Intelligence is the ability to change
Emma Booth, Australian Equestrian Paralympian, shares her experiences of personal growth, and all things horses, after becoming a paraplegic at the age of 21.
I was involved in a serious car accident at the age of 21 and suffered multiple injuries, including a severed spinal cord, which left me a complete L2 paraplegic. After four months in hospital I was riding horses again, only six months after my injury. I earned myself a position on the Paralympic Equestrian Team for Rio in 2016.
No one can prepare you for the sudden life changes you must face with a spinal injury - this much is obvious. I have learnt it is only you who can get the most out of this new life with a SCI. This statement might seem m rather apparent, but to accept this on a personal level, you must truly understand the role your mindset plays in determining outcomes in your life.
Our attitude determines how we handle different situations and how we approach our life in general. When facing hardship, it can seem easier to ignore certain circumstances, but the truth is, we aren’t always given a choice – sometimes all we can do is cope. For me, accepting this was a huge turning point in my rehabilitation.
I also believe that it is difficult to achieve things on your own. You must utilise the help around you. This might seem a little contradictory after my previous statements, but let me explain. Yes, it is true that we as individuals, we determine our goals and what we want to pursue – and, ultimately, what we get out of life. Nothing worth doing is easy, but doing it alone is so much harder. Therefore, I reiterate the importance of utilising help from others. You cannot do everything on your own. Sometimes it is difficult to accept assistance from others - in whatever capacity or form this help is offered - but embracing the support you are lucky enough to be surrounded, is a far better way to achieve your goals.
"It is difficult to achieve things on your own. You must utilise the help around you."
"If we accept that some things have changed and allow ourselves to adapt and learn new ways to do things, anything is within our capabilities"
Adaptability is vital and significantly affects our ability to cope. If we accept that some things have changed, and allow ourselves to adapt and learn new ways to do things, anything is within our capabilities. I was recently told that those living with a SCI can still do anything we want, but the approach will now be slightly different and may require coming up with alternate means of ultimately getting to the same outcome.
A few personal examples, slowly learnt in the four years since my accident, are simple things, like going to a friend’s house that is not completely accessible. Rather than choosing not to visit, I can compromise, and will sometimes use the ground to bum-slide my way up the stairs. My friend carries my chair while I slide to the top. I have also been physically carried more times than I can count, to access places I cannot access in my chair, with a second person carrying my chair behind me.
Shopping is another example. If it’s too difficult to try on clothes, I can purchase my usual size to try on at home, and ensure clothes can be exchanged if they don’t fit. Travel and accommodation are other situations I must adapt to. When I fly solo, I ensure staff are available to assist me with my bags. Using help from others is sometimes necessary. I hate to rely on staff to follow me around the airport, but it means I am able to travel on my own when needed, so it is something I have adjusted to.
When finding accommodation, sometimes a wheelchair accessible bathroom is not available, but I am able to shower on an outdoor chair or sit in a bath. Again, this isn’t always ideal and everyone has different needs, but coming up with a solution is better than forfeiting certain activities.
I have learnt a little more about myself from travelling overseas, including Europe several times. During a flight, I use an aisle chair to get to my seat and then transfer over. I also require the aisle chair to get to the bathroom. This can sometimes be a slightly awkward but staff are always very helpful. I may try to minimise bathroom trips on a 13 or 14-hour flight by drinking less. Again, this is not ideal and probably not great for my body because I get rather dehydrated, but I figure I only do it very occasionally, and it works for me.
I have always needed to be flexible when caring for my horses, but this is an area I have had to make more adjustments to than any other aspect of my life. There are specific things I am no longer able to do, like putting a saddle on, or getting on a horse by myself. I have learnt to rely on others for these things, so I am still able to do what I love.
Prior to my accident, I was very independent, so requesting help for things is frustrating. However, I have learnt to adjust and still get as much joy from being around the horses as I used to. I have discovered a way to muck out the stables in my chair, I carry the hay on my lap, I feed the horses, I harrow the arena and paddocks on my hand controlled quad bike, and can even catch and lead horses off my motorised scooter.
"Prior to my accident, I was very independent, so requesting help for things is frustrating. However, I have learnt to adjust and still get as much joy from being around the horses as I used to."
I think that with everything we do, it is about figuring out what works for us. The first time we try something new – for example, travelling - it can be a little intimidating, but I have found people are always willing to share information, and it only takes a few attempts at something before you have it completely under control.
I still consider myself relatively newly injured. I am 25, and in April it will be four years since my accident - time flies! Sometimes it feels like only yesterday I was a patient at the Royal Talbot, but then I remind myself of all the things I have achieved since then.
I recently returned to Australia after competing at the Paralympics in Rio. I was on the equestrian team and placed 5th in my individual championship test. It was such a feat to even qualify for the team, and the adventure to Rio really just blew all my expectations. There were difficulties, but it was an experience I will never forget.
While staying in the village in Rio, I spoke to several different athletes, and took something extremely positive from each of their stories. This is probably one of the things I enjoyed most about my first Paralympic experience – gaining insight from other individuals there.
Toward the end of the trip, someone caught me a little off guard when they asked a rather confronting question.
“If you were given the opportunity to change your past, consequently reversing your SCI, would you?” they asked.
I thought for a long moment, and my instinctive reaction was to say “yes, I would.” I think this was the more predictable answer and what I felt I should say. If I were given the option to change what happened, I should, right?
Ever since that conversation, the question has constantly played on my mind, and the more I thought about it, the more I came to realise my answer would be “no, I wouldn’t.”
My experiences, the things I have learnt and achieved, my personal growth, the places I have travelled, and most importantly, the people I have met as a direct result of my injury, lead me to conclude that - “no, I really wouldn’t want to change a thing.”