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Real Life

Real life: “When I woke up paralysed, I thought my life was over - but look at me now!”

When mum-of-one Sarah-Jane suffered a haemorrhage on her spinal cord, she thought her daredevil days were behind her. But they were only just beginning...

Sarah-Jane Staszak, 43, shares trues life story:

Leaning back into nothingness is always a leap of faith.
That moment you clutch the rope, fall back into your harness and push off from the cliff face takes guts, but I lived for it.
Leaping down the cliff face, with luscious greenery below me, I felt so alive.
“This is the life, hey?” I yelled to my colleague, who was abseiling beside me.
For as long as I could remember, I’d been in my element in the great outdoors.
As a kid, I could never sit still. I played netball, tennis and basketball and went horse riding and snorkelling.
By 15, I’d learned to ski and four years later, I tried abseiling.
I fell in love with it so much that I became an instructor, so I could do it every day.
There was nothing more exhilarating than descending into canyons and exploring the creeks and bushland below.
With my partner, Michael, I cycled through South and North America and Australia and later, became an outdoor recreation teacher.
Even when I fell pregnant at 35, there was no slowing me down.
I kept abseiling right up until seven months.
But the day my son, Hamish was born was by far my greatest achievement.
“I never knew I could feel so much love’, I told Michael.
Watching him wriggling around in his cot, I knew he’d inherited my boundless energy.
As expected, he grew to love the outdoors too.
He got his first pair of skis at just two and I took him abseiling a year later.
He didn’t show any fear as we descended from a 100m cliff together.
“Again, Mummy?” he grinned.
Sarah-Jane and Hamish in Kashmir Himalaya in 2013.
But a few months later, I started getting shooting pains down my neck, shoulders and left arm.
I’d been carrying a heavy bag of ropes, so I figured I must’ve done some damage then.
I hoped it would disappear on its own but it got worse.
A doctor thought it was a bulging disc and prescribed me strong pain medication but it didn’t ease the burning.
It got so bad I had to stop work.
Sitting at home became torturous – I was so used to living an active life that I was becoming a shell of myself.
When I felt like I couldn’t be a proper mum to Hamish, I knew I had to take action.
“What are my options?” I asked a specialist.
He concluded I had a herniated disc in my back.
He recommended a laminectomy – a standard procedure that would enlarge the spinal cord and nerves in my back.
He said risks were minimal and I was excited about finally getting my life back.
“I can’t wait to move again!” I told my friend Rachael.
Sadly, around that time Michael and I separated.
Hamish stayed with him while I went to Sydney for the surgery.
“Mummy will be all better soon”, I promised him.
I woke up from the operation feeling groggy.
“The surgery went well” a registrar smiled.
Instinctively, I tried to hoist myself up in the bed but my arms were completely numb. I couldn’t budge.
Sarah-Jane rock climbing in Yosemite National Park.
“Why can’t I move” I cried.
At first, doctors thought the anaesthetic hadn’t worn off.
“Wriggle your toes for me”, a specialist said.
But I couldn’t.
Terrified, I started to panic. I was whisked off for an emergency MRI.
The following week was a blur of doctors, test and visitors.
At some stage I was told I have suffered a huge haemorrhage on my spinal cord.
“You’re paralysed from the chest down and we don’t know if it’s permanent” a doctor said.
I spent days crying, suffering panic attacks and not sleeping. Endless questions circled my mind.
Would I be a quadriplegic forever? How would I care for Hamish? Would I abseil again?
Doctors had no answers as to how a standard surgery had gone so horribly wrong.
I was in denial at first. I just couldn’t accept that I wouldn’t be able to feel or move my limbs anymore.
It felt like all my passions had been stolen from me.
A few weeks later Hamish, then four, came to see me.
I’d missed him so much. He just hopped up onto my bed, smiling brightly as always.
“Will you walk again, Mummy?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to answer him. Nobody knew.
“I hope so” I said.
I knew I had to be strong for him.
After seven weeks, I started rehabilitation and slowly regained some movement in my arms.
It was physically gruelling but I knew my mental strength was most important.
I learnt to adjust to life in a wheelchair and Michael built ramps at my house to prepare for my return home.
Hamish was oblivious to the seriousness of it all, which was actually refreshing.
“Can we go for a ride?” he often asked, climbing up onto my lap and we’d whizz around in my wheelchair.
Hamish is my motivation.
After seven months of intense rehab, I got to go home.
My friends, family and carers were wonderful.
They visited every day to help look after Hamish and with housework.
But I missed my old, active life so much.
I knew I had to do everything to get it back, both for me and Hamish.
So I got involved with Disabled Sports Australia and learnt to hit the slopes again, using a special sit-ski.
Hamish was stoked, gliding beside me.
“What can we do next?” he said, smiling.
I wanted to experience as much with him as possible.
I started wheeling him to school.
He loved sitting up on my lap for 1.5km ride.
On weekends we’d go to the beach or go bird watching in the bush.
Hamish was my motivation.
One day, a lady named Karen from The heART Project contacted me.
She was a digital photographic artist who’d read about me.
“I want to take your picture to inspire others” she said, explaining that the group’s aim is to improve people’s lives through photography.
That wasn’t all.
She wanted to capture me in a state I was most comfortable – abseiling in the Blue Mountains with Hamish!
“But how will we do it?” he asked when I told him.
“We’ll find a way” I said.
Sarah-Jane with photographers Karen and Benjamin.Photo credit: Benjamin Von Wong, Karen Alsop, Courtney Holmes at www.storyart.com.au
I hadn’t abseiled since becoming paralysed, but I knew it was possible.
The weekend of the photo shoot wasn’t without its challenges.
I used a special wheelchair, and the crew helped push me up the terrain, and at the cliff top ropes were rigged to threes and then to my standard wheelchair to allow me to dangle beside Hamish, who was bursting with excitement.
I was lowered down in my chair and watched as Hamish leapt off the rock beside me, grinning from ear to ear.
It felt like we’d come home, back to our special place.
Afterwards, Hamish looked at me adoringly.
“I’m proud of you, Mum” he beamed.
When I saw the photos, I was amazed at how well they captured our positive spirit.
They were published on some online news sites and they received great feedback too.
Now, I’m fundraising for more wheelchair accessibility throughout the Blue Mountains and will continue experiencing as much with Hamish as I can.
He has been my rock over this journey and gives me strength to challenge myself.
Together, anything’s possible.

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