Finding Sports After Transverse Myelitis

By Dalia Rebolledo, age 20

Injury level: T10

Diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis on Sep. 12, 2013

Before TM, I was a normal teenager who was passionate about my education. I was involved in extracurricular activities and volunteered as much as I could. Growing up as the first child in my family to graduate from high school was challenging. I faced many obstacles, including learning a second language and an entirely new culture. But without a doubt, the biggest challenge was becoming paralyzed literally overnight.

During the second week of my junior year of high school, I began to get sick. On the night of September 10th, 2013, I woke up and noticed that I couldn’t move my legs. My mom tried to help me stand up, but I collapsed to the floor immediately. I was rushed to the ER and after two days in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a neurological disease with no cure. The inflammation damaged my spinal cord and I lost mobility from my chest down. After the available treatment, I regained upper body strength, but was wheelchair-bound with little hope to ever regain full mobility. I was in an inpatient rehab clinic for four weeks, where I was taught how to move around in my wheelchair.

The first year was the hardest, as I juggled between therapy, doctor’s appointments, and school. In 2015, I was able to graduate high school with honors and made plans to attend a four-year college to study Business Management. My plans didn’t work out, and I was unable to further my education at that time.

In 2016, I began to get sick again, which seemed to be another TM attack. This time I lost strength in my arms. I was in the hospital for a week, and although there was no damage in my spinal cord, my immune system was overactive which could cause more damage at any time.

In December of 2016, I made plans to start going to REACT, a neurological rehab program. I was not going to let TM take control of my life and was determined to work as much as I could to regain my strength back. Going to REACT once or sometimes twice a week helped me gain my upper body strength back and motivated me to work harder than ever. Now I have full control of my arms, and my balance has increased tremendously. I enjoy doing the workouts and learning how to do new exercises.

I was introduced to the Legacy Project and was lucky enough to participate in their summer group. The Legacy Program is a 12 week/3 times a week high intensity, group training program that combines strength training and sport, at no cost to the participants. Participants are given a unique opportunity to overcome their physical limitations and inspire others to achieve what many view as impossible. The Legacy Project is one of the many programs REACT offers. At the Legacy Project, we don’t only work with our bodies, but also with our minds. They motivate and push us to reach our maximum potential. Today, I can say that I am stronger than ever, not only physically but also emotionally. REACT empowered me and encouraged me to try sports and stay connected with a group of amazing individuals. I currently do wheelchair basketball, and I am thinking of doing hand cycling. I also enjoy playing volleyball and soccer/wheelchair rugby.

REACT has encouraged me to be independent and has given me the strength to go out and do volunteer work again and pursue my education goals. I have accomplished a lot of my goals, but my long-term goal will always be to regain full mobility. In the meantime, I will continue to work with what I have and push myself even further.

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Sharing my TM Story

By Felicia Aronsson

I got transverse myelitis on the 21st of August, 2008 at the age of twelve. 4-8 weeks before I got TM, I had severe pain in my lower back and difficulty getting in and out of the car, bed, etc. I went to my local clinic, but the doctor said that the pain was caused by my trampoline. On the day that I got TM, I was with my mom at a café and suddenly I couldn’t grip the cup I was holding in my hands. Shortly afterwards, we decided to leave and that’s when I couldn’t walk properly. I was tottering and I had to lean on my mom so I didn’t fall.

We got in the car and drove to the nearest children’s hospital. When we got there, my right arm and leg were paralyzed. I think it only took 1-2 hours before I was almost completely paralyzed – I could only move my lower arms up and down. It took a few weeks for the doctors to get the results, and both my parents and I were shocked and didn’t know anything. And like every other person who gets TM, I thought that I was going to be completely restored within 2 years. But that’s not the case if you get an inflammation in the spinal cord that breaks down your myelin sheath.

I was at the children’s hospital for 6-8 weeks before getting to a rehab clinic where I stayed for the next 6 months. When I got back to school and was going into 6th grade, it was a real struggle. I felt completely alone and like an outcast. And it only got harder when my so-called friends from elementary school started bullying me in 7th or 8th grade. This really hurt me, and I was even suicidal for quite a while. Things got a bit better when I started talking to other people with TM. It turned out there were a lot of people with TM in Sweden, which I was really happy about.

Things took a turn for the better when I started high school. I was finally able to start over. Today, I started college and unfortunately became depressed. I’m paralyzed from my chest down. I can only move my wrists, and my fingers are paralyzed. I can’t stand on my feet myself or walk. My legs are spastic. However, I’ve made quite good progress looking back at how paralyzed I was when I first got TM. 9 years later I can say that I’m not mad that this happened to me.

It was the human herpesvirus 6 that caused my TM, and like most cases of this spinal cord injury, the doctors had no clue why this happened.

Finally, I want to say that the best way to get more knowledge of this and share your story is to talk to others in the same situation. It’s also really good to join Facebook groups with other people with TM, as it’s a great way to get in touch with others.

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Starting a Support Group Changed My Life

By Jeremy Bennett, Community Partnerships Manager

Before I became the Community Partnerships Manager for the Transverse Myelitis Association in October, I was a Support Group Leader for Central Ohio. I started a support group because I didn’t know anyone else with transverse myelitis. I was diagnosed with TM in 2012 and, like many, I often felt like I was the only person in the world who understood what it was like to live with a rare neuroimmune disorder. Then I met Sandy and Pauline.

Sandy and Pauline invited me to dinner and I’ll never forget that night. Pauline was the first person I met who had TM. It had taken me five years to come face-to-face with another person like me. I left that restaurant wondering why I hadn’t done something sooner, but determined to connect as many people with TM, ADEM, NMO, ON, and AFM as possible. Now that I have that chance, I’m encouraging our members to help.

My first month working for the TMA included going to Dallas for a Walk-Run-N-Roll event and attending the 2017 Rare Neuroimmune Disorders Symposium in Columbus, Ohio. I went from knowing no one with transverse myelitis to meeting more than 100 people in less than six months. Of course, that’s not going to be everyone’s experience, but what I can say is that it doesn’t matter if it’s one, five, 20, or 500 people – each interaction is special.

One of my goals for 2018 is to grow our Support Group Network. The TMA has nearly 13,000 members, many of whom are looking to make that first connection. We have active support groups in a few states and countries that are doing tremendous jobs, but there is a need for more. If you are interested in starting a support group in your area, visit our website and fill out a Volunteer Application Form.

To a lot of the world, transverse myelitis doesn’t mean much, but for those who have it, it means the world. Help us provide support to our members by becoming a Support Group Leader today.

For more information, you can contact me at

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Surfing Again

By Tom Flavin

Our daughter, Emily, was 14 when she was admitted to Ronald Reagan UCLA/Mattel Pediatrics ICU for tests.  Her diagnosis: Transverse Myelitis.

It all started approximately two weeks earlier when on a Friday, my daughter babysat two children who had head-chest colds.  We have no way of knowing if this caused her to pick up a cold or virus.  The next day, our daughter competed in a surfing competition in Oceanside, CA.  She could have contracted a cold or virus from the water.   The following day, Emily came down with a head-chest cold.   We kept her home from school on Monday.  She took an over-the-counter cold medicine.  On Tuesday, she went to school and by Wednesday she needed to stay home due to a low fever.

We took her to her pediatrician.  We were advised to watch her and let the cold/virus take its course and to let her doctor know if things got worse.    Late Friday afternoon, Emily complained of an ear ache.  My thought was inner ear infection (perhaps from surfing, but just a guess).   We got over-the-counter medicine and notified her doctor’s office.

On Saturday, the low fever returned.   We gave Emily fever reducing medicine.   Late on Sunday evening, Emily complained of not being able to urinate.   We scheduled an appointment for Monday morning and were advised via the telephone to have Emily bathe in baking soda water.  The nurse over the telephone thought it could be a urinary tract infection.

On Monday, Emily tried to provide a urine sample at her doctor’s office but could not.   The doctor advised us to go to the emergency room.

At Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center, Emily provided a small amount of urine.   We were prescribed an over-the-counter medicine to help reduce pain while urinating.   Emily continued to not be able to urinate.

On Tuesday, we took Emily back to the emergency room in Santa Monica and she was provided a Foley catheter and prescribed antibiotics.    They took the catheter out and we were sent home.

On Wednesday, Emily was still unable to urinate, so I called her pediatrician’s office and requested a referral for a urologist.   Emily’s pediatrician was not available, and the staff needed to get approvals.   Through back and forth calls, they suggested that we take Emily to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center.   We did, and there they catheterized her and advised to continue antibiotics.   The urologist suggested was not available to see Emily in the Emergency Department, so we scheduled an appointment for the next day.

On Thursday morning, Emily complained of being light headed, dizzy and unable to see.   I thought that she may be fainting.   Emily met with a urologist on Thursday and he gave us a choice of urinary tests, i.e. filling up the bladder, taking out catheter or waiting for a later date.   Because of everything that led up to this point we asked Emily what she wanted to do, and she chose to wait until Monday for the test.  This was also suggested by the urologist.

Over the weekend, Emily complained of sensitivity to touch on her arms and shoulders.   She later complained about her one leg being asleep, then the other leg. We thought that it could have been from lying in bed, sitting, etc. which she had started to do more.   On Sunday afternoon, we allowed Emily to visit a friend.  When we went to pick her up at her friend’s home I noticed that she was walking slowly and unsteadily.

On Monday morning, we took her to see a urologist again for the test.   Prior to this, Emily had trouble getting to the car.   I had to hold her, and she moved slowly.   Once at the appointment, I got a wheelchair.   We were advised again to go to the emergency room because the doctor said that it may be more than a urinary issue.

Several doctors in the ER were super helpful and admitted Emily immediately for tests.  She spent twelve days total in the hospital with five days in the ICU, three days in the main hospital, and four days in physical rehabilitation at CHLA.  The doctors initially thought that it would be at least six months before Emily could surf again, if ever.

Prayer, perseverance, family, friends, and great doctors helped us get through the tough reality in the beginning.  Googling Transverse Myelitis and seeking someone, anyone to learn from outside of the doctors was what I did.   During that time, I was hoping to find a story or many stories of positive outcomes.   In the process, I found Coach Karl Turk who is an amazing leader and survivor of Transverse Myelitis.

Coach Karl was written up in a CNN report, so I telephoned him at his place of work and introduced myself and the reason for my call.  I remember telling Coach Karl while choking up that my daughter was diagnosed with TM.  He listened.   Learning more, anything more from someone who survived was what I was seeking for myself and Emily.  Coach Karl and I spoke for about twenty minutes initially.  Since then, I have called him numerous times and spoken about things not related to TM.   Emily has spoken with Coach Karl too.  He calls her sister.

Emily spent approximately three months in outpatient physical therapy and then Emily convinced her doctors and her parents to allow her to surf again.  She has been doing so ever since.   This past summer, Emily competed in three longboard competitions and was the Champion 1st Place in each at the age of 16.  Now 17, she continues to surf competitively and is a senior in high school.   She is in the process of applying to universities to start her college education in the fall of 2018.  She wants to stay close to the ocean for obvious reasons.  She takes a big interest in promoting that we each do our part to keep our cities, beaches, and water clean of pollution.

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Quality of Life

By Maria Cerio

Embraced by the warm hug of the doctor who diagnosed me with transverse myelitis 16 years ago, here I am back at Boston Children’s Hospital on October 9, 2017. It is an odd reunion. He is delighted to see me, but at the same time, my return means something must be wrong. Yet, this visit creates a sense of comfort, a feeling of something familiar, the way home feels, as this is where I was diagnosed in 2001 when I was three years old. I am now 19.

After blood tests, ultrasounds, and neurological exams, I am exhausted. However, I feel mostly lucky. Lucky to be one of the patients who, at the end of the day, gets to see Children’s Hospital in their rearview mirror as they head homeward to sleep in their own bed. I am lucky. I am grateful. But, I am challenged.

The appointments took up the entire day. My mom and I left for Boston in the darkness of the early morning and returned just in time for dinner. On the way home from the hospital, we picked up a cake to celebrate my older sister’s 22nd birthday. I should have mentioned earlier that it was my sister’s birthday. She understood that my mom and I had to spend the majority of her birthday not celebrating with her, but rather, at Children’s. She was used to this, as we have even celebrated Christmas morning at Children’s Hospital. Disability affects the whole family, not just the patient.

The birthday festivities culminated in a viewing of family home movies, a favorite activity. As I sat propped up in my living room chair watching home videos with my mom, dad, and two sisters, it dawned on me. It dawned on me that I have no memory of life before transverse myelitis (TM), life as a child and not a patient, life before paralysis, life as an able-bodied individual. I could not retrieve a single memory. I just stared at the video, watching myself dance with my older sister. It is 1999, I’m not even two, and we are dancing to a 90’s classic–Cher’s “If I could Turn Back Time.” If only I could turn back time and whisper into the toddler’s ear that that would be one of last times she danced so freely.

At first, I was saddened by the thought that my earliest memory was the night of the onset of TM. The memories of hospitals, patient gowns, IVs, catheters, shots, wheelchairs, and physical therapy had somehow overpowered those from before I got sick.

This year, I am a sophomore in college at The George Washington University. I live independently in a dorm, 350 miles away from home. Though I have regained a tremendous amount of my functions, my disability has strained friendships and family relationships, and isolated me in social situations in ways I could not have anticipated. TM has interfered in my life this year, more than it ever has.

When life feels so hard in the moment, and everything in the future presents a challenge, it is easy to succumb to self-pity. But then, I remember that one kind professor who went the extra mile to accommodate my needs, or that one friend who told me she was asked in an interview to talk about someone who inspired her and she chose me, or the young man who saw me struggling to carry my stuff and took it from my hands and brought it to my door. I remind myself that there are good people out there. I am lucky because I am the recipient of kindness.

I would not change my disease or wish it cured. I do not want to be “fixed;” rather, I am just working to improve the quality of life for myself and other individuals with disability. Conversation about disability is the catalyst for awareness, acceptance, and inclusivity.

This month, October, happens to be disability awareness month. But on September 30th and November 1st, this is still my life. It does not just last a month.

So, my message to you, is to go about your day with a little bit of extra kindness–not only during the month of October, but every day. Be that kind professor, that special friend, or that thoughtful stranger. Go about your life with an extra appreciation– do it for yourself, for individuals impacted by disability, for those individuals’ families, for everyone. Live your life not trying to fix, but rather trying to make the best of what you have.

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Fighting for Love

By Carrie-Anne Farnell

I wasn’t raised to be a quitter or to give up, but I’ll be honest, being diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis nearly made me do both. I have been pushed to my limits and then some.

Before my diagnosis, I was working hard in a job I loved, I had a personal trainer, I did classes, I ran with my dad and I practised sparring on the weekends. I was always very active and physically on the go all the time, so as you can imagine, it destroyed me when I woke up one morning with pins and needles in my feet and then slowly over the following weeks watched myself deteriorate and end up in hospital.

I thought physically fighting someone was one of the hardest things you could do, until I had to learn to fight in a completely different way and start to fight something I can’t even see or punch in the face!

Admittedly I wanted to just lay back and let it beat me, because let’s face it, I have no control over it and it has already done massive damage to my body…but…I had one thing going for me, one thing left in my life that Myelitis can never take from me and that is love. The love that not only I have for my son, but the love he has for me. This hit me like a sledgehammer one day and I decided that I have to fight, I have to try to recover as much as I can, I have to do anything and everything to keep going! Even if I never recover properly, I will make sure I get out of my bed in the morning, I will make sure I keep trying, I will make sure that I will keep doing my physio, keep seeing my Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and just keep going.

I still have days when it feels like TM has stolen everything from me, has taken away everything I enjoyed doing, has taken away my normal life and left me with a body that has been damaged, and given me depression, anxiety and a fear of life itself…but I have to force myself to get past these issues, otherwise I find I’m just existing instead of living. I don’t want to just exist and survive, I want to make the most of mine and my son’s life, even if it is restricted, I still have to try. 

I have 3 people in my life that I love more than anything, my son and my parents, and without them I would be lost. The love I have for them and the love that they have for me and show me daily is what motivates me and keeps me level-headed and on the right track. I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be here right now if I didn’t have them and their love.

You can’t be in a fight without getting hit, without being hurt and sometimes even getting knocked down…but the question is whether we can get back up again and take the hits and keep moving and keep fighting. Just remember that every breath we take is a smack in the face to whatever our problems are, by just waking up in the morning and breathing we are showing it and everyone else that we’re not done!

Sure there are going to be days when we’ve had enough, we’re at our limits and we feel completely and utterly broken…but we’re not…take that breath and remind ourselves that it hasn’t won. This applies to a lot of people, not just someone with TM…whatever our problems, issues or hardships are, we have to keep battling through. Never quit, never give up!

I used to fight and spar because I enjoyed it and it kept me fit and healthy, now I’m fighting for love!

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TM Testimony

By Joey Butler

In November of 2016, I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis, a neurological condition that caused me to be paralyzed for a week and took several months for me to be functional again. I had to endure inpatient physical therapy, outpatient physical therapy and left the hospital with a list of medications that I may be on for the rest of my life. I had to relearn how to walk and adjust to nerve pain that was constant and increased if I did anything active. Because of these changes in my life and health, I gained more weight and became hopeless that I would ever be able to lose it since I couldn’t exercise without pain. Since then, I fell into a depression and struggled with so many different aspects of life in general.

Then in April of 2017, it all changed. Something clicked and I decided that no more would I allow TM to control my life, no more would I let it slow me down and destroy my family.  So, I decided that it was time to get up and get moving, it was time to get up and lose the weight that I had gained. So, I found a local gym and joined.  Joining a gym with TM is a scary proposition. When you combine the nerve pain, the weakness, and the insecurities of how you walk, all together that equals a large amount of anxiety.  There are so many different reasons for a person with TM to not join a gym, but I decided to look past all that anxiety and get to work.

When I weighed myself in April of 2017 I weighed in at an insane 325 lbs. This was by far the largest number I had ever seen on the scale, which added to the depression and anxiety.  This was the moment that it all changed for me, and sitting back and literally killing myself one cheeseburger at a time was no longer going to be an option.

To anyone who has TM and is thinking about exercise (talk to your doctors first), I highly recommend that you just look past the anxiety and get in and move.  Start small, then build up.  It took me a month or so before I became comfortable with myself enough to start posting pictures of my progress. Quickly after that, people started telling me how inspirational it was. People started telling me how awesome it was to see me in the gym and moving.  That’s when it hit me – if pushing through the nerve pain, if pushing through the exhaustion, if pushing through all of that anxiety will help just one person get up and get moving, then it is all worth it.

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Paralyzed at 15

By Rich Kolasa

I’d been running track the day before. I remember the flame in my lungs at the end of it. The next day was a birthday party for one of the neighborhood kids. We were all hanging out, talking and flirting. Just a few awkwardly placed teenagers on a swing set. And there was this throbbing in my heel. A throbbing that no amount of shoe emptying would resolve.

Over the course of the evening, the throbbing crept up from my heel and spread into my calves. I felt proud that I’d done such a number on them running the day before. I rubbed on some tiger balm and laid in bed a while. It didn’t get worse, but it didn’t get better.

I remember some instinct setting off a red flag in my mind. Sort of like ‘Sorry to bother you, but you’ll want to get this looked at’. Very nonchalant. I let my mom know it hadn’t gotten any better, and that I thought we should go to the hospital. It’s odd that she was so quick to agree given my calmness. I probably would have sent me back to bed. But off we went.

The ride to the hospital was uneventful. I even felt a little bit better as we went. By the time we were five minutes away I felt completely fine, if not embarrassed. What I didn’t know was that the nerve endings in my legs had already been nearly obliterated. My legs felt better because I couldn’t feel them. It never crossed my mind that something had happened – until I tried to exit the vehicle.

It was dark. Fluorescent light from the ‘EMERGENCY’ sign threw shadows as it came in contact with the open van door. I swung my legs out and stood. It was as though someone turned up the gravity. I grabbed hold of the door and held myself up, the last vestiges of strength keeping me from hitting the ground. I called over to mom, my voice tinged with a sort of stunned curiosity. I can’t recall a single thing we said to each other.

My initial memory of the walk toward the Emergency Room door is one where we were too stunned to panic. Somewhere deeper, though, is a memory of feeling Mom’s fear as she supported me. It was the way she was breathing. I’d not heard that sort of discrete desperation in my life before or since. I wasn’t particularly light, either. Thank goodness for the gentleman who helped her get me to a wheelchair- if not for him I would’ve been laying helpless on the pavement watching my legs die.

I’m not sure how being traumatized in other situations works, but when you’re traumatized in this specific situation, you really don’t care that your legs have stopped working. You’re just casually answering the nice nurses’ questions about whether you have any preexisting conditions, or whether this has happened before. No ma’am, I am not an expert in this particular realm of life.

Panic set in when I realized my body was in shock. wasn’t in shock, mind you, but my body was. I was watching tv in the hospital bed, and some time went by before I realized I hadn’t been breathing. I’d just stopped and my body didn’t even care. If I got too distracted by something and forgot to breathe, I would stop breathing. That freaked me out most.

The doctors of hospital #1 weren’t equipped to handle whatever had happened to me, and were pretty timely about moving me to another one. I was strapped down to a stretcher and sent on a 45 minute ambulance journey. I’d never ridden in an ambulance before. Some part of me was excited but mostly I was terrified.

Everything between that bumpy stretch of highway and my bed at hospital #2 is blank for me. I just don’t remember how I got from the ambulance to a bed. I do remember the neurologist though. Quirky guy, fun, letting me know that I probably didn’t have MS, but that it might be good to check anyway. The test was a simple MRI. I could fall asleep during one of those, if not for the lab technicians asking if I’m okay every 30 seconds. The results came back within the day, and I did not have MS. That sounded great to me, and so I smiled and listened to him wonder after what it might be.

As provided by Google;

Transverse myelitis is a neurological disorder caused by inflammation across both sides of one level, or segment, of the spinal cord. The term myelitis refers to inflammation of the spinal cord; transverse simply describes the position of the inflammation, that is, across the width of the spinal cord.

This is what the neurologist figured I had. I know now that it is what I had. Knowing for certain, however, would require a needle the length of my forearm to be inserted into my spine. And they’d do it with some local anesthetic.

In the entirety of my sensory experience on this planet, I have never felt something so strange as a needle delving into my spine. Imagine a small balloon. It’s not an ordinary balloon. Instead it’s made out of something both elastic and tensile. Something you can’t pierce but still has all the other balloon properties. Now place that balloon inside of your back, and push a needle into it. Did you feel your spine cringe? It’s called a Lumbar Puncture.

Check out Rich’s blog here.

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My First Time Back in the Ocean

By GG deFiebre

I have always loved the water. When I was a kid I used to visit my grandparents who lived in Clearwater, Florida, right next to the Gulf of Mexico. I used to spend countless hours swimming, snorkeling, and sailing in the Gulf. After being diagnosed with transverse myelitis and becoming a quadriplegic, the water suddenly seemed unreachable. Soon after I left the hospital where I had been for over two months, I was able to go in the therapy pool at my outpatient therapy clinic. I quickly learned that my body sank in water (apparently some people sink and some people float). Swimming and floating would no longer be as effortless as they once were. Since my diagnosis in December 2009, I had gone swimming a few times in pools, but had not ventured into the ocean or even visited the beach. It seemed impossible.

Then I found out about an organization called Life Rolls On. It was started by a surfer who sustained a spinal cord injury while surfing and as a result became a quadriplegic. He figured out a way to go surfing after his injury and then started the organization to expose others to the joy of adaptive surfing. I marked my calendar for the day and made sure I registered in time. On the day of the event, I arrived at Rockaway Beach, Queens early, at around 7:30 am. The beach was set up with several flags for each team, and volunteers had put down mats over the sand so that it was easier for wheelchairs to get to the water. Each team consisted of several water volunteers and surfers. While waiting for the surfing to begin, I ran into my high school chorus teacher! I hadn’t seen him since I graduated high school in 2006. I learned that he helps set up the event every year!

I then waited for my turn to surf. I was given a life vest and transferred into a beach wheelchair. The volunteers then transferred me onto the surfboard and they propped my upper body up with a noodle. A handful of volunteers picked me up on the surfboard and carried me into the water. Then the deep-water volunteers took over and brought me further out into the water. The water was cold but refreshing, and it brought back many memories of swimming in the ocean. I was hit with small waves of salt water, and it felt so peaceful sitting out there on the surfboard. The surfers then recognized a wave we could ride, and started paddling behind me. Once we caught the wave it felt like we were flying. I had never gone surfing before, but I didn’t realize how quickly you move and how effortless it feels. That was until I suddenly found myself underwater. The board had flipped forward, knocking me into the water. Thankfully the volunteers picked me up out of the water right away and I got to go surfing several more times. It was exhilarating!

Life Rolls On takes people with disabilities surfing all throughout the country, so I encourage you to check out their website to find an event near you!

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Body Image

By Madison de Rozario

I’m Madison, I am twenty-three and a three time Paralympian who competes for Australia. 

I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis twelve days before my fourth birthday. I was misdiagnosed with a number of things initially – all within the realm of temporary paralysis. As hours went by, however, it became apparent the sudden paralysis was not going anywhere. After a stressful twenty-four hours the rising paralysis was pushed back down from my collarbone to T8, where it eventually stabilised. I spent around three weeks in hospital, at which point my parents abducted me against doctors’ orders and took me home. The following is a blog about body image that I wrote for my website.

Over the past few months I have been incredibly lucky in having a number of opportunities to work with different people and organisations discussing body image. This has been amazing for me, as it’s something I am very passionate about, but have rarely had the occasion to talk about.

So, today I am writing about something (mostly) un-sport related for a change.

My relationship with my body has changed very dramatically over time. Accepting the body you have is sometimes a difficult journey, we all have things we love and things we would love to change when it comes down to it. I used to get jealous of people who had little ‘flaws’ that I thought were an easy fix – losing weight, getting stronger – those kinds of things. I think being in a wheelchair is a fairly significant step from what we generally view as the ‘perfect’ body, and I always saw being 100% happy with my body as unattainable, purely for that reason.

Sometimes though, I believe having one big obstacle is nicer than lots of little ones. If you can accept – and genuinely believe – that your body is everything you need it to be in spite of something like a physical disability, it makes accepting the little ‘flaws’ along the way a whole lot easier.

Over the last few years, the way my body looks has rarely crossed my mind. This has in no way come naturally – it has definitely been a process. I’m trying to make everything about how my body feels. Am I healthy, am I strong, am I fast? The reasons for which I value my body have moved so far from how it physically looks and towards what it is able to do. Learning how much your body is capable of doing can change your view of it in such an extreme way.

For me one of the big factors in switching to a more positive mentality came with becoming really involved in my sport. However this was in no way an immediate change. In 2008, I was also preparing for a fairly extensive surgery to correct a significant curve in my spine. How I felt about my body in the most aesthetic sense revolved purely around this thing that I viewed as a huge imperfection. I think I saw it as something that couldn’t be recovered from – there is no way a body that looks like this can be attractive. I did what I think most everyone who isn’t happy with their body does, and wore clothes that were too big, avoided mirrors, and tried to ignore it as best as I could. Recently I found some of my uniforms from those Beijing Games, and eight years later, they are still so many sizes too big and will never fit me. So while yes – I was getting stronger and faster and my body was doing good things, I still had overall negative feelings about it.

On top of that, I was fourteen and in tenth grade dealing with all the regular things that you deal with going through high school.  That’s when all the pressure kicks in to act a certain way, and look a certain way. There was no way I was ever going to fit in to whatever the ‘look’ at the time was. Looking back, however, I think that played a huge part in shaping how I deal with these things now. I have zero desire to fit in with what is in fashion, or what we’re told will ‘look good.’ I know what suits my body, what makes me feel good to wear, and so I do that.

February of the following year I went in for my spinal fusion, which was expected to be a seventeen-hour procedure. I had an incredible surgeon who had decided that it would be worth delaying the surgery until after the 2008 Games, as he was unsure of the extent to which it could affect my body. The race chair position is not a particularly easy one to fold into, and so after having two Titanium rods screwed into my spine, resulting in absolutely no flexion, he wasn’t sure how easy it would be to get back into my sport. As a result of this, we decided that making it to a Paralympic Games was definitely worth the wait if there was a chance of it never happening again.

I was excited going in to the operation, though, thinking about how wonderful it would be to be straighter and more symmetrical. Which was all true! While I still definitely have a curve in my spine, it is infinitely better than it had been. The part that I was definitely not ready for was having to relearn my body. I had spent years doing my best to completely ignore it, and I wasn’t ready for what it would feel like to have to be so aware of it. I learned pretty quickly that I had taken for granted everything my body could do. At the most basic level, my body could bend, I could use my abs, I could do things two-handed and with balance. Waking up and realising all of that was gone was very confronting. The next twelve months I spent getting to know my body again. At first I hated it. Being a little more symmetrical and liking my reflection was in no way worth this. But over those months that completely changed. My body could still do things; in fact, it could do all the things it could always do, just differently. It’s incredible how much your body can adapt.

After learning how to function as a human again in a new body, it was time to relearn how to be an athlete, which was a far bigger challenge than the former. Absolutely everything I knew about athletics was different. I had to start from scratch. My first six months were a complete train wreck and the next twelve were only marginally better. Over time, though, I got stronger, and at some point I realised I was stronger and faster than I had ever been. More importantly, I was no longer in a body I hated. Not because it was more symmetrical, but because I appreciated how far it had taken me and everything that it was capable of doing. The body I had was the body I worked hard to create.

Becoming a stronger athlete has changed how I feel about my body in so many ways. Being able to win medals at Paralympic Games and World Championships is huge, but not necessarily in the crossing the line first or second or third kind of a way, more so in the process. My body and I did this every day in that lead up – for the last ten years. The fact that I can tell my body I need it to do something – this painful training session, climb this hill, lift this weight, hit that wall and then do it again – and that it can do it, is incredible. Over and over again my body and I did this, so when it comes down to it, that final race is just the culmination of years of work, a physical representation of all those walls we pushed through. Medals are nice, but the part that makes me respect and love my body is definitely in the process.

When you are an athlete it becomes so much more than how your body looks. I don’t work every day so that I can look in the mirror and love the way I look. I definitely don’t work every day for my body to look better for anyone else’s sake.  I work every day to push my body to its absolute limit, to see how much further it can go. In my case, how much faster it can go. And that doesn’t have a particular look – it has a feel.

Negative body image affects so many women because we are continuously confronted by these kinds of situations. Our bodies are under constant scrutiny. The commentary over the Rio Olympics is a perfect example of the huge divide between treatment of men and women over their physical appearance. You have a group of incredibly elite athletes, men and women, and yet the women’s side of sports sparks entire debates about whether ‘female athletes should wear makeup or not’ and ‘do the prettier girls get more sponsors?’ It’s so offensive that a woman can spend her entire life working to make it to an Olympic or Paralympic Games and then be reduced to that by some commentator who has absolutely no place to discuss her appearance. Their job is to commentate sport, not whether she looks nicer with makeup on.

There is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ body, and constantly being told it exists is damaging. We’re swayed to dislike our bodies at every turn. I know we are always told ‘even the model doesn’t look like the photograph’ but in our minds, that is what we think we are meant to look like. Even when we have days where we genuinely like our bodies, it’s so precarious. The fact that we have ‘days’ where we like our bodies as opposed to years, is an awful thought on its own.

Being made to feel anything other than love for something that we can literally never be apart from is ridiculous. And yet we are encouraged daily, through different mediums, to want to change – to have a curvier body, a fitter body, a taller body. The ‘perfect’ body doesn’t exist, and yet we spend so much time trying to achieve it, as opposed to what our perfect body is. Your own perfect body isn’t one specific thing. It will change and evolve with you. My body right now is perfect for what I want it to be. It’s strong and fast and can achieve incredible things. In six months or a year when it is stronger and faster, it will be perfect then too. If I’m injured and forced to take time off and I lose all my strength, it is still perfect because it is capable of being all those things and getting back to being those things. It’s normal to want to change your body, whether for it to become stronger, or skinnier, or bigger. If you hate your body every step of the way until you get there, however, you’re spending far too much of your life not loving something incredibly essential to you that is always going to be a part of you.

To someone who is struggling with negative body image, your body is capable of so many wonderful things. At no point in time was your body designed for the visual consumption of any other person, your body is not here for someone in passing who gives you a cursory glance to approve of it.

Personally, if I could talk to my younger self now about her body, I would tell her straight up that it is never going to fit the aesthetic of a ‘perfect’ body and that is okay. Your body’s purpose is not to be visually pleasing, so why do you care if it ticks those boxes or not? I would tell my younger self that you will never be symmetrical, you will not have a number of the things that other people take for granted, but you also won’t care. Your body is going to be so strong, you are going to get to travel the world, you are going to represent Australia, you are going to win medals, you will be a world champion because your little asymmetrical, wonderfully imperfect body will be strong enough.

I feel like that is all anybody needs to know. Your body is enough. You are enough.

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