Grace Spence Green: The Medical Student Who Was Paralyzed by a Falling Man, is Now In A Wheelchair – and Found New Purpose
Grace Spence Green became paralyzed and must use a wheelchair now because a man who threw himself off a building (and survived) landed on her, causing spinal damage to her. (I am guessing the man was trying to commit suicide, though the article doesn’t really state this clearly.)
Rather than indulge in endless anger, bitterness, fury, or self pity (that she at first felt when she realized she’d never walk again), Green went on with life, she chose to move on, and says she’s happy.
Interestingly, Green says she’s run into people who are angry with her for being happy in spite of what happened to her. They apparently want or need for her to be angry, upset, still (emotionally) hurt and bitter, or to believe that she is angry or bitter.
Her life changed instantly when she was crushed at a shopping centre. But through radical acceptance she gained friends, greater empathy and a passion for changing people’s perspectives
by Emine Saner
May 26, 2021
‘I still think it really shocks people that I can be happy’ … Grace Spence Green. Photograph: Dolly Clew
It helps to think of it as the day she saved someone else’s life. That it has brought Grace Spence Green many other positives – increased empathy, good friends, a new perspective – is what she thinks about often, even if she also describes it as “the most traumatic day of my life”.
On an October afternoon in 2018, she was walking through Westfield shopping centre in east London at the precise moment a man three floors up decided to jump. He landed on Spence Green, breaking her back, injuring her spinal cord and fracturing her neck. It was surreal, she says, to wake up “when I didn’t think I was asleep”.
…There was the denial: “You never think you’re going to be the one that gets this sort of injury. I just felt like: ‘Well, no, this isn’t me, I’m not meant to be in a wheelchair,’” she says.
….She sparkles [during the interview from her apartment] with a kind of calm but intense energy, even when remembering what she describes as her lowest point, when doctors told her she would not be able to walk again.
“I remember getting out of that meeting and just crying, folded up on my lap. I went outside, because I wanted to breathe, and it was pouring down with rain.”
Her family went home and she remained in hospital, dealing with this news and contemplating a future that felt extremely bleak – because this was what she thought life as a wheelchair user would be.
In the two and a half years since, Spence Green has had to unpick a lifetime of negative messages about disabled people. Now, as one of the hosts of the podcast This Is Spinal Crap – all about people living with spinal injuries – she is focused on showing that the very fact of her “existing – living a happy, normal life – is activism in itself”.
Not that it has been easy. At the beginning, it felt like a “huge loss. I couldn’t imagine myself having a good life in a wheelchair, because I just don’t think there are enough examples of that anywhere. The only thing that kept me going was the fact I knew I was going back to medicine [she deferred her studies by a year]. I clung on to that because it was part of my identity from before my injury.”
The publicity surrounding the incident was also difficult to deal with – especially other people’s views on how she must have felt. The man who landed on her was later sentenced to four years in prison after admitting grievous bodily harm; he didn’t suffer any serious physical injuries. “When people hear my story, it’s so framed as a victim and a perpetrator, and that it’s tragic what happened to me and I will always be a victim,” she says. “It just got exhausting hearing people’s anger.”
She was shocked at some people’s anger towards her in online comments “for not displaying the emotion they thought I should”; they thought she ought to be consumed with anger and bitterness. “I had people saying I was in denial and that I was secretly angry and things like that. It just made me think there’s always going to be people that think my life is a tragedy, that my life is ruined, and I just have to accept that.” She laughs at the absurdity of it.
…A lot of people would feel anger, though, or at least self-pity. Did she never feel either of those emotions? “There was never any anger, no. There was sadness at the beginning and there was definitely some kind of: ‘Why me?’” There were a lot of what-ifs: what if she hadn’t taken that route through the shopping centre? “But I find it so exhausting, and I hate feeling like a victim and self-pitying, because it doesn’t feel like it gets me anywhere. Now I look at it and I feel completely disconnected to him. That’s what I also find strange – people ask: ‘Are you going to meet him?’ like for some reason we’re still associated. It’s difficult having so many other opinions put on you.”
…It took about a year, she says, to get to a point approaching peace with what had happened. “I’d call it radical acceptance, because I really had to embrace being disabled,” she says. “As soon as that happened, my whole perspective changed, because as soon as I felt proud of who I was I just didn’t take people’s crap any more. I didn’t take people’s pitying or ableist comments, or feel like I needed to answer to people about who I was and what I was doing. But it took a long time to get there.”
She had started following disabled people and activists online and read a lot about disability studies. “I realised that everything I’d been told was society’s narrative of how a disabled person should be and I didn’t need to be like that. Instead, I could actually be a normal person and accept my injury and actually really love being disabled and what it brings.”
Spence Green’s injury is “incomplete”, which means she can have flickers of sensation and movement, but she rails against a focus on learning to walk again (it remains unlikely).
The idea of this being the “miracle cure”, she says, “fits with society’s vision of what a disabled person should be like – they shouldn’t be happy being in a wheelchair, they should be striving to walk again”.
The flipside of this, she says, is that “they should be a Paralympian and their disability should be their magic power. Or that they need to overcome it in some way, by some physical feat. It’s the idea that you can’t just be a normal person and be content in a wheelchair. I still think it really shocks people that I can be happy.”
She remembers feeling pity for wheelchair users before she was one. “I remember being really awkward around people with visible disabilities and feeling like if I smiled at them, or helped them with the door, then they’d feel grateful to me and happy that I’ve helped them. Looking back, I’m so embarrassed by myself.” She laughs. “It was really shocking.”
…It is strange, she says, that some people are surprised her relationship with her boyfriend has lasted (they have been together for five years). “I don’t think disabled people are seen as sexually active adults – we’re this kind of neutral, asexual being that can’t have relationships and families and things like that….
…We need much better representation, of course. While This Is Spinal Crap covers serious issues, the podcast has a funny and upbeat tone that, in the mainstream, at least, feels radical.
“I think I’ve really tried to reject that victim image,” she says. It would have helped her, when she was recovering, to listen to something like her podcast. “I think that’s why all of us decided to do it, because there was nothing out there that we could find. There’s a lot of videos of disabled people showing how to do practical things, but I just wanted to see disabled people having fun and living full lives.”
…There are still times when she experiences grief at what she has lost, she says, but it isn’t helpful to dwell on it. “I used to just be like: ‘I’d be happy if I could walk again.’ And I don’t think that’s true, so I’ve started to reframe desire into what’s good for me: what makes me feel good? I think you can focus on what you lack in life: ‘If I had this, then I’d be happy.’”
…Instead, she concentrates on what she has gained – a wealth of new experiences, friends and perspectives.