braces; the paramedics used Aaron’s jumper wrapped around my neck to keep it still and, because there were no stretchers, they had to move me on a sheet.’
Suzanne is the youngest of four girls. After the awfulness of Aaron’s 3am phone call, her family sprang into action, and her mother and sister Nicky flew out to Morocco. Two days later Suzanne was flown home; thankfully, she says, she had travel insurance, although her chances of pursuing compensation are ‘slim to nonexistent’. Five days after her fall, she had surgery to stabilise her spine.
There is no good way to tell a 23-year-old surfer that she won’t walk again. ‘I burst into tears,’ says Suzanne. ‘So did Mum. But we sort of knew it already. It wouldn’t have been so bad if they’d said, “Don’t give up. Your chances are slim but we’ll never say never.” When visitors went home at night, I’d just cry and cry. It was such a frightening prospect.’ She watched as other more fortunate patients came out of spinal shock and started wiggling their toes. But what frustrated her most was her perception that a low bar had been set for the rest of her life.
‘It was like, “There’s your wheelchair…” I was having physio for an hour a day and all they teach you is how to transfer in and out of it. They presume that you’ll just stay in that chair for 12 hours a day, but I knew that wasn’t going to be enough for me. That’s not the person I am.’ She discharged herself on 28 April, nine weeks after