Editor’s Note: A year ago, Michelle Earle was an active athlete, mom and spinning instructor at GoodLife Fitness Center in Ottawa, Canada. She taught four classes of spinning each week, with 20-25 students in each class. She was also running half marathons with her friend Chanteal Nicholson, as well as competing in Spartan races on extreme obstacle courses. Then a fateful stumble late at night caused Michelle’s world to start spinning in a different direction.
I’ve always enjoyed challenging myself by exercising, setting fitness goals and accomplishing them. I was getting older, and I wanted to be and stay healthy. I found that exercising and being fit gave me more energy as well as a feeling of accomplishment, especially when the adrenaline was pumping.
I also knew exercise was a very good stress release. I’m a supervisor for a mental health program and graduated from college with a social work degree. When I was in my 30s, I began to recognize my need for fitness. I enjoyed my work, my family and the spinning classes.
How Michelle Suffered a Spinal Cord Injury
In May, 2015, I was at a friend’s cottage. I was walking down a very steep incline after dark when I lost my balance and fell about 9 feet. Because of the fall and the way I landed, I injured my back at T12. Today, I’m paralyzed from the waist down.
I was in and out of consciousness after the fall until the following day when I was being prepared for surgery. The doctors were very blunt with me.
They said, “Michelle, you’ve been in an accident. You’re paralyzed, and you’ll never walk again.”
Those words were like a verbal hard punch to my stomach. Just the night before my life was great, and now they were telling me my life would be changed forever. While I was in the hospital, I asked my husband Michael, “What does this mean? Why did this happen to me? This can’t be true. This is not happening to me.”
One of my biggest concerns was how could I continue to be a mother to my three children – Jasmine 21, Joshua 18 and Jordan 12. I was worried about how I could be a mom, and how I could be the same kind of mom I was before I got hurt. I saw the sadness in the eyes of my children because of my condition, but as my daughter told me many times, “Mom, I’m not so concerned about your being in a wheelchair. I’m just happy you’re alive.”
How Michele Fought Back to Reclaim Her World
I was in the hospital for about 2-1/2 months, including my rehab. To be honest, I was scared, and I was worried about what my life would be like after my accident. I knew I wanted to be independent as much as possible. I didn’t want to have to depend on others.
So, I embraced my rehab. I tried to do everything the therapist asked me to do to become as independent as possible. I did very well in rehab. When I was discharged, I even drove myself home.
However, I thought my active sports life was pretty much over. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to go to the gym again and teach my spinning classes. I thought spinning was history for me. Spinning had been a very important part of my life, because I got to know and look forward to seeing all the people in my classes. They were a big part of my life.
Editor’s Note: Indoor cycling, as an organized activity, is a form of exercise with classes focusing on endurance, strength, intervals, high intensity (race days) and recovery, and involves using a special stationary exercise bicycle with a weighted flywheel in a classroom setting. It is commonly called spinning.
I have a really good friend named Wendy May. From the day she first came to visit me, she would tell me, “One day you’ll be back on a bike again, teaching your spinning classes.” But of course, I didn’t believe her. Wendy was the person who got me back into the gym after my accident – lifting weights and using the equipment in the gym. She was a spinning instructor too. So, in appreciation of her friendship and encouragement, I became a student in her spinning classes with a stationary hand cycle at the gym.
I had a difficult time being around the people I had taught in the classes where I was now a student, because I felt they saw me in a different way now.
The only way I was able to get over this feeling was when more and more people in the class came up, talked to me and told me they were looking forward to a time when I’d be teaching again. They believed in me, and that allowed me to believe in myself.
I had a lot of friends asking me, “Michelle, when will you come back and start teaching?”
I was surprised that my being in a wheelchair didn’t seem to be as big a barrier to them as it was for me.
I realized that I was the person who thought people wouldn’t want someone in a wheelchair teaching them to spin – not the people themselves.
At first, when people would ask me about teaching, I thought they were just being nice. As more and more people started asking me, “When will you be teaching again?” I learned that many of those same people had gone to the management of the gym and asked, “When are you going to put Michelle back on the teaching schedule?”
Management informed my friends, “Whenever Michelle is ready to come back and teach, she’ll have got a spot on the schedule.” I began to think, “I’m still the same spinning instructor that I was before my accident, and I’m good at what I do.” I realized that the wheelchair might be a barrier for many things. But if being a spinning instructor was something I could do, I was planning to focus on doing it.
At the beginning of the class, I thanked everyone for coming. Then I started to cry, and other people in the class cried too. Finally, we all agreed that this wasn’t a sad moment – instead it was a very happy moment for me and for my students. I thanked them all for their support.
The class was packed. We were at full capacity with 33 students for my first session back in spinning. I realized that those people were there to support me as much as they were there to exercise and spin.
After the class, everyone told me how glad they were that I was back, and I felt like I was doing the right thing. Since then, I’ve been teaching one class per week. Eventually, I’d like to get up to two classes per week, as I learn more about my body one year after my injury.
How Michelle Balances Work and Home and How Her Community Has Helped
After my injury, I took some time off from work. I have a wonderful employer. They didn’t see my wheelchair as a barrier to prevent me from doing my job. They were waiting for me to come back to work, whenever I decided I could come back.
Currently, I’m hoping to work five days per week at some point. As far as my family goes, I’ve learned that I still have to be Mom. I still have to make sure all my children get their chores and homework done.
I’ve also learned a lot about the people who live in my hometown of Ottawa. When my community learned about my accident, they rallied together and had fundraisers to raise money to make our home wheelchair accessible.
We were able to redo the first floor of the house to make it accessible and get a lift from the first floor to the second floor. My kitchen was completely redone, so I could cook and do my chores in the kitchen.
The community held a silent auction; they did a GoFundMe page; and they took donations. The people at my work held a garage sale, and my coworkers hosted a volleyball tournament. What surprised me was that there were so many fundraisers held by people I didn’t even know.
I was overwhelmed by the love and support my family and I received from the people of Ottawa.
I don’t know how to say thank you enough for all they’ve done for us. I haven’t really been able to figure out how to communicate to those who have helped so much how very thankful and appreciative we are. Somehow the words, thank you, don’t seem to be enough to express my feelings and my emotions.
Since I’m very humbled by the outpouring of love, money and concern that the people of Ottawa has blessed us with, I’ve started a blog online at www.wheeladventures.wordpress.com.
How Michelle’s World Continues to Spin after SCI
When I was in the hospital and was told I was paralyzed, I didn’t know what my life would look like when I left the hospital. I couldn’t find any books that would help me learn what my world would be like.
So, I committed myself to write about and journal my experiences from the time I got hurt until the present. I recorded my triumphs and challenges in hopes that other people, who were suddenly injured and isolated, could relate to the journey I’d taken.
I hope the blog not only will provide information but also education on what their lives can become. I’ve gone from being a very active, athletic mom with a great job to a lady in a wheelchair, however, the wheelchair doesn’t define me. I’ve learned that your identity is what you decide to make of it.
One of the things I’ve learned is there is tremendous strength in the family unit, and there’s tremendous strength in the friends I’ve made in the community where I live. Even people I don’t know have been supportive – financially, emotionally and in many other ways.
I’ve also learned that going through this process means you’ll have some very, very crappy days, but there are also some good days. So, as you go through those bad days, be aware that good days are out there and will happen.
Because of my accident, I’ve gained a tremendous amount of faith in other people and in human kindness.
I’ve also learned that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was. I’ve never known it before, but I’ve learned how difficult it is for me to ask for help, because I’ve always been so independent. I’ve come to realize that people do want to help not only me but also others, but the only way they can help is for me to ask for their help.
I’ve learned to set goals for myself and then find a way to reach those goals. For instance, when I was in the hospital, I set a goal of driving myself home from the hospital.
Although many people would have been happy to drive me home, I wanted to drive myself. If I was going to become as independent as possible, I felt like this was a goal I really needed to accomplish.
When a tragic accident happens, each of us has several paths we can travel. We can go down a really dark path, which is easy to choose. Or, we can fight our way away from that path onto a more positive path of setting goals and then finding ways to achieve them. Before an accident, a person has many skills and abilities.
After an accident like mine, I had to determine how I could use those skills and abilities with my new condition, since I was in a wheelchair. For example, I never may be able to run again, but I can bike on a hand-cranked bike. I may not be able to walk on the treadmill at the gym, but I still can do weight training.
Maybe I can’t do some of the things I did before my accident in the same way as I did them then, however, I can modify my body and my equipment to still do many of the same things I once did.
These are a few of the things I’ve learned that have helped me, and I hope they’ll help you too.
About the Author:
John E. Phillips For the last 12 years, John E. Phillips of Vestavia, Alabama, has been a professional blogger for major companies, corporations and tourism associations throughout the nation. During his 24 years as Outdoor Editor for “The Birmingham Post-Herald” newspaper, he published more than 7,000 newspaper columns and sold more than 100,000 of his photos to newspapers, magazines and internet sites. He also hosted a radio show that was syndicated at 27 radio stations; created, wrote and sold a syndicated newspaper column that ran in 38 newspapers for more than a decade; and wrote and sold more than 30 books. Learn more at www.johninthewild.com.