On Thursday, January 3rd 2019, life as Ash knew it changed forever. In one brief moment, Ash’s life flipped upside down as he awoke in a hospital bed to the reality that one ill-timed jump off a pier had left him as a quadriplegic, bound to a wheelchair and paralysed from the waist down.
As the newest ASN Ambassador to join us, keep reading to learn more about Ash’s incredible perseverance when faced with a life-altering challenge and his inspiring and truly remarkable fight against all odds.
Can you please tell us about your accident in January 2019?
On January 3rd, 2019, it was a beautiful sunny summer’s day and my fiance (at the time) and I took a trip out to Shoal Bay. After soaking up some sun, we decided to grab some lunch across the road at Shoal Bay Country Club. After lunch, we began walking back to the car to go home, when I told my ex-fiance that I just needed to jump off the pier before we left since we’d come all this way. A decision I'll regret forever. I walked out to the end of the pier and waited my turn to jump off, as there were approximately 20 people all doing the same thing. My ex-fiance waited on the shore. Instead of jumping off the end of the pier facing the ocean, I decided to jump off the side of the pier so that my ex-fiance could see. I did a big leap, diving headfirst.
Unfortunately, the water was low tide and I hit the ocean floor breaking my neck and leaving me completely paralysed under the water. I remained conscious, turning under the water until slowly, my head floated to the surface. I remember staring at the ocean floor for what seemed like an eternity, listening to kids laughing and jumping off the pier, and I was certain that no one could see me and I was about to drown. I began to blackout before I was turned over just in time. I was held in the water for close to an hour by my ex and four others, and every ripple of water felt like a knife stabbing in my neck.
I was flown to Royal North Shore Hospital for emergency surgery and a spinal fusion from C4 to T3 vertebrae. I awoke to learn that upon breaking my neck, I had damaged my spinal cord and had now become a C6 Quadriplegic and told I would never walk again.
How has your accident changed your life?
Apart from the obvious in now being bound to a wheelchair and unable to walk, there are sooooo many things you lose being able to do independently. So, there is a big part of yourself that is forced to accept help from others. I'm now unable to drive until I get a vehicle modified, so I am constantly relying on others to get from point A to B. There is never a time where you can just get up and go somewhere sporadically, and everything now requires planning.
Last but not least, I was engaged to be married 10 months after the date of my accident. After spending five months at a rehabilitation centre, I returned home to the news that my ex-fiance could no longer do it anymore and broke up with me the day that I got home. So needless to say, the injury changed a lot for me.
What have you learnt about life and about yourself during your journey?
One thing I found after waking up from my accident, which is surprising to think about looking back at it now, is that I didn't feel sadness after such a life-changing incident. I had and still have the memory so fresh in my mind of believing that I was going to die and had said goodbye in my head. So to then wake up and be ALIVE, I had an overwhelming sense of gratitude.
Throughout my journey, being grateful for what I have is something I’ve tried to instil into my day-to-day life. I believe that there is always someone worse off than yourself. As hard as my disability may be at times, there are so many people that would give anything to have what I have. So, I feel I would be doing them a disservice to not make the most of my opportunity.
I’ve also learnt that my big passion in life is to help others and that it's something I was put on this planet to do. I feel that it’s no coincidence that I was a disability support worker before my accident, which helped me come to terms with the injury and the type of support I would need.
I’ve always been a big believer in karma. So, surely I'm due to have some good things come back around. In the meantime, I'll make them happen for myself.
What are your current health priorities and how have you maintained a healthy mindset?
The doctors told me that with my level of injury, I would only be able to shrug my shoulders. In my mind, I refused to accept defeat and began my journey of defying the odds. Day by day I continued to set mini-goals and with a smile achieved them, proving the doctors wrong. After 6 months in a rehabilitation centre, I returned home to continue my journey and adjust to my new life. 18 months after the accident I am proud to see how much I have achieved compared to where I started. But I am far from done.....
From very early on, the happiest part of my day was when I was in the gym doing rehab because I knew I was bettering myself. Currently, my main health goals are to continue growing strength in my arms and shoulders and maintaining them. Doing this helps everyday living so much easier with pushing the wheelchair comfortably and transferring from the wheelchair to other seats. Also, my respiratory muscles have been weakened so continuing to work on my cardio and lung capacity, especially in these crazy times with Covid-19. I've used several different things to maintain a healthy mindset. Playing wheelchair rugby has been a huge outlet for my competitive spirit. I've played team sport for 26 years and it is the highlight of my week getting into a battering ram of a wheelchair and letting out frustration in a healthy way.
I also try to practice mindfulness and being aware of how I am feeling at the present moment. I've learnt that it's OK to be sad and grieve the things that I've lost. It's a completely natural human response. But, the key is to not spend too much time on the negative emotions and let it ruin my day. Something I started doing during my time at rehab when I was struggling, was setting an alarm on my phone and for 10 minutes, I allowed myself to let it out. Cry and yell, but after that alarm went off, I would suck it up and move on with my day.
How has your outlook on life changed over the past year and a half?
I used to always think of my future and what I thought would make me happy was the typical stereotype of a successful marriage, children, big house, nice car and a well-paying job. But after having a close call with death, it's really made me focus on the things that matter. I realised how lucky I was to still be here and be given a second chance, as many don't get that.
Since my injury, I’ve begun to find this determination to make the most out of every single day as we just don't know when our time on this earth will end. One of my favourite sayings is, “yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That's why we call it the present.”
What have been your biggest challenges to overcome?
There was obviously the big physical challenge to overcome, which I will continue to work towards overcoming. It is a day to day challenge learning what my body is capable of doing. With my type of injury, I have no active muscles below my chest so I feel in a way like a Jack in the Box. But over time, I've begun to learn my body's balance point and where I will fall or not. I also have partly paralysed hands, so it is also a daily challenge to learn how to use my hands in a way that works or using different methods altogether. My mouth has basically become my third hand.
One challenge I've overcome is learning patience as I used to be quite impatient. Like most things involved with my injury, daily tasks can take a lot longer. But I've accepted that and it's better to be patient than not be able to do them at all.
Hands down the biggest challenge I have had to overcome was the months leaving rehab and returning home where I had the biggest mental battle on my hands. Moving into a new home, going through a breakup, and trying to find what my new life would look like, was literally like starting from rock bottom. But as they say, the beauty of hitting rock bottom is that there is only one way to go, which is up. So I'm blessed to say that with the support of my loving family and friends, I was able to get through that.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone struggling with a physical or mental battle?
One piece of advice I would give to anybody facing a physical or mental battle would be to find something that makes you feel good. It could be the feeling of the warm sun on your skin or the sound of waves crashing. It could be a hobby, listening to music, exercise etc. Then focus on the feeling you get by doing this, which will automatically help shift your focus to the present. I found that being present in the moment took me away from the things I would worry about that were out of my control.