Words by Julie - Living Life With Paralysis

First Speech 3

I have had several request from people who were not able to attend last night’s Gala to share my speech. It was an amazing evening with $32,000 plus dollars raised for the sports fields and track at Madill. 
We got to dress up…
I spoke to more than 300 people (using my hands, of course).

And shared the stage with these two amazing guys.

And here is what I had to say – more or less. I did not have it memorized, but that turned out okay in the end – what an amazing community we have!

I would like to thank David and Dave for being here tonight. They give have given us different yet very important perspectives – David Greig having worked with so many amazing athletes and giving me such hope just after coming home from Parkwood. Dave Willse – I’ll tell you about how I first met him. I was at Parkwood, up in my room, and one of the nurses came in to say that I had a visitor. I had not been expecting anyone, so this was a surprize. Dave introduced himself to me and said “I was the famous Julie”. I had no idea who he was, which was ironic, because after our amazing visit (we talked about everything) and I looked him up and realized that he was famous!

Nine months ago (yesterday) I was out on a training ride from my house in Blyth to Goderich and back, a total of 60km. At 9am on the home stretch on county road 25 I was hit by a car from behind. There were no cars in the on-coming traffic lane, the weather and visibility were both excellent. The driver claims to not have seen me. I have been told that the driver stopped and prevented me from trying to get up. I remember him saying to me “Oh my God, I am so sorry, I didn’t see you”. That is the only thing that I really remember; thank goodness the human brain has the ability to block out traumatic events. My injuries were: torn trachea, fractured occipital lobe, shattered nose, two broken front teeth, lacerations to my forehead and chin, several broken ribs and two fractured vertebrae. The burst of my T4 vertebrae sent a bone fragment into my spinal cord and this caused paralysis. I was airlifted to Victoria Hospital in London where surgeons removed the bone fragment and put my vertebrae back together with plates and screws. There was nothing they could do to repair the damage to the spinal cord.

This leads me to an analogy – any of my former students would tell you that I love to teach with a story. In late June 2014, on my way to school, I came across a snapping turtle just on the edge of the bridge south of town. Once I safely pulled over I saw that she was badly injured, but still alive. I moved her off the road and went up to school to call my friend Jory – the herpetologist – who said she would come. Evan Skinn and I went back to get pick her up – she was so big she filled the blue box from my classroom. When Jory examined her, she showed no response to pain in her hind legs – she was paralyzed. Jory also showed us that she had eggs that were ready to be laid. That was what she was doing on the road – trying to find suitable nesting site for her eggs. The mother turtle couldn’t be saved, but Jory extracted the eggs and put them in her turtle egg incubator. That fall, 22 hatchings, the cutest baby snappers, were released to the Mighty Maitland by my grade 9 science class. Best teaching day, ever.

You may see the connection? Fast forward one year and I am the one hit by a car, paralyzed just like that turtle. I am sure that the driver who hit that turtle did so by accident, just like I am sure that my accident was unintentional. Of course there are a lot of differences too – like the fact that I survived thanks to science and medicine. That mother turtle left a legacy of 22 hatchings – and I hope to leave a legacy, but of a different kind. One of awareness. I have learned a lot in these past nine months. And tonight I would like to share those learnings with you.

After the accident – right away – the cycling community (of which I had only just started to be a part of) rose up. Many of my fellow triathletes got on their bikes and took to the county roads. But they wanted to do more, so they created the bumper sticker that you now have. Share the road is not new, it is a movement all across Canada started by the wife of an OPP officer who was killed while riding his bike. The Provincial government has helped by instituting new regulations that require drivers to give a one meter distance when passing a cyclist (if possible). This is a start, but it is still not enough.

One of my future plans is to build a simulator that allows a person on a bike to be passed by a car or truck that is going 100 kph so they can feel the rush of wind and the moment of terror as that vehicle flies by. It will be an education tool not for cyclists, but for drivers. Most people on the road do not know what it feels like to be on a bike with super skinny tires and be passed by a vehicle moving that fast. You can’t move over on to the gravel – the bike tires will be caught in the gravel and the speed of the bike will result in injury. In Huron County we need to share the road and not just with bikes. There are horse and buggies, tractors, motorcycles, and pedestrians. And there are turtles.  We have to give them space to allow them to be safe.

It seems so cliche to say that life turns on a dime – when you least expect it. I remember earlier last July walking through the garden thinking how lucky I was to be in such an awesome place in my life – with my family, friends, community, my job and my new sport of triathlon. And then everything changed. So I’ll talk about the most obvious thing that has changed, and that is my body. My paralysis is from just below my shoulders. Every muscle below this point does not work on the command from my brain. My abdominal muscles do not keep my organs in place, my bowels and bladder only function with assistance and most obviously my legs don’t work.

The morning I was hit I was training for the Goderich triathlon.  The desire to do so had started a dozen years ago when I watched my sister-in-law Jane compete in this race. I was inspired. I wondered if I could get my post-baby body in shape enough to do that myself. So I started to train – eventually completing the 2014 Goderich triathlon finishing 3rd in my age group. My boasting about this has a point – I believe that being fit played a huge role in my recovery. My body was ready for the challenge. I was in critical care for only half what Drs had predicted.  And I have continued to impress my Drs and therapists with my return to health. So what can be learned from this? Be as fit and healthy as you can – life takes you around unexpected corners. Honour your body. You will thank yourself later.

Because my definition of fitness and workout has changed, something else I have started to give a lot of thought to are the importance of words. “Suffers from a spinal cord injury”, “confined to a wheelchair”, disabled, paraplegic. These are all words that have been used in reference to me since my accident. Why do we speak this way? I have a friend who has cancer for the second time – and we would never say that he is “cancered”. He has cancer.  I am not paralyzed. I have paralysis.  I am not confined to a wheelchair – I drive a car, sleep in a bed, swim in the pool – this chair with wheels is just my legs, that is all. If anything it provides me with freedom.

We need to put the person first, not the disability. The same goes for all our problems – everyone has shit that they are dealing with. Divorce, cancer, mental illness, poverty, everyone has their struggles. If there is one thing I have learned in these past nine months is that we need to be more compassionate toward each other. We need to look after each other. My issues are obvious – it is impossible for you to not notice that I have a physical disability, but most people have invisible issues. We must choose to be empathetic – recognize the feelings and the needs of another person. I am not disabled – I have a physical disability. I am still the same person that I used to be, but now I use a wheelchair.

Which of course, brings up the topic of accessibility. No one gives a lot of thought to accessibility until they, or someone close to them, needs it. Accessibility really means – that all people no matter of their need, can get anywhere with independance. One discussion I had recently made me realize that sometimes those needs can be in conflict with one another. Take for example a sidewalk. In order for me to cross a street I need the sidewalk to slope down to the street at a manageable angle. Someone who has a visual impairment needs that sidewalk to come to an end so they can feel where the street begins.
So we have solutions for that – just like here in Wingham where the construction on the main street allowed for the orange rumple strips at crossings to be installed  – they work for everyone. Of course there are countless examples in town that are the opposite of accessible, but that is why we are here tonight. To improve accessibility everywhere, starting with the track and fields. That is what we need to keep working toward – access for everyone. Ever since I got into a wheelchair I wanted to start handing out letters of complaints to non-accessible locations. I may still do this, maybe I will write a townwide report card…but in the meantime, I am sure to thank those who have made an effort to ensure that access to everyone is possible. True accessibility means independence. That should be our goal, as a community.

And what a wonderful community we have. My family has been totally overwhelmed by the support we have received from the people we know and the people we don’t know. In the 16 years we have lived here I seem to have developed more connections around Huron County than I realized. The letters, cards and emails of support. Food, transportation, offers of lodging in London, financial donations, offers to help build or renovate. Even enough aeroplan miles for the four of us to go on a vacation. Spiritual support. Letters from strangers and from people whom I only met once. And of course I have to thank the people who have been helping with my continued recovery – what a gold mine we have in our caregivers. My Doctor and everyone at Glassier’s Physiotherapy – Bill and Mark see me at this wondrous 3d puzzle that needs to be solved – I love the encouragement and humour that they give me with every visit. We have a tremendous community, think about what part you play, how you can be more involved, what could you do to help someone or something get better. Because community gives back – especially when you need it most.

Many of the people who have been in touch with me during my recovery have told me that I am “so inspiring”. For a while I had trouble coming to terms with what that meant. I don’t really think that I am, I’m just doing what needed to be done to try and get my life back. I think that any of you would do the same. Keep going. What is the alternative anyway? Not get out of bed in the morning? That is NOT an option for me. I have a family – two wonderful children and the most caring and compassionate husband. I can’t give up on me because that would mean giving up on them. Not an option.

And as an educator? I take that role very seriously. Why kind of teacher would I be if I just gave up?  So I keep going. Sometimes it is not easy – the pain overwhelms me or the situation frustrates me so much that I just cry. But it passes and then I carry on. So if you find yourself inspired by me – I am glad, but I want you to mean it. Because inspiration to me means that you have been inspired to change. To do something differently in your life. I know this is happening because people are telling me. They have changed the way they pass cyclists, they look out for accessible parking and they are getting out of bed in the morning and running because they can.

So let me bring this all together. We are going to share the road, be more fit, support accessibility and give to our community, and learn the language that allows a person to be who they are first, not only what their disability is. I am so thankful for having been given this opportunity to speak to you tonight, to thank you as a community and to let you know that I plan on continuing to pay it forward.

Thank you!

The following is what I said (more or less) before I auctioned off two helmets for a total of $2100! Thanks Ben Lobb for the help – numbers never were my strong suit. 

Were it not for my helmet I likely would not be. I may not even be alive. If you read my blog you may recall a guy named Jake. We met at Parkwood, he was on the acquired brain injury side of 4A east. He fell off his bike while riding on the sidewalk. It was hard to talk to Jake because he could not remember a lot of the words that he was trying to say. He had not been wearing a helmet. I would for sure would not be speaking to you here tonight – even with my helmet on I experienced brain trauma – a concussion that took some time to recover from. So that is where I will finish for this evening. I have a new helmet here, one that I hope will never need to hit the pavement, but when it does it will be saving the words and the life for you or someone you love.
If you are moved to donate click here Building Bridges Madill to help. I would love to see the campaign raise enough money to build a rubberized track – accessible to all!


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