You may have noticed photos showing Joan Rubinger in a wheelchair. Here she is to share her story:
By Joan Rubinger
On August 4th, 2015, my life was changed forever. I was an elite athlete my entire life. I competed all over the world as a gymnast when I was young, and then rowing and track & field (pole vault) at the Division I level in college. I was an athlete in all aspects. I ran, I rowed, I lifted.. but I did not bike. In fact, I had not been on a bicycle since 2002, when I was hit by a car and thrown from my bike. I had a friend though, who is an avid mountain biker, and on that fateful day, despite my numerous objections, she pressured me to try it.
Only, I never made it to the trail. I put my feet on the pedals, mounted the bike, and the front wheel zigged and zagged as I tried to gain my balance. That wiggly wheel hit a rock and turned sideways, and took me down a narrow slope, and over the edge of a cliff. I fell head first over a cliff, plummeting over 20 feet onto flat cement, where I landed on my back. I never lost consciousness, and can recall every painstaking moment of this tragic fall.
When I landed, I could barely breathe, but I found the will to scream out, “Help! I can’t feel my legs!” At that moment, I knew I was paralyzed. I was lifted out by a fire rescue team, who scaled their way carefully to the top. I was rushed to Stanford Hospital’s Emergency Trauma Center in Palo Alto, California.
I had 14 broken ribs, two punctured lungs, two hemothoraces (blood spilling into the lung), 5 vertebral fractures, and a mysterious and rare combination of two spinal cord injuries. At the T10 level, the cord was crushed. I have a partial cord injury at T6, resulting in varying levels of sensation and function from the chest down. Below T10, I’ve been categorized with complete paraplegia. Irreversible misfortune.
Immediately after the injury, I underwent two surgeries to stabilize and decompress my spinal cord, and was hospitalized for over two months, first in the ICU, then the trauma unit, and finally a spine center for acute rehab. In the beginning, I had to re-learn how to brush my teeth and comb my hair. It took 9 minutes to put on a sock. I could not sit up on my own, without a harness. I made tremendous strides in my recovery. At 3 months out from this traumatic, paralyzing, life-altering injury, I did the unthinkable. I got onto a plane and flew back to work. This was record time. It normally takes survivors of such injuries 1 to 2 years to rehabilitate well enough to work again – in fact, 90% of them are on permanent disability. But, even after 7 surgeries, my positive spirit and determination willed me back, so that I can continue to help others. This is life, version 2.0, and I am working to make it better than ever.