'Car crash at 21 left me paralysed - but I'm still grateful for my life'
Gemma Willis’s positive outlook motivates students to make the most of their lives, writes Arlene Harris
At 21 years of age, she had her whole life ahead of her. Training to be a chef, Gemma Willis, from Tullow in Co Carlow, was on the cusp of becoming qualified while working as pastry chef in a prestigious hotel kitchen to gain experience.
With just a year left before finishing her tuition, she had great plans - but fate intervened and the young woman has spent the past few years trying to piece her life together after being involved in an horrific accident which left her paralysed.
"On August 4, 2014, I was complaining to my mum about having sore eyes so she took me to the doctor who advised me to go to Naas hospital as a precaution," says the now 25-year-old. "It was further away than Kilkenny, but we went anyway and ended up spending the entire night in A&E waiting to be seen. I have no recollection of what happened next but apparently we finally saw a doctor and then went on our way home.
"But as mum was driving early the next morning, we were involved in a head-on collision. Mum was taken to Kilkenny hospital to be treated for minor injuries and I was taken back to Naas hospital, where my injuries were deemed so serious that I was transferred straight away to the Mater Hospital in Dublin."
The young woman, who lives with her parents Robert and Elizabeth on their family farm, was put into an induced coma for six weeks, during which she underwent 10 operations as doctors desperately tried to repair some of the damage caused by the car crash.
"I don't remember a thing but a doctor told me recently that when I arrived, there were seven consultants waiting for me and they all stood around trying to decide whether or not it was worth trying to do anything to save me as my injuries were so bad," she says. "This makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck as thankfully I am here to tell the tale. But my spine was broken, I had my right leg amputated above the knee and lost the toes on my left foot.
"In addition, my bowel had been burst, as had several arteries. One of my kidneys was also damaged beyond repair and my stomach muscles had been ripped. All of this damage was caused by the seat belt and the force in which it was pulled against me in the impact.
"I also was fitted with a tracheostomy to help me breathe, I had a fractured bone in my neck and a broken cheek bone which meant that my eye had to be reconstructed with a skin graft from my leg and behind my ear. In total, I spent eight-and-a-half months in the Mater - during which I got spinal fluid on the brain, so I was rushed to Beaumont Hospital, where I had a shunt inserted from my brain to my heart."
After months in hospital, Gemma was then referred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital (NRH) in Dun Laoghaire, where she would spend a further seven months learning how to adapt to life without the use of her legs.
"When I first got into a wheelchair in the Mater, I didn't really understand the enormity of it," she admits. "I don't think I realised how bad I was until I went to the NRH as I had so many injuries and had to learn how to do so many things from scratch. My arms quickly became very strong as we had lessons on wheelchair skills and how to get across roads, up over bumps and rough surfaces.
"There was an OT (occupational therapy) cooking class in the NRH which was fantastic and I quickly adapted to the kitchen. I was so happy that I could get back doing the thing I love most - making nice thing to eat. The staff loved it too and funnily enough the cookery class was on before lunch so I would always prepare loads of delicious food for everyone."
This example of finding a silver lining in the darkest of clouds is what has helped Gemma come to terms with her injuries and overcome her disabilities to 'make the most of every single day'.
"I don't know how it has happened but out of nowhere I have developed this incredibly positive outlook on life," she says. "When I hear people talking about having 'a bad day' I wonder about it, because I never do - I might have a bad moment, but never an entirely bad day - I don't know where the strength has come from but I feel incredibly happy and grateful for my life.
"My cousins told me that the day after my accident, loads of people gathered in the local church to pray for me. They said it was a beautiful service and so many people turned out, including people I don't know. It was assumed that I wouldn't make it, but despite the fact that I'm not especially religious, I made it through so their prayers worked and I will always be thankful for every single day that I have."
With this incredible attitude to life, the young woman is determined to pass on her message and regularly talks to students in schools around the country - about her accident and why none of us should take anything for granted.
"My message to young people is that I was once like them with my path mapped out and suddenly everything changed because of my accident," she says. "I want them to know that things like this can happen to anyone, so no one should waste their lives and take things for granted, particularly their friendships.
"I have really seen who my true friends are over the past few years and I am so grateful for everything they do for me and the fact that they have stayed by me when I needed them most."
And while Gemma no longer has the use of her legs, she makes up for it by using her arms and says she gets so much enjoyment out of life.
"I have no movement in the lower part of my body but my arms are really, really strong," she says. "I go to the gym every week and can lift 40kg, which is almost my body weight (she weighs 51kg) with just my arms - and I don't even have any tummy muscles. I also go swimming twice a week and love the freedom of the water.
"And recently a group of us from the NRH went to the UK to compete in the Inter Spinal Unit Games and I participated in every sport you can imagine - wheelchair rugby, hand cycling, table tennis, swimming, basketball; you name it, I did it. It was an incredible experience and I took loads of photos to show my friends what I and the others from 13 rehab centres are able to do."
For those of us who have full use of our limbs, it seems extraordinary that she remains so upbeat, but Gemma is determined to make the most of her life and doesn't want pity from anyone.
"I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me, why would they, when I don't feel sorry for myself," she asks.
"Everyone in the Mater Hospital and then the NRH were fantastic to me and really helped me to get back together again and on with my life. I go back to see them every so often and really love being there, particularly the Mater as it is where I woke up after my coma.
"Thankfully I still don't remember any of the horror of the accident, but my advice to anyone else who is starting out on a road to rehabilitation would be to try and be positive and don't dwell on the 'what ifs', as it won't get you anywhere at all. When accidents happen, there is nothing we can do to undo them, but what we can do is make the most of what we have and really enjoy the life we have as every single day is precious.
"By telling my story, I hope to make people aware of this and also to perhaps raise some funds for the Mater Foundation who have been absolutely amazing and do so much incredible work for people in similar situations."
For more information or to make a donation, visit materfoundation.ie
Role model: Gemma's message of positivity
⬤ On behalf of the rehab centre, Gemma dedicates her time giving talks to children, teenagers and groups of people.
⬤ She meets transition year students from local schools and talks about how her accident transformed her life. She discusses the importance of friendship and reveals how she lost friends as a result of the crash.
⬤ She encourages young people to be very mindful of their friends and stick by them when they are in need.
⬤ Gemma also tries to get across the message of positivity as despite her life-changing accident, she is determined not to think negatively and encourages young people to focus on the good things in their lives, the things they have achieved and the opportunities life has given them.
⬤ Gemma is also a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, so she encourages young people not to dwell on the past but instead to look forward. She also urges them not to be afraid when things go wrong as there are always ways to adjust and deal with whatever life throws at us.
⬤ She has been chosen as an ambassador for the Mater Foundation's new fundraising campaign.
⬤ They need to raise about €140,000 for two life-support machines, so are using Gemma's story to illustrate the fantastic work that takes place there. And so far one machine has been purchased, which the young woman says is "totally amazing".