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Melbourne Quadriplegic Rhiannon Tracey walks again despite the odds and opens ‘The Next Step’ a community that utilises the most modern techniques for those with Spinal Cord Injury

At the age of 20, two months before her 21st birthday Rhiannon Tracey was on holiday in Bali with her mum and best friend for a vacation during September 2009. Rhiannon decided to take a swim in the resort swimming pool. The pool was supposed to be deep but little did she know that only the centre of the pool was deep and the sides were shallow. As Rhiannon dove into the pool she instantly hit her head breaking both her back and neck, “I was conscious throughout the incident as I lie face down in the water, it felt like ages before my friend jumped in to help me. I remember thinking that I couldn’t feel anything but never imagined the extent to which I had injured myself. I was telling my friend that I couldn’t move, but I could feel her touching my skin.”

“Once I was pulled out of the pool I was rushed via ambulance (white van) to the Bali International Medical Centre, the CT scan confirmed I had broken both my back and neck so my C5 Vertebrae to my T1 and the fragments were piercing into my spinal cord. The doctors advised my mother I needed emergency surgery; there was no time to fly home to Australia as I would be risking having my spinal cord completely severed. My mother was screaming, and her screams I still remember today. Mum managed to compose herself and said we have to do this and had me transferred to the Denpasar Hospital which is Bali’s major trauma hospital.”

“As I was waiting for my surgery Bali had one of their largest earthquakes with a magnitude of 7.6, the hospital was now falling down around us and my surgery was delayed for 24 hours. Eventually, I had the surgery and after 3 weeks in the hospital, my travel Insurer organised for a doctor and a nurse to fly me back home. If it wasn’t for my travel Insurance I don’t believe I’d be alive today.”

By the time the medical team arrived to take Rhiannon home she was barely breathing, both her lungs had collapsed and blood clots had developed in both legs. “The surgery had been performed with collapsed lungs and the Australian Medical team said I had to get out of the country immediately.”

“As they were stabilising me to come home I received an injection which caused an anaphylactic reaction so I could no longer be put into an induced coma to come home. I was ventilated and hooked up to every piece of equipment you could imagine, I had been exposed to so many bugs while in hospital.”

Once Rhiannon arrived back to Melbourne she was taken to the ‘Austin’ hospital, Victoria’s leading spinal cord service, providing acute management in spinal cord rehabilitation.

Initially, no one knew the extent of Rhiannon’s injuries and she was put into an induced coma in Intensive Care, and placed into an isolation room. Her mother was told if she survived the first 24 hours it would be a miracle.
Rhiannon incurred two more surgeries due to the botch job that had been done in Bali and a few days later was woken from the induced coma and then spent the next 7 and a half months in hospital.

“I asked the question over and over again, ‘will I walk again?’ it’s all I wanted to know.” In Bali they are so spiritual, they would never give a definitive answer, however in Australia they are brutally honest, I was told I’d be lucky to ever get out of bed again and if I did, it would be in an electric wheelchair.”

The resort in Bali had no public liability insurance so the accident could not be covered, therefore resulting in the family fundraising to pay for much-needed surgeries, rehabilitation and care. “Just this year (2019), I’ve been placed on the National Disability Insurance Scheme.”

“It’s a multi-million dollar injury, costing almost $3 every time I need to go to the toilet.”

Rhiannon’s rehabilitation journey – recovery and empowering the mind!
Rhiannon at the age of only 20 still had dreams and aspirations and things she wanted to do. Prior to the accident Rhiannon was studying and working in veterinary nursing. In 2009 she bought her dream car a Toyota Rav 4 with a sunroof of course.

“I was told I would never drive again, and everything I was told I’d never do again my mother would say I would, and would prove them wrong. My mother was my rock from Day 1.”

Rhiannon’s mum decided to sell her own car and keep Rhiannon’s car willing her on to one day drive it again. The Austin rehab served its purpose which was to get her well and get her out of there! Three and a half months after the accident Rhiannon could feel her small toe moving but no one listened and she was told it was an involuntary muscle moving. “For me the fact that my small toe was moving, the furthest thing away from my brain, meant that there was some kind of connection.”

Rhiannon knew that her intuition was correct here, there was some movement which meant there was room to move and this gave her the mental determination to fight.

Today, Rhiannon is walking with the help of crutches and can take some small steps. Rhiannon’s left side is relatively normal and the right side still remains partially paralysed. “My biggest frustration was that no one would ever touch my legs, they would focus on building arm strength but never go near my legs.” Rhiannon knew that she needed to build arm strength to push her wheelchair but still she was frustrated that the legs were never touched, she wanted to walk and walk she would.

“Being able to walk is only part of life and I was starting to do things again, I started horse riding and I needed to be around animals to help heal me.” “If I fall off the horse that’s a lot of bad luck, I mean if I fall off I’m already a quadriplegic what else can go wrong!”

Rhiannon travels for treatment to a Rehabilitation Facility in San Diego
After googling and researching nonstop ways to improve and reach her dream to walk again, Rhiannon travels to San Diego for rehabilitation that specialises in spinal cord injuries, using exercise physiologists that work different parts of the body including the legs. “I was treated as a human being again and met many Australians over there also having treatment. The best thing was we were taken out into the community and the environment was just invigorating. Everyone one was there because they wanted to get better, it was bright and it was bubbly.”
The support at the facility in San Diego shifted Rhiannon’s mindset and she wanted to bring their techniques home to Australia……..

Rhiannon opens her own clinic in Melbourne after reaching out to the Herald Sun, calling it – ‘The Next Step’
Rhiannon reaches out to the media and tells her story to Melbourne’s Herald Sun, hundreds of families get in touch with her wanting to help her cause so an event is held at ‘The Skinny Dog’ in Kew in 2011. A not for profit organisation is set up and a decision is made to call it ‘THE NEXT STEP’, because the facility she wanted to create was, the next step!

The Next Step is located in Epping and is run by Rhiannon herself and has just celebrated its 5th birthday.
“Typically an injured person’s first interaction with medical care is through the hospital system, whose primary focus is to stabilise and secure the safety of the individual. This system alone is unable to provide those with SCI and other neurological disorders the intensive therapy they require for a long term quality of life and an independent lifestyle. The Next Step offers those with SCI and other neurological conditions the expertise, therapy and long term physical and psychological support that enables them to achieve the best possible recovery outcomes.”

Rhiannon has since visited Bali, the resort where the accident occurred and the hospital. She has closed this chapter in her life. Rhiannon now focuses on growing the facility and has recently introduced a wellness centre. “I’ve also become a life coach and motivational speaker. I’m also modelling in the fashion industry for diversity and to inspire others; I want to open people’s eyes when it comes to accommodating for people with physical disabilities”.
Rhiannon enjoys going to events like the rest of us and wants you all to know life doesn’t stop because you have an injury.

“I’m just the same as everybody else!”

For Further information on Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

Written by Melinda Sullivan

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