Gillian Fowler - My Journey

10 August, 2015

I am someone who has always loved the outdoor life, with skiing, golf, hill walking and horse-riding being important parts of my life.  But in 2008, my life changed instantly due to a horse-riding accident that resulted in my back being broken, and the doctors querying as to whether I had broken my neck.

I remember that fateful morning near Aberdeen vividly – it was a glorious February day, very cold, blue skies and sparkly grass from the frost.  But my memory then fails me, and still I have no memory of why I came off the horse.  I do remember excruciating pain as I lay on the ground, and I knew instantly that I was badly injured. I just didn’t realise how bad.

Being treated in Accident & Emergency was a frightening experience, especially as I was alone.  The doctors told me that the accident resulted in an unstable break in L1, and possibly also C5 (my neck).  Thankfully my neck was given the all-clear, but I had to have surgery to stabilize my back fracture.  It was only after this surgery and that we then realized that I had nerve damage resulting in paralysis, as I had no feeling in my right leg and foot. I was in Trauma for a number of weeks, where I was finally fitted with a back brace, and start the long process to build strength, and learn to stand and walk again. 

Getting home in 2008 was such a huge occasion, and the fighting spirit was fully ignited as I needed to prove to myself I could manage and not rely on anyone. 

Unfortunately, the recovery didn’t go quite as planned, and I’ve had five spinal surgeries, two related surgeries, regular spinal injections, years of physiotherapy as well attending the Pain Clinic. 

Despite all this, I know I am so very lucky to have the life I have.  I have experienced paralysis, although temporarily, and live with chronic pain and limitations, but I have become even more determined to live a life to the full, and enjoy every moment. And one way to achieve this is to always have goals - planning and date setting is my coping mechanism.  I have also discovered that I best manage my pain through exercise.

I do still miss the outdoor life I used to enjoy, but last year I was finally able to enjoy hillwalking again.  Just months after a spinal surgery, I climbed UK’s highest mountain Ben Nevis with my boyfriend.  We didn’t tell anyone we were doing this as I didn’t want to be told I shouldn’t be doing that, or would not be able to.  The climb was tough but amazing, the weather was clear, and the scenery was breath-taking – what more could I ask for.  That day I knew I had moved to a whole new level in my recovery and mindset – and my hillwalking has continued ever since.

Throughout these years, I have felt very passionate about wanting to help others.  Just a year after breaking my back, I took part in the Aspire Channel Swim, which is the equivalent of swimming the 22 miles of the English Channel over 12 weeks. 


I have also undertaken various sponsored walks, attended charity functions, but I’m always looking at other ways to support others.

It is from this desire and an in-depth understanding of trauma that I launched BackStrong Adventures this year.  BackStrong Adventures specialises in overseas challenges for anyone with an adventurous spirit. 

We particularly welcome inquiries from those suffering from injuries, depression, trauma, bereavement, disability and any other life-changing ailment. I want to encourage people to not give up when life is hard, to set goals and believe in their ability – with training and determination, you can achieve your dreams. As such, my own journey of recovery and well-being continues.  

I have set large challenges for myself over the next several months, which include kayaking in Croatia in August; climbing Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains in October; climbing Kilimanjaro in February 2016 to raise awareness for spinal injuries, and the Annapurna trek in Nepal in April 2016 for the charity Funding Neuro.

My experience has taught me that life goes on, and if you are determined, and willing to adapt and ask for help, the adventure goes on!  Stay strong.

Gillian Fowler lives in Scotland and is the founder of BackStrong Adventures - an outdoor adventure organisation. She acquired a spinal cord injury a few years ago, falling off a horse.

Tags: Blog, Travel & Leisure