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Real Life

REAL LIFE: How I danced at my wedding after a devastating accident left me quadriplegic

It was a dance we'll never forget.

By Mitchell Jordan

Daniel Hillyer, 33, Coledale NSW, shares his courageous story

I stared at the piece of paper and blinked my eyes twice.
At 22 years old, I was in hospital unable to walk, talk or even breathe on my own.
To communicate, I had to double-blink at each letter on the page to spell out what I wanted to say.
It was a big change from my active life as a chef, but I couldn't control what had happened to me.
On May 21, 2010, I'd been leaning against a balcony rail which gave way suddenly.
I fell four and a half metres and was rushed to hospital, needing two separate surgeries on my spine, and had remained there since.
Hearing the word "quadriplegic" was a lot to take in, but my girlfriend, Maryanne, was insistent that all was not lost.
"You're going to get out," she vowed. We'd been together for three years and she was with me each day in hospital.
To be honest, there were times when I thought my future was over – life as
I knew it had gone forever… what was I going to do now?
Barney's been great company for me. (Image: Supplied)
But once I started rehab, my mind was made up. I'm getting out of here, I promised myself.
For an hour a day, five days a week, I attended the hospital gym. It didn't feel like enough as I was still extremely weak and wanted to build up greater strength.
Still, I persevered and after 10 months I was able to return home.
My parents had a garage which they'd converted into a granny flat that was made wheelchair-accessible for me.
Having an assistance dog, Barney the labrador, was a great help; his company brought me both strength and comfort in dark times.
Using a RoboFit exoskeleton. (Image: Supplied)
But a real milestone was one year after the accident when I managed to finally speak again.
"I love you," I said to Maryanne.
"I love you, too," she replied, smiling and teary.
I understood a lot of people wouldn't have stuck with their partners in such challenging circumstances, but her love and support for me had never wavered.
One day, she made a discovery.
"I've found something you should try," she said.
She'd come across Cyberdyne, a Japanese company that makes exoskeletons which would encase my body, allowing me to walk and stand safely for short periods of time.
Three years after my accident, Maryanne and I flew to Japan, and for three weeks I was put through daily workouts using the exoskeletons.
Each day I was physically exhausted, but by the end I could move three times more than I'd been able to on my first day there.
Both my lower and upper limb movement and strength improved significantly, as did my posture, balance and endurance.
Back home we could cut down on the number of carers I needed, which gave me a confidence boost.
Maryanne and me at our RoboFit gym. (Image: Supplied)
At last, I was gaining more control of my life.
"Other people need this, too," I said to Maryanne, who agreed that Australians shouldn't have to travel all the way to Japan to get the help I'd had.
So we launched RobotFit, a company that provides access to the exoskeletons locally, and began working with many others like me.
Life was looking so good that I proposed to Maryanne, who said yes in a heartbeat.
I was also planning a big surprise. In private, I began to practise my movement in the hope that we could stand together for our first dance as husband and wife.
And, when we married in Byron Bay in 2017, that's exactly what I did.
Standing tall, I took everyone by surprise as I held Maryanne's hand and we danced to Better Together by Jack Johnson.
Listening to the lyrics – It's always better when we're together – I knew the song couldn't have been more perfect for us. How would I have made it this far without Maryanne by my side?
"You're beautiful… I can't wait to spend the rest of our lives together," I whispered into her ear.
On our wedding day I surprised everyone by standing. (Image: Carly Tia Photography)
And, over four years later, our love is still as strong.
It's my dream to be a dad one day, and while we haven't been successful yet, I'm sure it will happen.
These days, I can drive a car, I have a wheelchair that can be used at the beach and have applied to the NDIS for an off-road pushbike that will allow me to ride with family and friends.
I'm also back in the kitchen, creating the seafood and pasta dishes I was known for as a chef.
Looking back on the accident, I'm not sure I'd change anything if I could.
Becoming a quadriplegic has made me a better person – I've taken on all sorts of challenges, and become more patient and kind.
None of it would have been possible without my wife.

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