Real Life

‘I’m a walking miracle.’

Lying in the spinal unit, paralysed from the chest down, Hannah Ellis would often squeeze her eyes shut and picture herself walking out of the doors one day. The young drama teacher from Auckland even knew which dress she would wear on that big day a floral one in bright colours. Even though doctors had told her the chances of walking again were virtually nil, Hannah (24) refused to give up hope. Three months after breaking her neck when diving into a swimming pool, the brave young woman put on the dress and took those first steps into the sunshine. “I was so petrified of falling, but I did it,” says Hannah, smiling as she remembers that day in April. “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry, but I couldn’t help it.

I was over the moon.” Hannah’s battle to walk began when she and her partner Ian Robinson were on their way from Auckland to New Plymouth for a holiday last December. At the time, their relationship was rocky and Hannah had become a party girl, more interested in going out than planning for the future. Stopping to visit family in Tauranga, Hannah decided to take a dip in the pool before they continued the long drive. “I dived head first into the pool and that was pretty much it,” she says. “I took the impact with my hands and flipped right over. Then I felt this weird sensation, like an electric shock going through my body, and I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I had no idea I had broken my neck.”

The next thing Hannah knew, she was in Tauranga hospital. “It wasn’t until they did x-rays and realised how bad the injury was that I said to Ian, ‘I think you should text my mum now.'” Hannah had fractured two bones in her neck and, even though she had some feeling, she couldn’t move her body from the chest downwards. “I could tell if someone was touching me, but I had no idea if it was sharp or blunt. I later found out that when my family asked if I would walk again, the surgeon said, ‘I wouldn’t put money on it.'” The seriousness of Hannah’s situation also hit Ian (38) at this time. “I don’t think Hannah or I ever believed she would be paralysed.

Up until that point, we were still talking about what we would do to celebrate New Year in New Plymouth!” After having surgery to graft bone from her leg onto the shattered neck bones, which were then pinned with a metal plate, Hannah was transferred to the Spinal Rehabilitation Unit in otara, Auckland. There she faced her toughest challenge yet – to walk again. “In my goal-setting session with the doctors, I said I wanted to walk out of the unit one day. I remember one doctor was like ‘Well, yeah, okay…’ and totally shrugged me off.

I was so upset, but I thought ‘I will walk out of here!'” Determined to prove the medical experts wrong, Hannah worked hard at physiotherapy and, within a few weeks of the accident, managed to regain some movement in her arms. But her legs were still paralysed – something she was determined to change. “oy friends had taken me for a walk and we were having such a good time, but I was just getting so frustrated,” says Hannah. “I got so fed up, and I thought, ‘I wish my leg would move’ and all of a sudden, it did! I nearly kicked my friend in the face. I burst into tears, I was so overwhelmed. Everyone was very emotional.

I rang up oum and Ian straight away to tell them.” That emotional phone call is a moment Ian will always remember. “From that moment on, we knew Han was going to be just fine,” he says. As well as Ian, Hannah’s mum Rosemary was also there to support her daughter through her recovery. And there were still plenty of dark times for Hannah, like when she would lose control of her bowels and bladder or was overcome with despair. “I had to do therapy like stack blocks, flick ping-pong balls or clip pegs onto containers. I would read the packet, and it would say ‘for ages three and up’ – stuff that’s designed for children. I’d say ‘I can’t do this!’, knock the blocks down and cry. There were lots of moments like that.” It was Ian’s unfailing love and belief in Hannah that pulled her through those bleak episodes and proved to her that they were meant to be together. “I would talk about how we were going to beat this injury, and how beautiful she was, every moment I could,” he says. “I’d cook her dinners, and we’d sit under the trees and eat and talk and laugh, then I’d cuddle up to her and we would fall asleep together.” In April, Hannah was ready to leave the unit. “I put on my dress and used the walking frame to get to the door, then I let go.

All I had to support me was Ian and my mum’s hands,” she says. Hannah was delighted to find a red carpet had been laid for her walk up to the waiting car, and lots of friends were there to share her triumph. Since then, Hannah has continued to recover and is planning to return to work soon. She is also writing a book about her experience, which she says has changed her life for the better. “Before the accident, everything seemed out of my control. I had just resigned from teaching drama, Ian and I weren’t sure if we were meant to be together and I was going out with friends on the weekend, drinking and getting no sleep. I was struggling to pay rent, but always had money to go out. So I think, in some crazy way, that what happened to me was a good thing. It’s showed me what’s important in life.”

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