On 13 April 1998 Tracy Todd was involved in a car accident.
“I took off my seat belt while my husband was driving and climbed over into the backseat of the car to change my baby’s nappy. Moments later the car in front of us came to a sudden halt causing a chain of events which led to our vehicle landing up on its roof. I hit my head on the roof of the car as it overturned, breaking my neck and injuring my spinal cord at the 4th cervical vertebrae. I was left paralysed from the neck down.”
That was 12 years ago when Tracy was 28 and a lot has changed. “Not only did I lose the use of my arms and legs; my privacy and independence were severely compromised. As a direct result of my paralysis I was divorced just over a year after my accident and I lost custody of my son. I also lost my career as a teacher as I was medically boarded.”
For many this would be too much and they would just have given in. Not Tracy. “I have managed to rebuild a new life in a new body quite successfully. I still do some teaching from time to time and I do quite a lot of Inspirational Speaking. I started writing a blog at the beginning of this year which I am enjoying immensely.”
She explains that the accident was an extremely traumatic experience for everyone who knew her - family and friends. “There is no manual that one can follow, no real advice, no true support structure to help one deal with something so extreme and devastating. The situation left me, my family and my friends all reeling. None of us knew what to do or how to handle the predicament. We made many mistakes and probably have many regrets. But we can’t go back. We can’t change the past, but hopefully we can make a difference to the future.”
What gave her strength she says was: “God, my son, my family, my friends, my community and my online community on my blog, Facebook and Twitter.”
“My powerful maternal instinct was the sole reason for my survival - physically and emotionally. I am far more resilient than I ever imagined. The human spirit has the most remarkable ability to overcome adversity, fight for survival and adapt to change.
“I’ve learned to be more patient, more tolerant and more accepting of differences and thus discovered the joy of celebrating my uniqueness and using it as a gift to reach out and make a difference to the lives of others. By nature, I am more of a giver than a receiver. But, I have learned that to be able to receive is an art – and a blessing for others.”
Her son is now 13. “He was 10 months old at the time of my accident. He doesn’t know me any differently. To him I am just Mom. We have a close and special bond. Just his mere presence in my life – without him even being aware of it – pulled me out of some deep, dark places. My powerful maternal instinct was my saving grace.”
Her parents’ support - physically, emotionally and financially - taught her unconditional love. “There are no words to express my gratitude, respect and love for them both.”
She is also blessed with friends who drop everything at a moment’s notice to help her, day or night. “I have learned that friendship is not about physical deeds but that it goes far deeper than that. I’ve learned that even though I am paralysed I still have the ability to be a friend. Humans, by nature, are quite selfish and if they are not getting anything in return out of a particular relationship they do not hang around. Friends need someone to listen; someone to care and someone to support them. Time is a gift I now have. Fortunately, for my friends, I am a captive audience! People yearn to be needed and appreciated, irrespective of physical or emotional circumstances. I am also fortunate to live in not only one of the most beautiful places on the planet, but surrounded by the people with the most beautiful hearts who have endless love, care and support of me.”
The Internet opened up a whole new world for Tracy where she finds support and socialises with people all around the world. “I have the ability to create an awareness and the power to change mindsets -- one at a time.”
She is clear about what is needed for a relationship to be sustainable as she has first-hand experience of what happens when a relationship is purely physical. “It will eventually crumble because no human is guaranteed a life without health issues like serious illness or injury, financial problems, family troubles, spiritual or philosophical differences, social dilemmas or disability.”
Tracy believes that relationships that lack spiritual and emotional connection – depth and meaning – will not survive life’s curved balls. “I hadn’t even thought of things like that when I was younger – until I broke my neck and my husband divorced me a year later. I still believe that real intimacy is very important in a relationship, but that it goes far deeper than simply performing the physical act – as the excitement in that also wears thin at some stage – albeit only in old age.”
Tracy says society defines intimacy between people who love one another as sex. “In my mind that is just animal-like genital intercourse. Many people simply take it for granted that I would not be able to fulfil any man’s sexual needs and therefore would not make a suitable life partner. Nothing could be further from the truth. ”
She works hard to dent society’s perceptions. “Society in general is intolerant of differences but, if you are willing to put yourself out there and connect with people on a personal level, people can be encouraged to change their mindsets – to celebrate uniqueness and embrace differences.”
Tracy says “most people view me as an alien. I cannot say that I blame them because that is how I often feel in this world designed specifically for actively functioning people with their able-bodied mindsets.”
She explains that able-bodied people take much for granted. “Everywhere I go, I encounter barriers and challenges that need to be overcome – from roads to pavements to buildings. Able-bodied people simply do not see the barriers (such as steps) or the physical challenges we face because they don’t need to. Often I’ll call ahead to check if a place is accessible and I am assured that it is. Until I get there and cannot access the building due to a step or another barrier. Only then, do they realize the implications of what it means to be accessible for a wheelchair. I find that people are very willing to make the changes and to help wherever they can if they are aware of how easily things can be adapted and changed. It is exceptionally important to create awareness and to make changes in order to fulfil and accommodate the needs of all people where possible.”
Her advice to readers is to take one day at a time. “Build a solid support structure of family, friends and committed care assistants whom you can rely on day or night. Take control of your life as soon as possible by making your own choices and decisions and, most importantly, take responsibility for your own well-being and care.”
Don’t become too despondent, there is life after a spinal cord injury, she says, whilst at the same time admitting that quadriplegia is extreme. “It is harsh! It often has a ripple effect – forcing family, friends and the immediate community into a whole new way of life. Read, learn and educate yourself as much as possible with regards to the specific needs and care required. The situation has the potential to push the boundaries of normal family relationships beyond those that are normally acceptable. Be prepared to deal with depression and extreme emotions of anger, bitterness and resentment. It can take up to four years for an injured person to come to terms with their injury.”
“Although unconditional love, care and support is needed and greatly appreciated, I would urge families to resist the temptation to step in and take over. Do not begin treating the injured person like a child. Respect their decisions or choices no matter how difficult it is to accept. If at all possible, avoid becoming the primary caregiver, as it tends to strain relationships, often beyond repair.”
"I exist. Therefore I am still a woman. Although I need a wheelchair to get around it is most certainly NOT what defines me as a woman. It is a combination of my personality, passion for life, intelligence, opinions, sense of humour, interests, heart and my light that defines my essence as a woman."