At just 12 years old, Hayley Sands damaged her spinal cord following a freak accident in her family home. (Image source: Hayley Sands)

By Bec Gaitaneris@bec_gaitaneris

On the sunny afternoon of Wednesday, January 2, 2013, something happened that changed Hayley’s life forever.

And it only took a moment.

Hayley’s dad, Paul, was watching cricket inside and her mum, Sharon, was just about to head to the shops to pick up food for dinner.

“I remember mum asking me if I wanted to go to the shops with her, but I said I didn’t want to. She went to go get a chicken [for dinner] and sometimes I’m like, ‘fuck, I wish I went with mum to get that chicken,’” Hayley recalls, laughing.

Out of boredom, Hayley decided to go for a swim, like she had been doing for most of her summer holidays. “I was learning how to dive. So I asked my dad to join me in the pool and teach me.”

With her dad watching on, she dove into the backyard swimming pool of her family home just as she had so many times before. As she hit the water, she nervously looked up, just for a second. In that second, the force of the water pushed her neck back causing whiplash.

“I remember facing the bottom of the pool tiles. I was out for five seconds,” she said. It was in that moment that Hayley realised something didn’t feel right. “I remember trying to move, but I just couldn’t.”

Motionless and floating in the water, Hayley’s dad knew something wasn’t right. Thinking quickly, he immediately swam closer and carefully flipped her on her back, supported her neck, and kept her still. He lifted her, and gently placed her on the edge of the pool, waiting patiently until the paramedics arrived.

“I remember dad being calm because he didn’t want to freak me out,” Hayley recalls with a look of pure gratitude on her face.

“It was weird…I could still feel sensation, but I couldn’t move. It felt like ants were crawling on my legs,” Hayley said. She remembers asking her dad: “Why are there ants on my leg? Why are there ants on my leg?”

As the paramedics arrived, so did Hayley’s mum. “Paul rang me saying Hayley had an accident, but he didn’t tell me the extent of what happened. I wasn’t expecting to come home to what I found,” Sharon said.

While Hayley doesn’t recall much of the ambulance ride to the hospital, there is one thing in particular that plagued her mind. “I didn’t have [ambulance] sirens so I was a bit disappointed,” Hayley said.

Hayley came out of it with a C4-C5 incomplete spinal cord injury. She spent eight months in hospital after her accident, going between three different wards until she could return home. “Hospital is not a nice place,” Hayley said with a sombre look on her face. As a current interior architecture student, Hayley said hospital is not “aesthetically pleasing.”

Her recovery in hospital was prolonged due to her being one of the first people with her type of spinal cord injury in a long time. “The hospital wanted to make sure my recovery went as smooth as possible,” Hayley said.

All this from one dive. 

It was only a few days after her accident that Hayley realised things were never going to be the same. “Obviously, I had hoped that things were going to be different, but pretty quickly I just accepted that this was going to be my life,” Hayley said.

But there was more to Hayley’s journey than a long recovery and numerous trips to the hospital.

There was growth – and a lot of it.

With so much time to reflect, to take it all in, Hayley came out of it changed, victorious, and with a new perspective.

It was a pivotal moment in her life because it made her realise that any one moment in time can change the course of your life forever, but Hayley was adamant that  “life still goes on no matter what.”

Rather than complain about all the things that she didn’t have, Hayley focused on all that she did. Instead of complaining about all the things that she couldn’t do, she focused her attention on all the things that she could do.

“I think that you learn to be grateful for what you have and who you have in your life,” Hayley said. “The people I met along the way helped with recovery, particularly those with similar injuries.”

So when things were tough, when everything was an adjustment both physically and mentally, Hayley realised who her people were. “When something like this happens in life, you really find out who your true friends are.”

In the beginning, Hayley struggled with realising that it was not only going to be an adjustment for her, but also for the people in her life. “There were some people that saw it [my injury] as a hassle, but there were others that were like ‘whatever, sure, I’ll hold your dress up while you pee,’” Hayley said.

Hayley believes that it was better she accepted what was to become her “new normal” rather than fight it because it wasn’t going to help her or anyone else.

Since then

Nearly eight and a half years later, Hayley only sees her accident as a positive influence on the person she has become.

Now 21, she’s a passionate fourth-year interior architecture student at the University of South Australia, a member of the Australian Para Table Tennis Team and a dedicated advocate for those with spinal cord injuries.

Hayley often reflects on her accident and how it has shaped the person she is today. As cliché as it sounds, Hayley believes “everything happens for a reason.” Some things have happened in her life that she never would have thought possible before her accident. “I never would have thought I’d be playing [table tennis] for Australia, I never would have been an interior designer,” she said.

“[Hayley] has shown that you can still do things and she is proving it by doing the things she never thought she would do. I’m so proud of her,” Hayley’s mum, Sharon said.

After experiencing places that weren’t accessible – having high tables, steps or no lifts – Hayley liked the idea of studying interior architecture. “I love studying interior architecture because it allows me to be creative and connect with other people,” Hayley said.

“I want to make accessible design seen as standard and beautiful, rather than difficult or ugly, that way everyone can enjoy the experience.”

While Hayley is extremely driven and independent with her university studies, her type of spinal cord injury does require some assistance with certain day-to-day tasks. Her friends and family play an active role in her daily life. “My parents, my family, my sister, my closest friends, they’ve all been an amazing support,” she said. Hayley’s partner of three years, Sam, has also been her rock. 

However, over the years Hayley has gained more independence with daily tasks. “I have gotten a lot more independent, especially with cooking, self-care and driving,” she said. She has also gained physical strength through regular weekly sessions at NeuroMoves, a gym and therapy space for people living with a neurological condition or a physical disability. “I have been attending the gym for about six years,” she said.

Although her spinal cord injury has brought with it unimaginable challenges, it has also brought strength, gratitude and a sense of humour that continues to amaze Hayley’s loved ones on a regular basis.

“Hayley has shown great courage and is a role model to others even though she doesn’t believe it,” Sharon said.

One of the themes of Hayley’s life since her accident has been the idea of acceptance and gratitude. While it may seem harsh, Hayley made peace with the fact there was nothing that could be done to change what had already happened. She believes that you cannot simply hit rewind and start over.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”