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Gemma is 27 and from County Carlow in Ireland, which is about an hour and a half from Dublin, on what she describes as ‘the sunny South East of Ireland!’ She lives on a farm with her parents surrounded by pets and animals, but thankfully the WiFi is strong and Gemma has been able to regularly attend the live online exercise classes from WheelPower.
Gemma also took part in the Inter Spinal Unit Games at Stoke Mandeville Stadium in 2017 which really opened her eyes to sport and physical activity opportunities. Being active is really important to Gemma and it really helped her through her rehabilitation following a terrible accident.
On the 5th Aug 2015 Gemma and her mum were driving home from the hospital when they were involved in a head on collision. Gemma was taken to a small local hospital and placed in an induced coma whilst she waited for a bed at the trauma centre.
“I had 14 operations and I had broken my spinal cord at L4 just above my coccyx. I am also an amputee and have an acquired brain injury. Unfortunately it was the seatbelt that did a lot of my damage because it dug into my tummy. I had burst the artery to my leg, and also burst my bowel, so I now have an ileostomy. I actually have a list on my phone with all my injuries as I always forget something!”
During this time her family were always by her side … “My family got told numerous times to say goodbye. They were told it was a severe brain injury yet now it’s not noticeable in my everyday life. Spinal fluid had leaked into my brain which caused a lot of swelling and I had to be transferred to another hospital to have a shunt fitted from my brain to my heart. My dad used to try and trick me with the names of our pets to see how bad it was but we were never noticing anything.”
“My first operation was on my bowel. I am an amputee below my right knee and on my left leg I wear a splint because I’m missing my left toes. I broke my skull and I have a skin graft around my eye. On one day they were actually doing my eye operation and toe operation at the same time!”
Gemma spent the next 9 months at the Mater Hospital and doesn’t remember much of that time. She recalls her first memory following the accident, almost 12 weeks later: “My first memory was the 31st October because I remember that I was watching hocus pocus!
“I didn’t realise my leg was gone and I was having such bad phantom pain that I thought it was there. I remember there was a boy in the room opposite me and I remember saying to my parents that I wished I was like the boy across the room because he has both legs, but was paralysed from the neck down. And they said why? You can move? You have your arms? I was just 21 and losing my leg really was the biggest thing for me at the time.”
“That Christmas I still wasn’t feeling myself. We were only getting small movements back and I remember people wrapped my presents really loosely so I could open them.”
After her time in hospital Gemma was transferred to NRH (National Rehabilitation Hospital, Dublin) where she spent a further 7 months. Initially she was transferred to the brain injury unit and aged just 22 she found herself surrounded by older people who had had strokes.
As she explains, “I had my full mind, I could talk and do a lot of things and they were waiting to transfer me down to the spinal unit. When it eventually happened I actually cried, I was told they were going to work me hard and I was terrified, but in hindsight it was the biggest turning point in my recovery.”
“When I first went there everything was so new to me and I was so much in shock, I didn’t really want to talk to anybody.” But as Gemma settled into the unit life she began to get in to the routine of it and the physio which took place daily. She also visited the gym every day and she was learning vital wheelchair skills to help her in future life. The unit also provided opportunities to play wheelchair sports such as table tennis and basketball, and Gemma loved to swim in the local pool which set her up wonderfully for her upcoming trip to England!
Inter Spinal Unit Games 2017
Following her time at the NRH Gemma was chosen to represent Dublin at the Inter Spinal Unit Games. This involved traveling to the Birthplace of the Paralympics, Stoke Mandeville Stadium which was an amazing opportunity for Gemma.
“It was my first flight and I had only left rehab the December before. There were seven of us and 4 staff and it was really good because you were flying with people who knew how to deal with disability. I felt safe and it was a bit like going on a school trip!”
“We were blown away by Stoke Mandeville. The facilities were amazing and we couldn’t get over it! Staying in the lodge was fun, and the social side with the ‘English people’ was great. They were so much more advanced than us! They seemed to have super cool fancy chairs, could do wheelies, and quite a few of us now have RGK chairs after seeing them at the games! It was cool to talk to people and see how they found their injuries with a different rehab/healthcare experience.”
During Gemma’s week at Stoke Mandeville Stadium she got to try lots of different sports, which she thoroughly enjoyed.
“To experience all these amazing sports and open my eyes to what is out there was amazing. It was my first time trying lots of the sports and I think I tried all of them! I think my favourite was hand cycling, archery and the rugby. Later in the week I competed in air rifle shooting, table tennis, archery and swimming. I was the only one from our team who did the swimming as others in my team weren’t confident and didn’t swim at the unit like I did.”
Whilst at the Inter Spinal Unit Games Gemma took lots of pictures and returned home with so many happy memories. As she explains though, it has been tough to find wheelchair sporting opportunities in Ireland, “Ireland is so small and in the county I’m from there isn’t much really sport wise. I would need to travel to Dublin where the Irish Wheelchair Association do a bit more. I would love to do archery again and hope to find a club soon.”
Online Exercise Classes
So, move forward 3/4 years and with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic disabled people like Gemma were looking for new ways to stay active from their own homes. After attending the ISUG Gemma was following WheelPower on social media and after reading about the online classes she signed herself up for her first class in October 2020.
“I joined Nina’s yoga class first and then I started Ella’s in January, and I’ve only started Ben’s in the past 3 months but it’s been great too. I used to go the gym 1 day a week so these classes were really important especially when the gyms were closed. Taking part in the classes was something to do, they kept me busy and kept me moving. I decided over time to up it, with all my ‘English Friends’ and I am now doing a class every day of the week! I have it all saved in my calendar, but I have the weekend off!!
“No one in Ireland is doing this and it’s such a friendly community. We all motivate each other and when you can see others doing it, it helps to motivate you too. Some people I see 4 times a week, which is so nice, and even when I had a little break the instructors remembered me and welcomed me back which was lovely.”
Gemma continues to attend the classes every week and they have become an important part of her weekly exercise routine. Gemma also received a set of resistance bands from the charity that she is able to use in the classes, and during her other workouts across the week.
“I am working out so much now and more than I was before Covid and that is thanks to WheelPower. I have been doing it now for so long and I love it. I feel less tired after the workout and I now need to use heavier weights! Please tell everyone at WheelPower thank you. It’s been so great socially and physically.”
Gemma is incredibly positive, always keeping herself busy and she continues to support others as much as possible, sharing her own story and giving back to the organisations that helped her during her recovery.
“I’m the ambassador for The Mater Foundation, the only trauma hospital in the South of Ireland and I’m also the patient representative on the Trauma Care Committee. Through my fundraising I was able to raise enough money to buy two ECMO respiration machines which are currently being used for Covid patients in Ireland. It is amazing to think that they are saving lives.”
Gemma is also a peer mentor with Spinal Injuries Ireland and does lots of public speaking at schools and conferences. “I spoke in front of 1000 people at a mental health conference recently and I try to share my story and how positive I am about it all. I’ve been on the radio, been in the national newspapers and on TV!”
Looking ahead Gemma now hopes to inspire others, continue to remain as active as possible and spread her positive message. She also has big plans for her home, “I’m 27 now and I need my independence. My plan is to build my own fully accessible house and kitchen, which is what I’m most excited about. I love cooking and used to be a pastry chef, and would love to go on the Bake Off! I’ve made wedding cakes and enjoy doing bits at home so who knows what the future holds!”
Thank you Gemma for sharing your story with us. We are delighted that you discovered the WheelPower resources and that they have helped you to stay active during these very challenging times.