BACK home, but with more goals in mind, a smiling Jess Collins says she has a lot to be thankful for.
And tragedies, like the drowning of 16-year-old Kain Wratten at Bar Beach just last Sunday, only reinforce how fortunate she feels, despite the challenges ahead following her spinal cord injury last May.
The 24-year-old former Australian open water swimming champion is a quadriplegic after falling while surfing on the Gold Coast. Still conscious but unable to move, Collins was face down in the water believing she would drown before friend Kisane Irwin rescued her.
Six months later, after stints in intensive care in Brisbane and rehabilitation centres in Sydney, Collins returned home to The Junction on December 3 with her family.
Told by doctors she is unlikely to walk again, Collins has amazed friends and strangers alike with her strength, determination and positive attitude.
Her first words to her father after the injury were to be thankful she was still alive, a philosophy which has been highlighted by recent tragedies in the water.
“How horrific,” Collins said. “I think of his parents ... at least Mum and Dad have me.
“I’m so grateful. People say, ‘How do you smile day to day?’ That’s why. There’s lots of reasons why.”
In pain but on the mend from two nerve and tendon transfer surgeries aimed at giving her wrist and finger movement, she was also grateful to be home and hopeful of further improvements.
“I think getting out of the hospital setting, and even getting out of rehab, when you’re in your home environment, everyone feels better. You feel healthier and happier,” she said. “It feels great.”
Read more: Jess Collins determined to beat the odds
Read more: Jess Collins sets sights on homecoming
She was in tears when initial surgery gave her movement in her left wrist the very next day and she was optimistic of more progress.
“In the right side, the goal is definitely to try to get the wrist moving again, which hopefully with this surgery will work,” she said.
“The nerves grow a millimetre a day, so it will be a long-term thing, but you just don’t know. I could just hold it at that 180 degrees or I could get full function back.
“With the left-hand side, the wrist is already starting to work and then they’ve put in nerves to get my fingers opening and closing, which will be amazing.”
Before the surgeries, Collins had focused on developing her biceps movement.
“Sensation and movement, I don’t think I’ve got anymore back for quite a while but I just think I’m getting stronger with what I have and learning to use what I have,” she said.
“My fingers, hands and wrist at the moment don’t work but I’m still able to pick things up somehow. Whereas at the start I was a bit all over the place, dropping things. But now I’m just learning to use what I have.
”I feel, every day, especially since I’ve gotten home and I want to do things more. I want to try to scoop the pillow up or pat the dog, or readjust my hair. I want to give myself water. I’ve kind of adapted and learned how to do things again.
“Everything has kind of turned to a halt with all these surgeries, but they are going to make me stronger.”
Strength and support has also come from those around Collins, even from many who have never met her.
A long list of initiatives have helped raise more than $200,000 towards Collins’ care and rehabilitation, which could cost millions over her lifetime.
She will thank many at a sold-out fundraiser in her honour, the Sunflower Festival, on Saturday night at Newcastle City Hall. Tickets to win a new Toyota Yaris, donated by Burton Automotive, are on sale until the function. Newcastle City Council, who she worked for as a lifesaver, have donated use of the hall.
“No words can really thank people,” she said.
“So many people have turned up who don’t know me at all, who have seen things on the internet or in articles who just wanted to help out. It's been amazing.”
The support has also included countless work hours and materials donated to modify the Collins’ home for Jess’s return. At the heart of that and many others initiatives have been her Redhead clubmates and the wider surf lifesaving community.
“There’s so many people we didn’t know,” Collins said.
“We had them all over for a barbecue just before Christmas, just to say thank you, and probably 75 percent of them, I’d never met before. Even with the organisation of the ball. Sam [Djodan] and Maddie [Barlow] got things started but there’s a whole committee of people I don’t know. It’s unbelievable.”
Funds raised will help cover ongoing expenses, such as physiotherapy, transport and equipment, but also potential trips to help her recovery. Due to the nature of her accident, Collins was not insured and gains support only from the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
“There’s a rehab facility over in California and it’s meant to be the best place to go for spinal rehabilitation,” she said. “It would be incredible to get over there, but it’s expensive. That’s what that money is going to be used for, for rehab.”
Collins has already linked with Project Edge, a spinal cord injury recovery research program at the University of Technology Sydney, and an exoskeleton trial at the University of Newcastle.
She also hopes to explore any opportunities in Australia, such as a proposed peptide trial in 2020, and overseas. That could include advances in Sweden where wireless implants that delivers electrical stimulation to the spinal cord helped three people walk just last year.
I’m so grateful. People say, 'How do you smile day to day'. That’s why. There’s lots of reasons why.Jess Collins
In the meantime, she is hoping to finish her primary school teaching degree with a 10-week internship while continuing rehabilitation.
“I’m going to let this all heal then really get stuck into physio and see what happens,” she said. “It’s going to be a busy year. I can’t wait.”
You can help at https://www.sunflowersforjess.com/