“This Has Always Been My Greatest Fear”
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Michi captions an Instagram post with: “My great love…” The photo shows her riding her mountain bike through the forest. Downhill has always been her favourite pastime. “It allows you to forget everything while remaining fully concentrated in the here and now,” she gushes.
We meet Michi and her mother for a stroll through the Olympic Park in Munich. “Mobility meant everything to my daughter. Instead of completing her homework, she preferred running around the garden with her younger brother.” She was a valued member of a football club and developed an interest in climbing and parkour.
At the age of 23 – Michi was studying mechatronics at the time – she fell in love with downhill mountain biking. She trained passionately. Given that she spent every weekend on her bike, she improved swiftly. “I was always aware of my limits and always careful,” the now 27-year-old insists while recalling that fateful day in September 2018.
She was spending time in a downhill park with friends. She remembers that it was a bright autumn day, everyone was in a cheerful mood. Michi mounted her bike and went through her check list once more: protectors, helmet, and goggles. Then she launched herself into the course. The following jump should have been routine. She had, after all, mastered it countless times before. “I realised immediately that I was too fast and too high. I knew something bad was about to happen to me.”
Michi slammed into the flat ground and was thrown forward over the handlebars. When she came to, her boyfriend and mountain rescue staff were peering down at her. “I could not feel my legs. They were just numb. I could not even feel a tingling sensation,” she whispers while staring into space. “Then I screamed unceasingly – out of pure desperation.”
Shortly thereafter Beate received a phone call from Michi’s boyfriend. “He told me that my daughter had suffered a bad fall and was being flown to a hospital.” Beate’s thoughts started to race. She tried to stay calm as she left immediately with her son.
“We waited in silence behind a closed door for the helicopter to arrive.” When Michi had finally landed, she was wheeled past them, crying bitterly. “She needed surgery. I needed patience.” Beate spent hours on a metal bench in a cold anteroom, nervously waiting for more information about her daughter’s condition. “It took far too long. I thought my child was dying in there. That was the worst time…”
Fractured Thoracic Vertebra
That night Beate found out that her daughter would survive her severe accident. She was, however, also told that two metal
rods were required to secure her spine and that, from then on, she would be completely paralysed from the 8ththoracic vertebra down.
When Michi came to after surgery, her father had arrived too. A doctor tried to explain what had happened, but she found it very difficult to come to terms with it. “All my life, a spinal cord injury had been my greatest fear. Had it really become reality?”
The young woman was forced to spend five months in hospital, and another three months in a rehab facility. “I could not bear visitors at first.” She describes how visiting friends broke out in tears upon seeing her and how difficult it was to feel trapped in her own body. “My mother was my rock. Her reaction was strong and structured, which helped me immeasurably.” Despite what had happened, Michi was absolutely convinced that she would walk again soon. “My hope was that bodily functions would return after the spinal shock wore off, but nothing happened…”
When Michi was finally released, she was required to face life outside the protected facility and away from like-minded people. “I did a lot of research, had many conversations, and even visited the clinic’s café for relatives. I knew this phase would be immensely difficult for all of us,” Beate remembers. The trained lawyer took time off to support her daughter’s transition.
“What If This Sadness Never Goes Away?”
Michi returned home in a wheelchair. She could not move her legs anymore, could not feel anything from her chest down. Her bladder and intestines were no longer functional. Suddenly everything had changed – her world seemed narrow and full of obstacles. “It was an exceptionally hot summer. While my friends were out biking or mountaineering, I was stuck in a stifling apartment.” Michi was overcome by sadness. “It felt like everyone was staring at me when I was outside. I cried a lot and was so afraid that this feeling would never go away,” she recalls with a weak smile.
One thing Michi could rely on was the support of her family and friends. Eventually she persuaded herself to try sports that she could enjoy despite her spinal cord injury. “I like tennis. I also like go-karting.”
Beate is incredibly proud of her daughter’s development. “She has outgrown herself. During this difficult time, we developed a very special bond.” What is her greatest wish for her children? “I want them to be happy, no matter whether they are standing or sitting.”
Michi plans to move to a barrier-free dormitory in Munich in autumn and pursue a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. Her optimism and engaging personality will certainly make this step easier for her.
“I fervently hope that there will be a cure for newly injured people, as well as us chronic patients, in the future,” she says solemnly. “I probably would not get on my bike again, but I would go to the toilet independently or go for a long run until I am exhausted.”
We watch mother and daughter looking at photos from a time when life was easier for Michi. Does she still try to wiggle her toes from time to time? “Every single day before I fall asleep.”