Newcastle lifesaver Jessica Collins is inspiring family and friends with her strength while facing the prospect of never walking again after a freak surfing accident on the Gold Coast.
Miss Collins, 24, a former Australian surf lifesaving representative, has no feeling below her shoulders after fracturing the C5 vertebra and damaging her spinal cord last Thursday afternoon while surfing with friends at Snapper Rocks. She was face down and paralysed in the water but conscious before being rescued after falling and hitting a sand bank.
She had bone-fusion surgery on Friday night and remained in the intensive care unit at Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane.
Her father, Peter Collins, said Jessica faced “a very, very hard and long road” but her amazing will and positive attitude was shining through.
“She put it into perspective for us,” Mr Collins said.
“We were devastated when we saw her but she said, ‘Don’t be upset. Just be thankful that I’m alive’.”
He said Jessica, a multiple state and national medallist, was on holidays and into a second hour of surfing when she fell off a stand-up paddleboard while riding a wave.
We were devastated when we saw her but she said, ‘Don’t be upset. Just be thankful that I’m alive’.Peter Collins, Jessica's father
He said she remained conscious after the fall and gave instructions on her treatment to rescuers.
“She said once she hit the bottom that thank God I stayed conscious,” he said.
“She knew she had to hold her breath as long as she could because once she exhaled, she was dead.
“All she was praying for was that someone saw her floating there, and as God would have it, one of her friends caught the next wave, spotted her there and rolled her onto her back and dragged her in past the break.”
He said Jessica was at the Australian surf lifesaving titles in 2012 and 2010 when Matthew Barclay and Saxon Bird died in heavy surf at Kurrawa.
“She knows once you lose consciousness and get below the surface, it’s very hard,” Mr Collins said. “There’s every likelihood that you’re not going to find them.”
He said the injury would be “life-changing for all of us” but his family were grateful to still have “the cheeky girl who grew up in front of our eyes and is still giving orders”.
“She was telling them what to do and how to do it right, so it was typical Jess,” he said of the rescue.
“She is an amazing girl. You just can’t believe how strong she is in terms of her will and determination. She’s proved that with her sporting expertise and in life. She will never give in on anything that she needs to work on.”
Parents, Peter and Sandy, and siblings, Daniel and Emma, have spent time by Jessica’s side since Thursday. They hoped to bring her home to Newcastle in the coming weeks to continue her rehabilitation.
“The spinal cord is definitely damaged and from all accounts, and what they are saying, she will never walk again,” Peter said. “But they don’t know the extent of it, and they probably won’t for week, if not months.
“The doctors are naturally giving us the worst-case scenario, but they are telling us she will have very little movement below the elbows, but they don’t know. There’s that much trauma on the spine and they have to wait for the swelling to go down.
“One of the big positives that the doctors said is that she is breathing on her own, which is amazing for someone who’s had this injury.”
He said Jessica, who was only a few weeks away from finishing a teaching degree, had “given us strength more so than we’ve given her strength”.
“All the doctors and nurses love her,” he said.
“They love her strength of will and positive attitude.”
He said the support for his family had been “amazing”.
“It’s been overwhelming,” he said. “People ringing up to find out how she’s going. It’s been absolutely amazing, the response. People want to come up and see her and provide accommodation and transport for us.
“I keep telling her, I have to give you 500 kisses because there’s many people on Facebook who have sent you so many good wishes that I need to get that message through to you.”
He said Daniel, this year’s NSW ironman champion, is still set to represent Australia at the Sanyo Bussan Cup in Japan this month.
“It’s difficult for him and he doesn’t want to go, but I think Jess is keen for him to go because she wants him to continue to live his life. Typical Jess, she doesn’t want to be a burden on anyone.”
He added about the support that: “Even from places like France, people are sending us messages wishing her a speedy recovery. It’s beautiful to see she is so well regarded and respected across so many different platforms. Not just in surf lifesaving but the university and places she works.
“We’ve just been overwhelmed by people spending their time to think and share their thoughts with us about our little girl. We really appreciate it.”
A GoFundMe page set up by Jessica’s friends had raised more than $24,000 towards her rehabilitation costs. Find it here https://www.gofundme.com/sunflowers-for-jess