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“It was as if I’d lost my identity”

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"What he likes best is being lifted up,” reveals Johanna Welin as her six months old son, Ilja, grizzles. But the 31-year-old can’t get up to comfort him, having been in a wheelchair ever since a snowboarding accident. “Before my accident, football and snowboarding were my identity. When I finished school, I started work in a skiing area. It was totally my thing,” says the Swedish-born sportswoman, with a smile as she talks about her past.

“Don’t tell Mum”
In January 2004, she landed on her back after a small jump while snowboarding. “I noticed straight away that I couldn’t feel my legs.” But she initially kept that to herself. “I didn’t want my mum to know how bad it really was.” But in the days that followed, there was no more hiding the consequences. “An X-ray in the hospital revealed that my 12th thoracic vertebra had slipped back and damaged my spinal cord.” Then aged just 19, she was forced to lie still for two weeks. “I didn’t understand at the time exactly what had happened. It took a long time to process it. A year at least,” she admits. “The fact that my bladder and bowel no longer worked like they used to was a really big deal. That was a lot worse than not being able to walk.” She spent almost six months in rehabilitation in Gothenburg, learning how to adapt to her new circumstances and how to use a wheelchair.

Back to a different Life
Johanna is ambitious and wanted to go back to the skiing area where she had the accident. Once she was done with rehab, she rented a flat and started working selling ski passes. “That helped me deal with it somehow.” She started playing wheelchair basketball at the same time. “I liked it straight off that people in wheelchairs played alongside able-bodied players. It made no difference.” She did a lot of training. “Then I wanted to go abroad and improve my German.” Johanna soon moved to the student halls of residence at the University of Innsbruck and commuted by car from Austria to Bavaria to do her basketball training at the University Sports Club in Munich. “I moved up from the second to the first team within one and a half seasons.” She now lives in Munich and trains with the national team for 12 hours a week. She’s also been studying medicine since 2010.

Pram and Wheelchair 
“I postponed all my end-of-semester exams this time round. There was no other way,” she explains and smiles at Ilja, who has just fallen asleep. Johanna met her son’s father playing basketball. “We played on the same team, but he doesn’t have an injury.” Johanna knew that she could still get pregnant despite the paralysis. Yet they were still both surprised at first. “I was happy about our child, but it was really tough too,” she says when she looks back on being pregnant in a wheelchair. “Of course I sought the advice of a number of other mothers who are in wheelchairs. I wanted to know exactly what I was in for. But it’s hard to make predictions because it’s different for everyone.” The baby put increasing pressure on her bladder and towards the end of the pregnancy, the expectant mother was forced to lie down the whole time. “No one could say exactly how my body was going to react. But then I had a natural birth, and I was so happy when I held Ilja in my arms.”

© philpham.de

A future for three
Six months down the line, they have settled in well to family life. “My boyfriend, Benni, is at work all day. I manage to combine looking after our child, basketball training and university very well,” she says, in recognition of her own organisational talents. But there are everyday situations which take a lot out of Johanna. “I am very impatient. I often get depressed that there are certain things I can’t do or which take a long time, especially with the baby. Many things are just really awkward.” Ilja, she is sure, will become independent quickly and realise that there are certain things his mother can’t do. Johanna would have loved to teach her son football or snowboarding. “It’s a shame I won’t be able to now, just like I won’t be able to carry him around the house.”

Johanna wants to thank everyone who donates for Wings for Life. 100% of every euro goes towards research to find a cure for spinal cord injury.   (philpham.de)
Johanna wants to thank everyone who donates for Wings for Life. 100% of every euro goes towards research to find a cure for spinal cord injury.   © philpham.de

***Spinal cord injury and Pregnancy: Can it work?*** 
Yes, women with spinal cord injury can have children, the reason being pregnancy is hormonal and not controlled by nerves. Nor do spinal injuries cause long-term damage to the menstrual cycle. But it can take time for it to return to normal after acute trauma. Uterine innervation occurs in the area between thoracic vertebrae Th10 and Th12. Therefore, it could be the case that pregnant women who have an injury above the Th10 vertebra don’t sense their foetus moving. Contractions of the uterus, ie labour pains, also often go unnoticed. Women with spinal cord injury are more likely to give birth prematurely. Even if the woman cannot actively push, a vaginal birth is still possible. In cases of flaccid paralysis, the birth process can be made easier because of the relaxed abdominal and pelvic floor muscles. Mothers also feel considerably less pain during delivery. By contrast, in cases of spastic paralysis, the delivery can be more complicated for the child due to the contracted pelvic floor muscles.

Have you also sustained a spinal cord injury after an accident or do you know someone that has, and would be interested in sharing your story? If so please email us at office@wingsforlife.com