Jessica Collins accepts she may never walk again but says the competitive spirit that drove her to sporting success will fuel her determination to never give up the fight.
And just two months after the freak surfing accident that left her with a devastating spinal injury, the 24-year-old from The Junction is amazingly already looking at ways she can help others facing the same challenge.
Collins, a former Australian youth surf lifesaving representative, is in Royal North Shore Hospital continuing rehabilitation after fracturing her C5 vertebra and damaging her spinal cord on Thursday, May 31 on the Gold Coast.
Doctors have said the former lifeguard is unlikely to walk again, but she is driven to beat the odds.
“I could say I really do want to walk again and it could never happen, but you've just got to wait and see and just be positive,” she told the Herald on Wednesday as she prepared for her afternoon gym session.
For now, Collins is working to improve the limited use of her arms and was excited to this week touch her nose without assistance.
“That was actually quite surprising because I’d done a lot of exercises and I was so tired. I thought, I wonder if I can do this, and I could, so I was pretty happy with that,” she said. “I’ve got some bicep movement and my shoulder movement is really good. Strength-wise it's not great but the range of movement is good and the biceps are really coming along. The big part of it now is strengthening them, which is exciting.
“I’m just waiting for the triceps to hopefully come back but with my level of injury they might not necessarily come back.”
Determination in training comes naturally for Collins, who won the Summer of Surf swim series and the first open water title at the national surf lifesaving championships.
She said going to the gym was “the best part of my day”.
“Getting stronger means I’m going to recover quicker so there’s a lot of motivation to get there,” she said. “I see a lot of the other people at the gym who probably don’t have a sporting background, they give up when it gets tough and can't really be bothered, whereas coming from that background, I’m just so motivated to get in there and give it a go, and just not give up.”
She is striving to do two 90-minute sessions each day.
“Everyday I go too hard, I’m tired everyday,” she smiled. “Sometimes I’m on the arm crank and I’ll slowly doze off and fall asleep, and I think that’s just the competitive spirit inside me. I’m willing to work as hard as I can.
“The ultimate goal is obviously to walk again but is it going to happen in two weeks’ time? Probably not. In two months? Probably not. I don’t even know if it’s going to happen in two years’ time, but that’s something that’s extremely long-term and obviously I’m striving towards that.
“But there’s other things to think about at the moment, like my hand control. I don’t really have a lot of that. My fingers aren’t working. My wrists, I don’t have a lot of control over them.
“Little, short-term goals like that are important to have.”
From the time of her accident, Collins has amazed all with her positive attitude and resilience. With family and old schools friends visiting on Wednesday, she held court in the ward common room, joking about life – and food – in the ward.
She was comfortable talking about her accident and said she was just thankful to be alive.
“When I first had the accident, it was more questioning: What is it? What's going to happen? What will be the future for me? Whereas now I just look back on it and well, I’m alive, who cares,” she said. “I’m not ventilated, I didn't have to have a tracheotomy, which is so incredibly rare for someone with my level of injury.
“On the Friday, I finally asked the doctor: ‘Tell me how bad is the injury’. She explained it to me, and I hadn’t realised how bad it was. All the bleeding around the spinal cord. It’s amazing that I’m here.”
Collins finished her final university classes two days earlier and was on holidays with friends when they decided to go surfing at Snapper Rocks. She was on a stand-up paddleboard when she fell and was driven into a sandbar at the end of a ride to Rainbow Bay. Paralysed and face down in the water, she held her breath, fearing she would drown, before friend Kisane Irwin rescued her.
“Thursday was beautiful and the surf wasn't big, I kind of wish it was, it would make a better story then,” she smiled. “We didn't have enough surfboads for everyone so we got together as many as we could, and it was just so unfortunate that the wave I caught was with a stand-up paddleboard, which is a bit bigger and thicker, and that's what hit me and I hit the sandbar. It was all unfortunate but everything happens for a reason.
“It’s something I've done a 1000 and one times, but I guess that's how these accidents happen, they are just freak accidents.
“I think in a sense I was very lucky I was awake the whole time,” she added. “I remember all of it, but I’m also unlucky because I continuously have that thought.
“While it was happening I just had this panic of, well, this is probably going to be it, but it wasn't it. And my mind is intact, exactly like it was before, just parts of the body don't work as well. But there was no water in my lungs. It could have been so much worse.
“Technically, I could, or should, be dead. I don't know how long I was holding my breath for. It felt like 10 minutes, although it was probably only 10 seconds.
“I was just so lucky my best friend Kisane was there to flip me over. I was lucky I had that lifeguard background. I knew I had to stay calm and just hold my breath for as long as I could.
“And I was lucky they were able to see me. When you're found face down in the water, you're found at the top of the water or the bottom and because I couldn't feel my body, I had no idea where I was.
“I was just hoping I was on top so she could see me, that anyone could see me. I knew she was on the wave in front of me, but she wasn't next to me. She was a good 20 metres away. I was just lucky too that she had a lifeguard background and knew what to do.”
Collins even gave instructions to her rescuers.
“We had to get from on the sandbar, which is 30 metres from the beach, into shore with me,” she said.
“Kisane had me and was yelling at the other surfers to give us a hand. Then the lifeguard up in the tower had seen it happen, he was there as well.
“It was just hard navigating getting me back to shore, trying to keep me still with the waves breaking and the water going up my nose. I couldn't breathe.”
Collins has been overwhelmed with the support she and her family have received, including more than $117,000 in donations through GoFundMe page Sunflowers for Jess and fundraisers at her surf club, Redhead, and former schools. Her mother, Sandy, said Redhead clubmates were already planning modifications to their home and “arguing over who is going to do it”.
“They said anything you need, just let us know and we'll get it done,” Jessica’s father, Peter, a human resources manager at Newcastle City Council, said.
“Everyone has been so supportive,” Jessica added. “I can't thank people enough, and not just friends and family. The community, like Newcastle City Council, Redhead surf club, everyone has been so supportive and just wonderful. The GoFundMe page, I'm just speechless about that. I can't believe the amount of money people have donated.”
There have also been hundreds of messages of support.
“It's overwhelming how many messages I've received that I haven't even got to reading yet, but I'm trying to,” she said. “But it's been incredible how many people in wheelchairs or who have had injuries similar to mine, or better or worse, who have reached out.”
Collins is only “four out of 50 marks” and a 10-week placement away from completing her primary school teaching degree. Her focus now, though, was on rehab and potentially a new career.
“I want to finish that degree, but there's so many more opportunities for me now, like going into social work,” she said. “Seeing some of the things that these people offer to all patients and wheelchair people, it's amazing.
“Every Thursday they have two wheelchair people come in and talk to all the patients about what it's like, and if they have any questions, just as a peer support thing, and I think that would be incredible to do.
“All of the patients here are just incredible. Everyone has kind of gone through the same situation. There was one gentleman and he's living by himself in an apartment now and he's had his injury forever, so I guess you just never know what the future holds.”
She said she was “so blessed” to have her parents by her side everyday and also the constant support of sister, Emma, and brother, Daniel.
Sandy, who works at St Francis Xavier’s College, and Peter are taking time off and living next to RNSH. They are now looking for accommodation in Ryde to be close to Jessica when she is moved to Royal Rehab in the coming weeks.
Sandy said: “We're not going anywhere. We’ll go home when Jess goes home.”
“They have given up everything to be here with me, which I'm so thankful for,” Jessica said.
“I'm so lucky. If I didn't have them around it would be so hard to do it by myself.
“Dan and Emma have been amazing. Emma is a little nurse and Dan is a little physio.
“Every night there’s an hour routine to put me to bed, of stretches and putting on moisturiser, doing OT stuff with my hands and rubbing some Metsal on my shoulders. Both of them have been amazing.
“I'm the luckiest sibling in the world.”