by Gillian Fowler

As published in BackCare magazine, October 2021

A PARTICULAR accident has had a very long-term impact on my life… one that saw the life as I knew it disappear, and a new one having to be formed.

In early 2008, a beautiful, sunny winter’s day was the setting for another day out horse-riding at local stables in the Aberdeenshire area. I had already spent the morning in the paddock and decided to join another group to go cantering up the back fields after lunch. All was good, everyone was happy, the day was bright and vibrant. But, within just a few minutes of entering the land for cantering, things changed instantly. I had broken my back.

When we are in the midst of challenging times, it can be so hard, near impossible, to see possibilities or keep hope alive. Instead, we are focused on the here and now, how to process and move forward from whatever has happened. This is even more so when the situation is life-changing.

Life is bumpy – I’m sure no-one expects otherwise. After all, it’s through experiences that we continue to grow, as we are forced to adapt and overcome. And it’s our life experiences that make us who we are today.

I truly believe when we have the desire, we can move beyond life-changing situations. It takes time, but it is possible.

Time is key here, as whatever you’re going through, you DO need to deal with the here and now. Without doubt, you have to give this focus, energy and direction. But, as we move from the raw moment, what are we left with? Do you still have the response of negativity, anger, frustration, a bleak side to all that’s around you? Are you left with a negative emotional entanglement that drags you down even further?

What if, over time, you could move from the raw state of the moment to processing with clarity and acceptance, have a stronger mindset, be able to visualise the next best steps for yourself, be more connected with your true inner self and learn how to listen to what is good for you – rather than what’s expected?

All sound a bit far-fetched? Too much of a stretch? Impossible, given where you are just now?

I write this from a perspective of having had to do just this. And, yes, there have been many hurdles and tests to my inner belief, but it is possible.🧡

Please read on as I share just a small part of my story so you can understand that life can be good again, despite having to say farewell to what was my “normal” life.

I have zero memory of the accident, only of lying on the ground, crying out in extreme pain, unable to move, stuck in a foetal position. Although I was wearing a horse-riding hat, the impact affected my short-term memory. Unfortunately, back protectors weren’t common back then – or I would have worn one. The impact resulted in a horrendously painful ambulance journey to hospital where I was told I had broken my back, that it was an unstable break, and I had a suspected broken neck.

Adapt to a new life

The doctors finally agreed my neck wasn’t broken, although an anomaly was noted, and so focused on how to stabilise my back. Emergency surgery was required – after which, it was discovered I was paralysed on my right side.

For those reading this and having gone through a similar experience, you will know the fear and confusion that passes through the mind. I understood the words, but could not comprehend how this could be; it did not make sense to me. Yet, this is what I knew I had to face head on. Thankfully, over the next couple of months, and with lots of rehab, I regained some walking ability. And I was finally able to return home.

I was adamant I needed to be back in my own space and be independent. And, so, I stuck to my guns, and learned how to adapt to my new life.

As with any recovery, it never goes quite to plan. The following years saw spinal collapses, four further major spinal surgeries to help stabilise and tackle the newer issues as a result of that first accident, on-going memory problems, and the resulting impact on how my body “operates”.

However, I never gave up. It was so important to me that I could regain some of my outdoor activities. Having been very sporty from a very young age, I was determined to at least be able to enjoy some activities once again.

There has been a lot of trial and error as I’ve tried to understand what my physical limitations are. I’ve learned to accept that most of my sports will be no more. However, finally managing to get back hill walking has given me a true sense of happiness, peace and clarity. It was seven years before I could have a rucksack on my back. This didn’t mean I was stuck, as I am very blessed with amazing friends who would take my items so I could join them for time out and about. But the day I finally took a rucksack myself was sheer joy – and I’ve not looked back since.

But how did I get back to the hills after such a bumpy journey in my recovery?

Following my last major spinal surgery, I was again very focused on my rehab and this time became aware that the “elastic band” feeling that I had for six years had finally disappeared. This surgery had not only helped to stabilise my spine, but removed this “invisible” effect that meant most days I knew I had to stop what I was doing as I felt like something was about to snap. Wow, elation! And the day I came back from a walk, fully aware it was now completely gone, I announced I wanted to climb Ben Nevis to test it.

Just four months after the surgery, I stood at the top and knew life and my recovery was moving forward in the way I wanted.

I set up the charity, now community group, BackStrong, which mentors the walking spinal community and I founded Usana Mindset to offer key services to help all overcoming life-changing situations, old pain and limiting beliefs to flourish once more.

I feel very blessed to have been able to have the following adventures:

  • Hillwalking across Scotland
  • Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro
  • Climbed Toubkhal in the Atlas Mountains
  • Abseiled in Scotland
  • Abseiled Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa
  • Hillwalked in the Accursed Mountains in Albania and over to Montenegro
  • White water rafted in the Zambezi River, Victoria Falls, South Africa and Scotland
  • Kayaked to several islands in Croatia
  • Hillwalking in Julian Alps, Slovenia
  • Climbed Mount Kenya

Each adventure brings different experiences and emotions and I always come back a better version of myself.

Just to be clear, I am not saying people should do what I’ve done – probably not! – but I only highlight it as it gives you an idea of the strength of mind and body, coupled with the rehab. I have had to build to live a life that my first surgical team said was not possible, where I was told to prepare my house for a wheelchair as there was nothing further they could do. (Note: I sought a second opinion and changed medical teams.)

A different path

Over the years, many people have asked me if I would have changed that day and not headed out to the horses. No! I never say “I wish I had never broken my back”, despite so many changes, so many unknowns, on-going pain and having to say farewell to my old life. I feel my accident has allowed a different path to be taken, one I would not have even seen had that fateful day not occurred.

I founded BackStrong and Usana Mindset because I have a deep passion and commitment to help others. This is your life, choose how you wish to live it. Not for others, but for yourself.

The bumps are just there to remind us how far we’ve come. Believe in yourself. Whatever has happened, you can still flourish. And should you want some support, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

summit of Kilimanjaro
Gillian at the summit of Kilimanjaro
abseiling off Table Mountain, Cape Town
Gillian abseiling off Table Mountain, Cape Town

Link to BackCare’s autumn 2021 magazine:

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