Liv­ing af­ter a life-al­ter­ing ac­ci­dent

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS -

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

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