Body & Fitness

Balcony fall survivor AJ Pouoa: ‘How a night at a friend’s house left me paralysed’

It was a miracle exercise junkie AJ survived. "If I wasn't in the condition I was from all the training, I might've died," she tells.

Three years ago, Aucklander Aiga Pouoa had a sporting schedule packed to the brim. When she wasn’t driving forklifts at work, the exercise junkie was training for rugby games and going to the gym up to three times a day.

Spare moments were spent preparing for an upcoming boxing fight and a personal training course she was set to start – Aiga, known as AJ, was the epitome of active.

But in July 2016, during a night out at a friend’s apartment, a tragic accident left the 38-year-old paralysed.

“I fell seven metres from the balcony,” says AJ, a finalist for the Entrepreneur Award at this year’s Attitude Awards. “Everyone’s hearts stopped and they were freaking out because all they heard was a thud. I don’t remember why I leant over the rail. The next time I woke up I was in the ICU.”

Before AJ’s life changed forever, she was working in a warehouse and captaining Pt Chevalier’s women’s rugby league team.

“My job was going really well and I was getting pay rises and bonuses,” she recalls. “Before and after work I’d go to the gym and then do rugby training, and when nationals were coming up, I trained for that too.”

AJ loves creating training programmes to help other physically impaired people get into sport and exercise.

On a rainy day in July 2016, AJ was supposed to fly to Christchurch for her niece’s 21st birthday. But she couldn’t get out of work and had a rugby league social she’d set up. After some team bonding, she went to a friend’s place to wind down over a few quiet drinks. Sometime later she fell from the third-level balcony and onto a construction site.

“At the start no-one could get to me because the site was fenced off, but by the time the ambulance arrived the girls had moved a fence to reach me,” she says. “They’re all footy players and would’ve knocked it down one way or another!”

It was a miracle AJ survived and she tells, “If I wasn’t in the condition I was from all the training, I might’ve died”.

AJ suffered a cracked skull and brain haemorrhage. She also cracked a rib and punctured a lung, but worst of all, she broke her spine.

Over a week after arriving at Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital for emergency surgery, AJ still didn’t know she was paralysed. “No-one said I’d broken my spine and how severe the injuries actually were. When the doctors finally told me, I just cried. I didn’t know what to do.”

A far cry from her life as a forklift driver, AJ is thriving with her business Wheelie Active.

She worried about work and how life at home would be in a wheelchair. “When someone tells you you’ll never walk again after being active for so long, it’s devastating,” she confides.

Renovations were done to the bathroom of her rental property, and a ramp and lift were installed. When she returned home after four months in hospital, the reality of how difficult her new life was set in.

“Every morning when you try to get up, you think, ‘Aw yeah, that’s right, my legs don’t work,'” she tells. “There are days I think, ‘Stuff this, I’m over it’ and start missing my old life, when it was much more simple and I worked my stinky warehouse job and trained on the weekend.”

But she was determined to stick to her plan of attending Fit College NZ. AJ became the first person in a wheelchair to graduate from the course and was named student of the year.

“I was ecstatic,” she beams. “And on top of that they gave me a scholarship!”

Nominated for an Attitude Award, a modest AJ says she’s “just doing what I like doing.”

It was while studying that AJ came up with Wheelie Active – the name of her business, which helps people who are physically impaired with training and getting into competitive sports.

“After I graduated there was an opportunity for a trainer to take a strength and conditioning course at the spinal unit. I was able to write my own programmes and tailor them to people’s levels.”

AJ – who won the Pacific Health and Wellbeing Award last year – found her passion. “When you’re someone’s trainer, you’re also their counsellor,” she says. “It makes me happy people share that with me.”

Now she’s helping those with spinal cord injuries, cerebral palsy, brain injuries and cognitive impairments. Her efforts have led clients into sports including table tennis, basketball, wheelchair rugby, physically disabled rugby league and athletics.

AJ also works with at-risk youth and survivors of domestic violence, and in March this year she bought a small gym in Avondale, Auckland, where the doors are open to anyone.

Although she’s delighted to be a finalist in this year’s Attitude Awards – taking place on November 22 – AJ admits she was shocked. “My work wasn’t a big thing to me and

I didn’t expect anything out of it,” she says. “I was just doing what I like doing, training people.”

At the moment she’s one of the only people in New Zealand working as a personal trainer from a wheelchair.

“I like helping those who feel like they can’t help themselves,” AJ says. “When I struggle to get out the door I think, ‘Nah, people are waiting for me, I’ve got to go.’ Helping others gives me strength to get through.”

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