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Christina's horror accident that changed her life for the better

13 May 2023

Words by Maddison Leach, Nine Honey

Christina Vithoulkas can still vividly remember launching into the air and realising that she wasn't going to make it, but she has no memory of hitting the ground.

"I remember taking off and knowing that I wasn't going to make the distance," she says.

"When I crashed, all the witnesses told me they heard my back snap and saw my bum hit my head. I folded in half."

An avid motocross biker, Vithoulkas was about 22 when she attempted a 50-foot jump from a metal ramp and almost died when the landing went wrong.

She hit the ground so hard it practically snapped her spine, leaving her with multiple broken bones while her bike got away with barely a scratch on it.

"I took all the impact. I fractured my skull, lacerated my spleen, broke my back in T5, -6 and -7. I had fluid in my lungs and fractured a rib or two," she says.

For about five minutes she lay in the dirt, unconscious and unaware of the damage.

When she opened her eyes, someone was sitting by her feet, asking if she could feel their hands on her while a friend held her neck steady to prevent any further injuries.

Even as the unspeakable pain hit her, Vithoulkas knew that she would never walk again.

"I was in shock with how much pain I could possibly be in. I felt like someone was stabbing me in my back when I woke up," she says, but she couldn't feel her legs.

"I knew instantly, 'I'm not walking and I can't get up'. The reality hit me straight away; my life has been completely flipped and it wasn't going to look anything like it did before."

It took about an hour for a helicopter to reach the remote South Australian motocross track where the accident occurred, then Vithoulkas was airlifted to a hospital in Adelaide.

There, she was rushed into emergency surgery and doctors tried to fix as much of the damage as possible, though Vithoulkas lost six litres of blood in the process.

Surgeons used two rods and 12 screws to stabilise the top portion of her spine, but when she woke up in the hospital's Intensive Care Unit, the news wasn't good.

Vithoulkas had suffered devastating damage to her spine that had left her paralysed from her T5 vertebrae down. She would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

But that wasn't the only massive change she'd have to adapt to, though she admits, "before I was in a wheelchair I thought people only lost the use of their legs".

With a T5 injury, she lost most of her abdominal balance, all control of her bowels and the ability to regulate her temperature, among other things.

It would mean a complete overhaul of her life, but first she had to get through three weeks of recovery at the Adelaide hospital before being transferred to Austin Health.

She was then sent to the Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre in Melbourne to begin the long process of relearning how to do just about everything in her day-to-day life.

Some young people with a spinal cord injury need time to grieve their old life, but Vithoulkas threw herself into rehab and did everything she could to embrace her new one.

"I was at rehab for just under two months because I was stubborn and asked the nurses who was the shortest patient they'd had at the Talbot, because I'm going to beat it," she says.

Though rehab could be overwhelming at times, Vithoulkas pushed herself to new limits and was able to leave just two days before the two month mark.

Those first months after her accident could have sent her into a dark downward spiral, but she is one of the few spinal cord injury sufferers who says it changed her life in a good way.

"I had an epiphany moment where I realised nothing actually matters other than your family and the people you love," she reveals.

"I used it as motivation to prove to everyone that I'm gonna get back to a normal life. I just have to learn how to do everything differently."

The accident in 2018 set her on a whole new path and though she remains paralysed from the chest down, Vithoulkas has embraced her injury and the platform it has given her.

Now she uses her own story and experiences to educate and raise awareness around the realities of life with a spinal cord injury.
Instead of hoping for a 'miracle surgery' or cure for her spinal injury, she's embraced life in a wheelchair and views her body simply as "a shell carrying my soul".

That includes developing adapted technology that can help people with a spinal cord injury like Vithoulkas stand and walk again with assistance.

"I love my life, walking or not walking, but to be able to witness and see evidence of the work it's done to actually get people in my position walking again [is amazing]," she says.

In celebration of Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Day, we celebrate our incredible patients like Christina.