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Episode 6 · 58 minutes
Rhiannon Tracey (Former Australian of the Year)
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In this heartfelt and inspiring episode of the Learning Without Limits podcast, we chat with Rhiannon Tracey, a woman whose life took an unexpected turn after a tragic accident left her quadriplegic. Rhiannon shares her journey of resilience and determination, from the terrifying moments of her accident, to the creation of her not-for-profit organisation, The Next Step. 

Through her story, Rhiannon delves into the importance of mental health, breaking down diversity barriers, and her passion for living an extraordinary life despite her challenges. This episode is a profound exploration of turning adversity into strength, the power of support, and the impact of sharing one's journey to inspire and aid others in their own paths to recovery and self-discovery.

Key Takeaways

  • Turn Setbacks into Comebacks: Rhiannon’s journey is a masterclass in flipping the script on adversity. She looked at her situation and said, “Okay, challenge accepted.” It’s a powerful reminder for us in the professional world to meet obstacles with a can-do attitude and find creative solutions.

  • It’s Okay to Not Be Okay: She’s open about her mental health ups and downs, which is incredibly refreshing. This can be extended to our professional lives and the importance of fostering an environment where it’s safe to voice when we’re struggling, and how it can make a world of difference.

  • Be Inclusive in the Workplace: Rhiannon’s not just breaking barriers; she showed us how irrelevant they are to begin with. This is a nudge for business leaders to look around the workplace and ask, “Are we making everyone feel valued and included?”

  • There’s Strength in a Tribe: Her story underscores the magic of having solid support, be it family, friends, or colleagues. It’s a good call to action for us to be that cheerleader for someone at work, creating an environment where everyone knows they’ve got a team rooting for them.

  • Never Stop Learning: Constantly learning and adapting are key in life – both for personal development and professional development. It’s a good reminder for us to stay curious and embrace new learnings, keeping us agile and ready to tackle whatever comes our way.

  • Pay It Forward: Through her not-for-profit, Rhiannon’s making waves far beyond her own journey. It’s a heartening push for us to think about how our skills and resources can benefit others, making the ripple effect of kindness and support go further in our communities.

Who is Rhiannon Tracey

Rhiannon Tracey embodies the essence of inspiration, transforming a life-changing injury into a platform for empowering others. As a motivational speaker, wellness advocate, model, and lifestyle influencer, she's redefined adversity, creating The Next Step, a spinal injury rehab charity, and advocating for diversity in the fashion industry. Her journey from overcoming personal challenges to achieving milestones like walking with crutches, driving, and riding her horse showcases her unwavering determination and zest for life. With accolades including Cosmopolitan’s ‘Game Changer’ Woman of the Year and Young Australian of the Year, Rhiannon's influence extends beyond her social media presence to impactful speaking engagements and advocacy for spinal injury recovery and women's mental health. 

Stay Curious & Keep Learning with OCA

Take a leaf out of Rhiannon’s book and commit to never stop learning. Rhiannon's story is not just a narrative of overcoming adversity; it’s a testament to the power of continuous learning, resilience, and self-empowerment.

At OCA, we believe in the transformative power of education to inspire and uplift. By enrolling in one of our online courses today, you can embark on a path of personal and professional development that mirrors Rhiannon’s perseverance and dedication. 

Whether you're looking to ignite a new passion, advance in your career, or simply enrich your life with new knowledge, our diverse range of courses provides the perfect platform to keep learning and inspiring yourself and others.

Links & Social Media

Tap Into Your Entrepreneurial Potential with Online Courses Australia

Take a leaf out of Rhiannon’s book and commit to never stop learning. Rhiannon's story is not just a narrative of overcoming adversity; it’s a testament to the power of continuous learning, resilience, and self-empowerment.

At OCA, we believe in the transformative power of education to inspire and uplift. By enrolling in one of our online courses today, you can embark on a path of personal and professional development that mirrors Rhiannon’s perseverance and dedication.

Whether you're looking to ignite a new passion, advance in your career, or simply enrich your life with new knowledge, our diverse range of courses provides the perfect platform to keep learning and inspiring yourself and others.

Listen on:

[00:00:00.790] - Speaker 1

It was a warm, balmy, Bali day in 2009 when a young 20-year-old woman took a dive into a pool to cool off.

[00:00:15.280] - Speaker 3

In the space of seconds, Rhian and Tracey's life changed forever, leaving her a quadriplegic. Whilst awaiting her life-saving surgery in Bali, there was a massive earthquake measuring a magnitude of over seven on the Richter scale. In these terrifying moments where she had no feeling from the neck down and the walls of the hospital were crashing down around her. Rhiannan thought, This is it. My number is up. But the universe, it seems, had other plans for this remarkable woman. Twelve years on, Rhiannan has used this experience to build a not-for-profit organisation called The Next Step to ensure the spinal recovery journey for others is progressive and positive. She shares her mental health journey and how she knows to be kind to herself during the days that are a little harder her. Breaking down the diversity barriers, coaching through her motivational talks, her passion and determination to live an extraordinary life is truly inspiring. Taking an unfortunate turn of events, finding the positive, and sharing the gift of her journey with others. I loved this interview, and I hope you enjoy listening. Welcome to Learning Without Limits podcast series for The Learning Lounge. I'm your host, Melanie Bernicle.

[00:01:27.780] - Speaker 3

This episode, I'm chatting with a businesswoman and motivational speaker whose passion and determination for life is truly inspiring. She's taken an unfortunate turn of events and turned it into a future of positives, and not just only for herself, but for others as well. Please welcome my wonderful guest for today, Rhiannon Tracy.

[00:01:48.740] - Speaker 2

So thank you so much for joining me, Rhiannon.

[00:01:51.450] - Speaker 1

Thank you for having me, Melanie.

[00:01:53.910] - Speaker 2

I've really been looking forward to this interview. You've just accomplished so many things. I just want to get a little bit history on you, growing up when you were younger. When you were young, what did you see for yourself, and where did you think you might have wanted to have been in your late teens?

[00:02:11.420] - Speaker 1

Absolutely. Well, I grew up an only child, so I always had a very strong imagination, and I was always quite self-sufficient when it comes to entertaining myself. I left school at the end of year 10. Every time I put down certain elective subjects, I would never get into them. So I become frustrated. Animal studies was something that I was continuously putting down and never getting into. And lo and behold, I became a veterinary nurse, so go figure. Amazing. Yeah, but I did go down the beauty path. So I left school and became an apprentice hairdresser. And then from that, that then stemmed into makeup and beauty as well. So things that I absolutely loved. I've always had a bit of a creative background, so I loved being able to accomplish things and overhaul things as well. And just what's better than glamming someone up and being able to see their reaction as well. So it worked out well because my mum was a wedding and event planner, so we worked side by side. And I dabbled And I dabbled in managing retail stores and things as well. So I've always been somebody who likes to work amongst people as well.

[00:03:22.500] - Speaker 1

My passion always, when I always came back to self, animals was something that I knew I always felt really humble around. And I just absolutely loved being around animals. It always just gave me this sense of peace. So while I was doing hair and makeup, I was also pooper scooping dog kennels and volunteering at shelters and things like that as well. So there was definitely a lot of balance there. My friends used to laugh at me because I'd come off a wedding with my mum, and then I'd go into volunteering at a shelter, and I would have a full hair and makeup done, and everyone would be like, okay, not the job for you, but I loved it. So for me, that was just such an amazing experience being able to study veterinary nursing and work full-time. And I really wanted to become a zoologist. And I was quite lucky because just before I became injured and my whole path changed, I had an amazing experience where I got to work with the girafes as a girafes keeper at the Melbourne Zoo. So I definitely felt like animals were where I was going to end up in some capacity.

[00:04:37.810] - Speaker 2

Yeah, that's amazing. And you can tell that you know how to do your hair, by the way. It looks fantastic. I'm like, give me some more body. I guess hearing that from you as well, I guess there's always when you're looking after people in the chair as makeup and hair and beauty, there's a nurturing element. And then with the animals as well, I think I don't know, just for having just met you, I would assume that there's a big part of you that loves to nurture and help other people feel good and help animals. And it's just that ingrained in you?

[00:05:10.790] - Speaker 1

Absolutely. And I think that's even translated in where I'm at now within my own business and things like that. There's always been that huge nurturing aspect. And I know that when I was an only child growing up, I was always babysitting and I was always looking after people's dogs or their babies. So So definitely, yeah, tree was something that has always been a huge personality trait of mine.

[00:05:38.430] - Speaker 2

Yeah. And that's a really nice thing as well. Really nice thing to have, I think. Animals and nature, it really does something great for the soul.

[00:05:46.640] - Speaker 1

I remember being in Bali at a younger age, and we went to, I think we were up in Ubald and we were doing things with the elephants. And my mum used to always say to me, she was like, you are honestly, as much as you love animals, animals are going to be the thing that kill you one day because I would be laying on the ground and I would have like, elephants walking over the top of me. And I always just had this trust in animals. I was well aware what could happen, but I always... I know with me, even since having my injury, I've been in lots of situations where animals could have absolutely have taken me out. But I don't know. I don't know if I'm playing with fire, but I just have this trust. I just know that they know that I'm not going to hurt them, and I expect that back, I guess.

[00:06:41.220] - Speaker 2

Yeah, it's one of those things. I think with animals, when you do have that confidence around them, because I used to ride horses a lot. So there was something when you're confident approaching them, there's a different energy. I think that's in life, whether it's with animals, with other people, whatever it is, you bring a certain energy, and they'll bring a certain energy. And if you can have that energy become synchronised in some way and there's an understanding, it's a.

[00:07:08.070] - Speaker 1

I'm a huge empath. So no, I'm all for the energy of all things.

[00:07:18.960] - Speaker 2

Rhianna, you're chatting about Bali. Is Bali a place that you were going to with your family from a young age as well?

[00:07:25.400] - Speaker 1

Yeah, absolutely. So it's funny because my mum and I, my mom's in the process of moving house at the moment, and she's going through all photos, like old photos, and the amount of photos we have of me in Bali just doing random things, and generally often with animals or where animals are concerned. But it was like a home away from home for me. So it was somewhere that my mum and I would definitely travel every year. So we'd get our tax checks back and we'd get on the phone and call each other and plan our girls trip. From going there for so many years, we had extended family of friends that we'd always head over there and spend time with. And I just loved everything about Bali. I really enjoyed the culture, the food. The food was amazing. And obviously, I'm like, Oh my girl, I love shopping. Yeah.

[00:08:17.030] - Speaker 2

And so when you were in Bali when your accident happened, were you there with family at that time or were you over there with friends? Can you talk us through just before the accident?

[00:08:35.350] - Speaker 1

This particular trip to Bali this year in 2009, I was there with my mum and my best friend. So mum and I were generally taking interns each year of who would bring their friends. So I was there with my mum and my best friend.

[00:08:51.770] - Speaker 2

Yeah. Amazing. And this was you were at 20 at the time, weren't you?

[00:08:56.130] - Speaker 1

I was. So two months before my 21st birthday.

[00:09:00.320] - Speaker 2

Oh, wow. So if you don't mind, would you mind just taking me through how the accident occurred and what had happened?

[00:09:11.410] - Speaker 1

Sure. So it was much like many of the other days that we'd spent in Bali. It was actually, I think it was two or three days before we were due to come home. And it had been raining all day in Bali. So we had been cooped up for the majority of the day. But it was my best friend's birthday while we were over there. So that particular night we were going on a Bali sunset cruise. So we had all the things I love, we had the food, the music, you name it. It was amazing. And of course, the world always works in interesting ways because it was the night that we were celebrating her birthday, that the accident happened. And a side note, everybody generally asked me when I talk about my story being that we were celebrating that night is the question I always get is, were you drunk, were you drinking The answer is I wasn't drunk. We had been drinking, but it had been hours before, well, since I had my last drink. So as far as being drunk is concerned, I actually remain fully conscious throughout sustaining my injury up until being in the hospital in Bali.

[00:10:19.740] - Speaker 1

So I remember everything as if it happened yesterday, which took a while to work through, but gave me the ability to be able to tell the story often. So we had actually finished up on the cruise and we'd come back to the hotel that mum and I would generally stay at. We had lots of friends there. The hotel itself had two swimming pools. It had a walkover bridge that divided the two pools. So the front swimming pool was the shallow pool and the back swimming pool was the deep pool. It was literally a matter of we were planning on heading back out. So we'd come back to the hotel, stripped off into our togs, and I had dove into the deep pool. What I had forgotten about this pool was that literally just directly through the centre of the swimming pool was deep. So the pool would actually concave down to the centre of the pool with the sides being shallow. So when I dove in, I didn't dive far enough into the centre of the pool, and I hit my head at the bottom and broke my neck and my back. So I was face down in the water, felt I was back forever, but it was just a few minutes before my friends realised that something was up and dove in or jumped while they didn't dive in, obviously.

[00:11:40.220] - Speaker 1

They jumped in and pulled me out, like I said, fully conscious. So I was freaking out. I knew instantly that I couldn't move anything. I could feel everything. So I had that reassurance from them that because they were touching me and I could feel their touch, that my body I had obviously gone into shock. I had no idea that I'd broken my neck. I just honestly thought I hit my head that hard that my body had really just gone into shock. In that moment, I vividly remember that my mum wasn't with me at that point. She had gone back to our hotel and somebody needed to make that phone call that every single parent dreads, that something pretty horrific had happened to her daughter. And in all the years that mum and I would go to Bali, we would never get on the back of a motorbike. And the next memory I had was my mum flying into the hotel on the back of a motorbike like Wonder Woman. And I was loaded up into... It was like a beat up panel van because it's Bali. And take into the Bali International Medical Centre where I had a CT scan that confirmed that the fragments of my broken vertebrae were wedged into both sides of my spinal cord.

[00:12:59.610] - Speaker 1

And And I needed emergency surgery or my spinal cord could be feathered. So from that, I was then moved to the Dampasar Hospital. And while waiting for emergency surgery, Bali had, I think it was a 7.6 magnitude earthquake.

[00:13:15.020] - Speaker 2

Oh, my God.

[00:13:16.700] - Speaker 1

And pretty much the entire trauma centre where I was waiting was collapsing around us. So my mum was actually huddled over me, protecting me from everything that was falling down. So I was fairly convinced that night that I wasn't going to make it. But here I am.

[00:13:36.550] - Speaker 2

Wow. That's just incredible. To have those two occurrences at the same time. I've got a goosebumps up and down my legs, but It's just unfathomable that you could have two unfortunate circumstances at once. But that's the world and life.

[00:13:54.730] - Speaker 1

There were so many bizarre things leading up to having my injury that if you're a spiritual type of person, my mum and I definitely are. And I think my mum had quite a lot of time to just think about all the things that were happening leading up, and I could go into it, but we'd be here for hours. But there were a lot of There were things leading up to me having my injury that could be a coincidence or just could be, I guess, warning signs from something. But I definitely think that something was meant to So you were left, from my understanding, on the bed while the people were running for cover, your mom's protecting you, but the other staff had to evacuate.

[00:14:38.420] - Speaker 2

Is that- That's right. They were all running. Oh, my gosh. And at this time, did they realise that you had other things going on? Did you have water on the lungs at that point or due to being underwater for a period of time?

[00:14:55.160] - Speaker 1

Yeah. So being in the actual trauma centre itself is a bit of a for me because I'd had the green stick when I got into the ambulance. So I just have flashes of people running out and my mum being over the top of me. I googled, I remember a few years later, I googled the earthquake itself, and I actually found a photo of my mum and my best friend, and I think it was a nurse huddled around my journey and just the photos of what remained of the trauma centre. And I was just like, wow, okay. But at that point, I don't think anybody really knew to what extreme things were with me. At that point, we were just, I guess, basking in the fact that I need to have emergency surgery. And this was an emergency, and everybody that we needed for this surgery was no longer in the hospital. And the doctor or the surgeon himself, who was due to perform the surgery, was stuck up in Ubud and couldn't get down. So the surgery ended up happening. I think it was about 24 hours later.

[00:16:11.530] - Speaker 2

Were you fined at the time or were you just like, I just need to get this surgery. I need to get this surgery. What was your head space?

[00:16:19.900] - Speaker 1

Honestly, I was petrified. I really didn't think that I was going to make it. I do remember people just running around. It was just friends And it was interesting. We had an earthquake here in Melbourne last week, I think it was, and it was a six. And I barely even felt it. I was sitting at my kitchen bench. I think I was drinking a smoothie. My mum rang me in. She was like, did you feel that? Because my mum I was traumatised from Earthquake. I've been in a few since because I lived in California for nine months, so I experienced a few then. But honestly, it was just chaotic. And they're the memories that I have of just everyone being frantic. But then I also remember that not long after there was media and stuff coming in, trying to get photos and things like that to, I guess, use me as a story that I'd been injured in an earthquake. You have to imagine Bali is, I guess, somewhat of a third world country, and it's very much a money hungry country. So whatever they could get, they were going to work with me. So it was quite horrific.

[00:17:35.830] - Speaker 1

And I'm glad that I don't remember that. I bet.

[00:17:42.870] - Speaker 2

So how long after were you able to be transported back to Australia?

[00:17:48.250] - Speaker 1

I had travel insurance, which is definitely the reason why I'm still alive, that's for sure. And I say to everyone, I spent the first five years post-injury talking to youth and talking to students and year 11 and 12 who are planning schoolies trip. I said, if I can tell you anything, just take that $100 and get travel insurance. It will save your life. So I was in the hospital for two and a half weeks. So there was many, many communication breakdowns. The travel insurance company were under the impression that the surgery that I had went well. I was able enough to be brought home on a normal flight. But by the time the doctor and the nurse from Australia came over to bring me home, I was literally taking my last breaths. And I remember this crystal clear. So they ordered the hospital to perform a radiograph of my lungs because I couldn't breathe. And the report came back that my lungs were fine, but the Aussie nurse held the X-ray up and you could see that my lungs were completely black. And she took a photo on her iPhone, sent it back to Australia, and the doctor just went, get her out of there.

[00:19:02.950] - Speaker 1

We need to get her out of there. So there was talks of having a plural infusion done, but I caught so many infections and things like that in the hospital So basically what had happened is in Australia, they would take out everything that is broken, they'd replace it with titanium. In Bali, they don't have access or the forms for titanium. So they wide me out with stainless steel. So we later found out that My neck wasn't even secure on my head. Both my lungs had collapsed because they hadn't drained my lungs during the surgery. I hadn't moved my bowels for two and a half weeks. I was moved back to the Bali International Medical Centre from Denpasar because it is a Western hospital, and the communication breakdowns were quite extreme. So when they moved me back to the BIMC, it was a matter of trying to clear my I was obviously quite ill because I hadn't used my bowels for two and a half weeks and to get me, I guess, well enough to send me home on an air ambulance. So that happened. But as I was being put onto the air ambulance, I was given an antibiotic that turned out I was allergic to and I went into anaphylaxis.

[00:20:20.600] - Speaker 1

So I should have been put into a reduced coma for the flat home, and I wasn't. And I also had a huge fear of flying before this happened. So it was, I know, I don't have no fears now. Definitely not a flying, I'm actually dating a pilot who's like, Come on, let's, I want to put you in my plane. I'm like, okay, I can do anything now. But yeah, so it was quite an ordeal. So very, very lucky to be here and very thankful to have made it just through the ordeal of Bali. And I felt, I guess once I got to Australia, I felt somewhat of a reassurance that things would be better or everything would be fine once I got to Australia, not knowing the severity of my injuries at that point, because whenever I was asking questions in Indonesia, in Bali, I was always getting very mixed messages. So I was asking, will I walk again? And it was, smile through your heart. And I'm not kidding. That's literally what I was being told. So there was never a clear, yes or no. And I was longing for the yes or no.

[00:21:42.090] - Speaker 2

Yeah, you're one brave woman. I think I would have been having a breakdown.

[00:21:46.710] - Speaker 1

Well, I definitely was. But I guess the brunt of it was coming back to Australia, I was told that I now needed three surgeries to correct what Bali had attempted to fix, which meant causing more trauma around my spinal And just to familiarise yourself with spinal cord injuries. So the brain and the spinal cord work together to make everything in your body function. And when an injury occurs, it creates a traffic jam. So at this point, I was completely paralysed from my neck down. And people meet me now, and when I tell my story, they're like, oh, you can move your hands and you can do this. I'm actually quadraplegic, so I broke my C5 vertebrae. So I'm what's considered an incomplete quadraplegic. And I guess one thing I I can say is, initially there was a huge risk of having my spinal cord severed, which is why they wanted to operate on me in Bali. And to this day, I am grateful. I'm the type of person that finds a positive in every negative. So I am grateful to an extent that I was operated on because my spinal cord is still attached. And I have what's now considered as an incomplete injury, which means that I do have nerve regeneration, but the spinal cord itself can't regenerate, but everything Everything around it does.

[00:23:01.360] - Speaker 1

So as time progressed and the more work I did, I did have natural recovery. And I present as a paraplegic unless you really know spinal cord injury well, and you look at different parts of my body, and you're like, oh, okay, well, that's how you're a quad and things like that. But bearing in mind, I was completely paralysed from the neck down, so I couldn't feed myself. I literally couldn't move. So being told that I needed extra surgery and I was at more risk of losing even more feeling and sensation and movement. At this point, I had none. So I was just like, something's going to give, but you've got to do what you've got to do. And my family were being told that if I survive the first 24 hours of just being back in Australia and being in the ICU unit, that they should feel, I guess, happy to some extent. My goodness.

[00:24:03.200] - Speaker 2

Can I ask, when they went through the process of you being able to create those, I guess, the extension of the neural pathways and being able to do, How long a process is that from being pretty much not being able to move to then having the sensation? How long did that process take? Because now I did realise two years later, you could stand for periods of time. But from being completely paralysed from the neck down, how long was it before you were able to just do even some of the small things?

[00:24:40.970] - Speaker 1

So about two months into my injury, so once going through the additional surgeries, being in ICU and then being put on the acute ward at the Austin Hospital here in Victoria, it was about two months into my injury that I started moving my left toe. Now, when I say moving, I I would think about moving it and it would move a couple of minutes later. And that's where I talk about the traffic jam. So you would think of doing things and it would actually take a while to process. So by the time you're not thinking about it anymore is when it happens. And that was written off quite often as an involuntary spasm by doctors, which is very frustrating, and I still hear that to this day. But it was about two months later. And for me, my toe was the furthest thing away from my brain. So I was like, if I can make that move, then I need to find a way to put the jigsaw puzzle together. And my mum was googling, reading, watching every video. She was just like... She became the encyclopaedia of sparenochord injury recovery She was out there.

[00:25:46.540] - Speaker 1

She found it. And she was just constantly on the phone or over my bed saying, as soon as we get out of here, we're going to go and we're We're going to do this. We're going to do this. And she was always... For me, it was really interesting because it wouldn't matter what the doctors would tell me, which was often quite without hope. I don't want to say it was negative, but there was never... I think When you're so vulnerable, you want something to hang on to. And I just couldn't get that something from the medical professionals, not be grudging them because they got to do what they've got to do. But when my mum would come into my room and she would She would talk to me, she gave me the hope that I needed, or she was showing me videos and photos and reading me stories of all these people that were doing incredible things. And she was like, well, if they can do them, you can do them. I love that. She was definitely the one instilling the hope.

[00:26:45.860] - Speaker 2

Thinking back, would you say that your mum was probably the biggest part of your mental health journey by giving you that hope?

[00:26:54.520] - Speaker 1

I think she still is in a good way and a negative way, Absolutely. Look, yeah, she would be in my hospital room for 12 hours, popping me up. And unfortunately for her, my mother is a smoker, and her smoking got a lot worse post-injury. So she would duck out to have a cigarette. And in that time, a nurse would come in and just completely deflate my attitude. And she would just come in and just be like, oh, my gosh, I just spent 12 hours in here trying to pep her up. So my mum definitely got to the point where she... I think at one point, she even put a sign on the door and it just said, if you're coming in here with anything negative to say, don't come in. And she was known throughout the hospital as the pain in the ass mother because she would literally stop people from coming in to my room if she knew that they weren't going to give me what I needed in that time.

[00:27:59.690] - Speaker 2

Like, Was there any time when your mental, just the downside of it really got to you?

[00:28:06.290] - Speaker 1

Absolutely. And that's something that I really try and talk about often because, again, I present as quite a positive person. I'm 12 years post-injury now. So how I make it through a bad day now is so different to even five years ago. I think for the first five years of my injury, mum and I would refer to them as bad spinal cord injury days. And dad There'd be days where I would literally just say, I hate having this injury, and I still do hate having this injury. But early on throughout the first, I guess, year of having this injury, those bad days would have me saying, Mum, I just don't want to be here anymore. And she got to the point where she was like, Well, if you don't want to be here, I'm going with you. And she'd actually reverse psychology me and make me feel really guilty. And she was really good at that. My mum It was such a tough love type of woman, and I definitely get that from her now as a life coach. But I had more days. I did have a lot more negative days than positive days, whereas now, like I said, I very much learned how to implement tools to get me through those days much more positively.

[00:29:21.380] - Speaker 2

Do you experience with where you're at now much pain, physical pain with anything, with unusual nerve sensations or when you have a bad day now, is it a pain-related or is it a frustration level? Sometimes you're wanting to do something or...

[00:29:40.280] - Speaker 1

I think physically and mentally, yes. It's interesting because I remember saying to my partner, funnily enough, on our first date, he asked that question, and I said, no, I don't really get pain because I associate pain because of my injury with having nerve pain, which a lot of people have with this And thankfully, it's not something that I experience. But going through COVID, like, okay, Melbourne has been the most locked down state in the world, has made me realise by not having to My access to the things that I usually would have to keep me moving has completely shut my body down. So I have experience. It's more so muscle pain. I overcompensate in so many ways with my body trying to do things that an able-bodied person would do. And I'm a very brutally independent person. So I'm that girl that when somebody offers help, I might know, and then I pay for it later with pain. So, yeah, look, it's been very interesting this COVID thing because I've had to acknowledge that I can't do everything, and able-body people can't either. So that's where I have to keep coming back down to, and now I implement more things to more rest days or Or after 12 years of pretty much not having a carer or a support person, I've now got somebody that comes into my house two days a week and does things for me to just allow me to rest because I do wear so many hats and I do do a lot of things that play habit on my body.

[00:31:22.230] - Speaker 1

So I think it's been an interesting, I'm going to say, 18 months because it's definitely made me look into how I care for my body differently. For 12 years, I've been my body first. Now I'm my mind, my body. What I started to acknowledge was that There are days where my injury influences how I function. So even though I'm very independent and there's really not much I can do besides run, there are a lot of things to do with this in terms of addiction.itate my capabilities. So I already miss out on things because of my injuries. So if I can control the pain aspect, then I'm going to implement something to ensure that if today is a bad day, I'm going to implement something that's easy that will make tomorrow a better day. So for me, my carer is here today. She's out there topping vegetables and things like that to ensure that I eat good today. So that's tomorrow is a better day. That sounds all right for me. I mean, we can only control what we can control. And I've definitely learnt that the hard way.

[00:32:42.710] - Speaker 2

And then, so Rhian, knowing that the support that you've had over the years to physically be able to get you to this an amazing point where you're at and to do all these different things. Is that why you brought about your business and that you implemented with your mum so that people could get the right care through the next step sooner rather than later in their rehabilitation spinal cord injury journey?

[00:33:09.400] - Speaker 1

It was all about having options, which I always say to this day, all I wanted to do when I had this injury, besides obviously walk, everybody who's injured wants to walk at the start. And that whole journey is a process within itself and a conversation within itself. But When I was injured, there was just no options for somebody who wanted to improve. We were so easily written off by the doctors, not so much the nurses, but more so the doctors. It was like, once you become an outpatient, what you do is up to you. And within the hospital, there were classes like wheelchair skills, which I refuse to go to, which now I'm like, why didn't I go to? Because to this day, I can't even get down a gutter on my own. But that's okay. It means I have to talk to people and ask for help, which has always been an issue for me, like I said. But when I mentioned earlier that my mum was sourcing all of this information And that was hours of work within itself that she could have been having her own self-care implementations as well. So the fact that we had to find things that didn't exist within our own country, given how far advanced our medical system is, was just very bizarre.

[00:34:35.510] - Speaker 1

And as we started dipping our toes into this world, it became apparent why, why we didn't have these things. And the reality was the red tape. And like I said, I lived in America for nine months after having my injury because there was nothing available for somebody who wanted to... I'm going to say initially it was to walk again because that was my goal.

[00:34:59.620] - Speaker 2

I didn't fathom anything in between.

[00:35:03.680] - Speaker 1

It was as I was starting to reach milestones, I was starting to see the importance of these little things, like being able to go to the bathroom on my own or being able to brush my teeth or just look after myself as a 21-year-old. I spent my 21st birthday in hospital, so just being able to take care of myself. When I was able to do that, it was like, I'm okay. And as the years rolled on, it was like, oh, maybe walking isn't the be all and end all, because if I'm putting all my energy into walking, I'm actually not living. And that's what it came down to. So we found this incredible facility in America that really what it came down to was instead of being treated as disabled, I was being treated as injured. And when I asked questions, instead of the no, it was the well, maybe. And it was such a mindset shift being amongst people who had a positive energy and they all had goals. Whereas in the hospital, there was no talk. The goal setting was coming out of hospital and getting home. Whereas for me, being in hospital for my 21st birthday, I received two letters from Vic Rose, one saying, you've got your full licence now that you're 21, and another one saying, we're suspending your licence indefinitely.

[00:36:29.930] - Speaker 1

Because of your injuries. So for me, I was like, well, that's a goal. I don't want to not be able to drive. Put those two letters, mum, on my pinboard in front of my bed because there's my goals. So it was completely It was just it was providing options for different goals that we could potentially reach, but also having me physically being treated as injured, not wrapped up in cotton, not just having my arms moved up and down, because my question So often during physio sessions here in Australia was, why aren't you moving my legs? And the response that I was getting was, well, because they're not doing anything. And I was like, well, isn't that more of a reason to move She gets them to. And this is somebody who I had absolutely no idea about fitness or anything like that. I was not an active girl, per se. And now when I hear people say, if you don't move it, you lose I'm like, actually, that's the truth, because it wasn't rocket science what we were having access to in America. So we knew we needed to bring something over here because we were meeting hundreds of Aussie families that had small children that were having to fundraise like we had to because my injury was in Bali.

[00:37:50.810] - Speaker 1

No compensation here, no NDIS at that point. So people that were fundraising to access these therapies in America, we We were just like, no, this is ridiculous. So we bound together with all these people that we were meeting and said, all right, how do we do this in Australia? And at that point, we were really like clutching at straws. We had nothing. We had nothing left financially because, again, non-compensated injury. But we had our community. And even though physically I had no movement, I had my voice. And my voice has been, I guess, my stepping stone to move this community forward when it comes to disability and the spine cord injury recovery.

[00:38:34.660] - Speaker 2

You haven't been frightened to come forward, and the fact that you're really open and honest about, yeah, the mental health stuff's there, yeah, the physical stuff's there. And it's like life in general is always a work in progress from when we start to when we finish. But I think giving yourself that voice is so empowering to so many different people going through many different things in life. And the fact that you've had your mum just that main support, now you're supporting other people. These people that you're bringing through the next step are so lucky that you've experienced this, and then you can be that positive voice that enables them to open their mind to the possibilities?

[00:39:18.310] - Speaker 1

I mean, this injury and what's available for this injury is so further advanced now than what it was 12 years ago. We're at a point now where stem cells are looking like an option here in Australia. And never in my lifetime did I think that a cure would be available potentially for this injury. And we're definitely heading towards that direction. But in the early days, everybody said to me, everything happens for a reason. And I was like, you know what? You are lucky I'm paralysed because I definitely want to be a tackle you. But I do think, like I said earlier, something was going to happen. And I'm a firm believer. We all believe in something and something different. But I'm a firm believer in the fact that this happened to me for a reason. I was never going to just sit silently. And even on my dark days that we spoke about earlier, I was one person on a ward of 20 at some stages that was the only one that was proactive in fighting physiotherapists for more physio time and things like that. I was never just going to literally sit. I And the last 12 years has happened because of that.

[00:40:37.660] - Speaker 1

So I guess I've always had the tenacity of... I don't know if it's whether I've had the tenacity or I've just never really worked well with the word no. My mum would always say, you never took no well. Every time I told you no, you were like, Oh, that was your motivation. I'm like, Well, I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's definitely transpired into something great as an as an adult versus as a teenager. But yeah, something was definitely meant to happen for me to be able to turn my pain into a purpose. And in saying that, I share my story and I use my voice now, not just within the disability community, but to everyone, because I think it shouldn't have to take something horrific or traumatic to make a shift within our lives for us to realise our potential. But unfortunately, that is the case. You could use COVID as an example. But even as somebody with a spinal cord injury, I've gone through so many things. I've gone through a terrible marriage breakdown. I've experienced things that able-body people have experienced that have been grief stricken that have even changed aspects of my life in amongst that as well.

[00:41:52.300] - Speaker 1

So again, we've all got a purpose. It's about igniting it.

[00:41:57.970] - Speaker 2

I think the diversity and the inclusion factor with what's been going on globally for the last couple of years is really pushing the boundary so there's not a certain stereotype doing a runway. There's not a certain stereotype doing a particular job. It's opening us up to so many things. And seeing that you did Melbourne Fashion Week, I love that. And that's how it should be. I think when people see someone out there that they can relate to on different levels, whether it's an emotional level or physical level, there's something so empowering in that. And we're seeing the changes globally. Is this something that you think that you want to have a presence in and be doing stuff like this because it's important for other people to see the diversity and the inclusion factor?

[00:42:47.750] - Speaker 1

Look, I honestly believe that you just don't know what you don't know. And all of the things that I do now, I do literally because, no pun intended, but I've fallen into them. And when I say that, I mean Being a model and a public speaker and things like that, there were never things that were on my bucket list for life. It was a matter of I was out doing things within the community or I was having conversations with people and everybody was coming back to this. Well, it doesn't exist. And I guess it was the same as access to rehab when I was injured. And I was like, well, if it doesn't exist, we need to find a way to create it. And I think that for me, that's definitely been a huge eye opener for me, because had I have not been injured or disabled, I wouldn't know that there was no inclusion within fashion, media, you name it, pretty much everything that exists. And that just really annoys me because when I talk about the fact that I've gone through things that an able-bodied person goes through, I'm like, well, there's equality right there.

[00:44:02.490] - Speaker 1

You and I, we're not different. So why are we being treated differently in different industries? That doesn't make sense. I'm a female. Yes, I'm in a wheelchair, but I still wear clothes and I still enjoy going out. And I actually don't understand why if somebody's building a new building, why they're putting stairs when not everybody can use stairs, but everybody can walk up a ramp or anybody can use an elevator. So I guess I was just becoming more aware of these things as I was experiencing them myself, myself or having these conversations. And honestly, the fuel behind everything I do is because it just pisses me off. I just can't fathom how something that could be potentially so easy is so overlooked. And even where I sit today, I'm still quite pissed off and frustrated that in the last two years we've seen all these movements happen, but disability still sits silently in the background where people are literally missing out on opportunities because there's no access. It just does not make sense. So there's a different perspective around a lot of things as well. And I guess an able bodies perspective on what's accessible versus what is actually accessible if you're disabled are two very different things, too.

[00:45:35.840] - Speaker 1

But I guess for me, I'm somebody who's had both lives. I've been an able-bodied woman, and now I'm a disabled woman. So I understand, I guess, the ignorance behind access and inclusion, and I respect it. But now I'm a disabled woman who's ready to educate people on how simple it is to have equality within any organisation or industry because people are missing out, disabled people are missing out, but also these industries are missing out as well.

[00:46:10.840] - Speaker 2

Rhianna, I think that's some great points that you've definitely put together. And I think just having that diversity and equality really is just so important for everyone to see. And I think you're doing an amazing job and inspiring one of that. Can I ask you, just jumping topics a little bit. When setting up your business, can I ask from a business point of view? Obviously, your mum had her events business and you're working with her at a younger age. But when you're starting a non-for-profit, that's a massive lot of paperwork to get through within itself, and then to be able to start something that's helping other people. Where did you even start mentally when it comes to business, getting that one-off the ground?

[00:46:59.980] - Speaker 1

So I am professional at calling people in with skillset that I don't have. So I'm a great delegator. I think I get that from my mum as well. My mom's always been quite business savvy She's an accountant, so that's her background. So she's always been great with numbers. But also my family had been involved in a go-cart club, which was a not-for-profit, sorry, not a not-for-profit, an incorporated association. So my stepdad was the President of that go-cart club. So he had the knowledge of how to set up an incorporated association. My mum had the numbers, and then we just literally pulled in whomever we needed to be able to assist us and guide us. So we literally put a shout out into the media and said, this is what we want to do. Meet us at this time at this place if you want to be involved, both spinal cord injured or not. And I think we had over 100 people end up at that location. I know it was amazing. And from that hundred people, there was our membership base for our incorporated association. And then it was creating the fundamentals that we needed, both to set up the business, but also to have the expertise within the facility.

[00:48:18.290] - Speaker 1

Once the facility once the facility opened. It took us almost three years. So we also did this without any funds behind us. There was no capital. Everything was literally We fundraised from the ground up. It got to a point when we did finally open, my family remortaged their home a couple of times to pay the wages of our staff because we knew we were going to get a break. We knew that there was a need for this. And even to this day, I still have conversations with my staff. I remember I used the start of COVID for an example where businesses were freaking out and they were letting staff go because they didn't know what was going to happen. They were going to have to close their doors. Whereas I was just like, we'll be okay. And everyone was like, how do you know? I'm like, I just know. I just know because what we've created has been needed. There's a need for it, and it was always going to be hard. That's why it hadn't been done. But I knew that there was going to be something that was And it has been really going to help guide us through this, and it has.

[00:49:33.520] - Speaker 1

And we've been open for eight years now, and I have the most incredible team of staff. I've been able to step away and not be there five days a week to run it. And it really is like it has been a struggle with COVID because even though as an essential service, a huge majority of our clientele is the elderly, and they literally don't want to leave their homes out of the fear of catching this virus. But we've been able to just move through it together. And I think it really has quite like my veterinary nursing years, it's It's been on the job training. It really has. I think the struggles that I've been hit with have forced me to go out and seek the knowledge that I needed to move forward. And I still have moments where I scratch my head and I'm just like, I have no idea how we did this. No idea. But at the same time, of course, we did it because we had the passion. We had the need. There was a need for this. And I guess the more great stories that have come out of my facility, all these...

[00:50:55.330] - Speaker 1

I don't call them... Our clients, I don't call clients. I don't call them patients. We call them athletes because the next step is a whole body holistic approach to recovery. The more milestones they're reaching, the more people are seeing that. And there's just so much proof out there that options create further abilities. And for me, if I can just see one of my athletes smile each day, that's one more smile than what I saw when I was lying in that hospital bed or pushing picking up the hallways at the hospital. It's a positive environment. It's just something that we needed.

[00:51:36.770] - Speaker 2

For anyone out there who's starting a business and doing anything, is there one particular moment that you remember that you just think, wow, and you really had to think, okay, how are we going to get through? And is there anything that you could talk about, talking about that resilience mindset of, hey, this is how we did it?

[00:51:57.120] - Speaker 1

I think as human beings, one of our biggest struggles and our I'll always come back to this because I know for me, as I've mentioned a few times, is the ability to ask for help. And being a not for profit organisation without any funding capacity behind us and then also servicing a community that is so small but exists. We literally had many times within the first two years of being operational where we came so close to closing the doors. And And it was, I guess, being able to brush off the ego and actually going out into the community and the media and saying, look, this is why we need this place to stay open. Here's the stories Here's the achievements. As we were contemplating closing the doors, we had a little boy who I think he was nine years old when he took his first steps because he had spun a bifid up. You know what I mean? There are stories like that that we were like, this is what's happening. Tell me we don't need this. We need your support. And I guess the difference between my organisation and many not-for-profit out there is that you could physically see where your money was going.

[00:53:14.760] - Speaker 1

So even to this day, we have what we call an athlete scholarship programme, where somebody can actually donate funds to our organisation to support an athlete who is uncompensated throughout their recovery. So they're literally a part of the recovery of the person that they're sponsoring as such. So they can watch that process unfold. They get to see the milestones, and what's most importantly, the mental changes. The majority of our clientele are young guys who have had motorcycle accidents or motor accidents as such, and they come in and they're completely withdrawn from the world. They're frustrated, they're angry, and then they go off to have one in particular who's a great friend of mine. He's got a son now. He's got a beautiful partner. He started a tattoo apprenticeship, and he's now an amazing tattoo artist. So now where I sit within recovery to where I was 12 years ago, and this is how I educate people who are newly injured, recovery does not just mean walking. It is having the ability to improve your quality of life. And I think there's a big difference between having a life and living a And that's what I strive to help people achieve, whether able bodied or not is having a life, living that life.

[00:54:41.160] - Speaker 2

I think that's just such a beautiful way to want to live your life as well, because when you're doing that for people, I just had all goosies when you were saying that on my legs. And it's just you're right. So many people just get stuck in the doing and then living this life. And there's so much more to it, exactly what you're saying. I just can't agree And for people who have been able-bodied and then having to go through that mental trauma and then bringing them out the other side, what you're doing for people is remarkable. But then people like myself who aren't injured and just looking at this going, well, I can step up. I can get my head around other things. And it's really inspirational, I think, for so many people on so many levels and seeing people come together to fundraise and then get behind what you're doing as well must just be something that's really nice because you believe in it and you're showing the difference that it makes. And do you find that you get a lot of inspiration from the people coming through your programme as well?

[00:55:42.920] - Speaker 1

I mean, I literally just wrote a piece on the word inspiring and just how, going back to speaking about perception before, just how loosely the word inspiring or inspired is used, because when somebody says to me, you're inspiring I'm like, I'm playing the cards I was dealt with. For me, I couldn't see me doing anything else, but that's my point of view on things. But when you speak to people in the disability community, the word inspiring really hits a nerve because you hear people say, oh, it's really inspiring that she went to her formal or she's doing this or they're doing this. And we come back to, well, wouldn't you be doing that? If you're able-bodied, how are we different? What? Because we're disabled and you're not. That's inspiring. But for me, watching my athletes every day, I wouldn't say it inspires me, but it definitely drives my determination. So During those days where there were conversations about closing the doors, I was like, okay, but if we close the doors, these people literally will have nowhere to go. We will go back to having to fundraise. If we're We're not fundraising for the next step, we're fundraising for people to go overseas.

[00:57:02.800] - Speaker 1

Wouldn't we want to keep our money in our country, these people in their safety and comfort of their own homes? So for me, they just Every single one of them just really drives me to do better. And you can really have, excuse my French, a really shitty day, and then you can see what happens in the next step. And you're like, okay, my day is not so bad. You know what So for me, it's just given me a reason every single day to get out of bed and do better.

[00:57:39.850] - Speaker 2

Gosh, well, I think after watching this, I think a lot of people are going to be wanting to get out of bed and do better because it's just such a great journey that you've been on to see where you're at and just what you're doing for other people is just beautiful. And it's been an absolute privilege to have a chat with you. And hopefully we get to play makeups one day.

[00:57:59.450] - Speaker 1

Yes, I'd love I love that.

[00:58:02.010] - Speaker 2

Oh, gosh. Rhianna, thank you so much for sharing your journey because I think- Thank you. Yeah, it's a beautiful one. And it's a real privilege to sit here and have a chat with you. And yeah, it's been amazing.

[00:58:15.530] - Speaker 1

Thank you so much, Melanie.

[00:58:17.440] - Speaker 3

Thanks for joining me for this episode of Learning Without Limits for the Learning Lounge. I'm Melanie Wernickele.

[00:58:22.790] - Speaker 2

See you next time.


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