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My spinal cord injury story from physician to patient, and how I rebuilt my nervous system

t took a traumatic spinal cord injury in 2008 to transform my life.

The experience was a radical awakening. I was told that I would never walk again.

On one fine spring day in 2008, my life changed forever. I was walking to work when I was hit by a car at high speed. My body was flung into the sky, and as I hovered, like a slow-motion movie, a few thoughts ran through my head.

You may be wondering how someone who seemingly had it all lacked self-worth.

How did that happen?

Being a perfectionist, I used to beat myself up for making the tiniest of mistakes. I didn’t listen to my own needs when work got busy. I did my job on autopilot, running from ward to ward, doing my charts. As a doctor, I was programmed as a lone ranger. I did not seek help because that meant I was weak, not capable, and not competent. My lone ranger programming made me feel isolated, disconnected, and helpless.

Isolated, disconnected, and helpless.

Which was exactly how I felt flying through the air after being struck by a 3,000-pound vehicle traveling at 40 miles per hour. I landed with an earth-shattering thud. The impact left me a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair, and told I’d never walk again.

But I was resilient and never gave up hope.

I spent three years at Project Walk in San Diego, and I did learn to walk again with grit, determination, and the support of my husband, family, and close friends.

At first, I thought that state-of-the-art technology was what was going to help me, but after spending two years there, I realized that my experience at Project Walk taught me a far more powerful life lesson: self-compassion.

See, my experience learning to walk again was the exact opposite of my life as a resident:

Instead of being on autopilot, wishing that I had a catheter to not think about going to the bathroom, I had to be mindful of each step I took. Instead of being a lone ranger struggling to seek help, I connected with fellow spinal cord injury survivors, bound together by our common humanity and our common suffering from spinal cord injury. Most importantly, instead of being a perfectionist beating myself up for every mistake I made, I learned to accept myself for who I was.

Mindfulness, common humanity, and self-acceptance—these are the three pillars of self-compassion.

And these were the things that gave me self-worth—not walking again, and definitely not the initial success I had earlier. I learned what it was like to be a patient on the other side of the health care system, and when I returned home to Melbourne, I threw myself into my new private practice in rehabilitation and pain medicine.

I became a mom and continued my studies. I managed to advance my career as a dual-trained rehabilitation medicine and specialist pain medicine physician.

I overcame my imposter syndrome by learning how to master my mindset, and I stepped up as a clinical leader at work using my compassionate leadership skills. These are all the skills that can be learned and are at the center of my practice.

Olivia Ong is a pain and rehabilitation medicine physician in Australia.

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