My real name is Estrella, but everyone calls me Essie. I am 26 years old, originally from Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and I am an only child.
I studied social work and have always been passionate about helping others. My hobbies include photography and learning Spanish – I love learning new things. Before my accident I used to volunteer at a children’s hospice. I used to work in a large hospital for children with cancer. I loved helping kids.
On the 20th of June, 2016 my life changed, significantly. I was a passenger in a car that crashed on the beautiful island of Ibiza. I was on holidays with my then boyfriend and it was a sunny day, so we were driving to the beach. He, unfortunately, didn’t see the stop sign ahead and we had a head on collision with another car. It was a terribly scary scene.
Straight away I couldn’t move my legs – I knew something was wrong. Later I found out that my L1 vertebrae was dislocated and I was suffering from a lot of internal injuries. Initially I had no idea what all of this really meant. In the hospital I thought I would be able to walk out. I really thought I would still be able to continue working and running.
I learnt over the coming days that my injuries were serious. I had an incomplete injury and initially I was paralysed from the waist down. it was very difficult being in a hospital in Spain. My parents flew out straight away, but I was in the ICU for quite a while and I didn’t speak any Spanish and all of the nurses didn’t speak any English, only the doctors. It was incredibly difficult to communicate. I felt so isolated, uncertain and afraid. I don’t have any good memories of this time. I felt frustrated, weak and sick. It was a very challenging time for me and my family.
I stayed in hospital in Ibiza for about one month and then flew back to the Netherlands, where I stayed another month in hospital. After this time, I moved to a rehab centre for five months. It was a long, very difficult and painful process. It has been a really hard journey, because I was a victim in the accident, and it can feel very unfair at times.
When I was back in the Netherlands, my family and friends were able to visit me again and this made all the difference. They have all been so incredibly supportive and this allowed me to focus on rehabilitation. I was absolutely determined to train and get better. I chose to focus on my recovery. A year after the accident I decided to go to America to try a special therapy at the Claremont Club, near LA. I trained relentlessly. I’ve pushed myself very hard in terms of my mental health and also to achieve any kind of recovery at all.
After intense rehabilitation, incredibly, I now have a little bit of function in my right leg, but my left leg is taking a bit longer. I still have a lot of weakness in my body. Luckily my front muscles are pretty strong but my glutes, outside hamstrings and feet are still paralysed and I have no feeling from my knees down. I use a hiking stick when I am out and about for balance, and it makes me feel safer so I can focus on other things rather than my walking.
I’ve trained all over the world with amazing trainers, but Making Strides at Burleigh on the Gold Coast feels like a big family, with a more personal approach.
The Netherlands doesn’t have a spinal cord injury centre at all which makes things difficult and when the trainers aren’t specialists, and the progress is so slow they can lose motivation, which is incredibly frustrating. However, the team at Making Strides understands and works with you in an amazing way.
I am now able to use my bike every day and I feel so lucky to be able to do this. I ride everywhere – it is the ‘new walking’ for me. When I am riding my bike, no one would know I have a spinal cord injury and that I suffer with paralysis, but when I step off my bike, because I still limp, people stare and wonder what happened to me. People think I broke my leg or ankle and because it isn’t so noticeable, people think it is a temporary thing. This is really hard. It’s still traumatic to talk about my injury and so when strangers say, ‘what did you do to yourself’, it can be hard to deal with.
I still struggle with what people don’t see. Some days it doesn’t affect me as much mentally but other days it does. My body feels different every day and it doesn’t always make sense. I still get nerve pain sometimes which is frustrating. I get pins and needles in my feet, especially on the left side. Since the day of the accident, pain has been a part of every day for me. Sometimes it gets worse and feels like a burning sensation. It can be so hard to explain something so profound like a spinal injury, especially to a stranger in the street!
I have heard from other people with a spinal cord injury ‘well at least you can walk, I wish I could do that’. I understand this sentiment, but sometimes hearing this can be so painful. I realise I am lucky, but it is still very difficult, and I am still paralysed. My situation comes with its own challenges. Within the spinal cord injury community, we have to cheer each other on and try to be happy for each other.
I moved home from Australia to the Netherlands in August, and I am focussed on myself and my recovery. Physical therapy will always be a large part of my life. I’ve always tried to be positive about the future, and I think my future will look really different in 20 years.
I’d like to have kids one day – I can see myself being a mum in a few years. I am not sure how I will be able to carry my own child – I think about those things. I’m pretty creative and I will be fine – I will find a way. With a spinal cord injury, you face different and new obstacles all the time. I am adjusting to a ‘new normal’, I am happy but there are always challenges. Hopefully there will be a cure for paralysis before I have kids.
I’ve been looking at stem cell treatments. It’s frustrating because I am working really hard in terms of physical therapy – I train so hard. Some muscles are just so damaged it doesn’t matter how hard I work they just can’t improve. I believe there has to be a cure – this is my hope.