How this Fareham girl has defied the odds to walk again
On Saturday, January 7, 2017, Jess Walling was admitted to hospital with what she thought was a bad migraine.
Two days later, she was told she may never walk again.
What this Fareham 22-year-old has been through during the past four years is what most of us could barely comprehend.
But she has defied the odds and almost every doctor’s expectations by learning to walk again after suffering a spinal cord injury which paralysed her.
Now Jess is studying marketing at the University of Winchester, works part-time as a waitress at Nandos, can drive and launched her own business, Wheelie Good Designs, after lockdown. She is truly inspirational and unstoppable.
‘I think I am quite a positive person,’ says Jess, smiling. ‘I was told from the beginning that if I didn’t have a positive mental attitude, I would never improve.’
Her life changed forever in early 2017. She first got a headache when she was driving back to Solent University, where she was studying stage hair and make-up. She explains: ‘I thought if I could just get into bed and lie down I would feel better. But as soon as my head hit the pillow, I knew I was about to be sick.
‘The only way I can describe it is when you’re asleep and you have one arm out of the bed, it goes cold and floppy. But my entire body was like that.’
Her parents were called and a paramedic took Jess to Southampton General Hospital. ‘I felt like I was burning alive but my mum says I was cold to touch. It was my nerve endings burning out,’ says Jess.
Jess was admitted to the neurological ward and it wasn’t until that evening did it dawn on her that something was seriously wrong.
‘I needed to go to the toilet. I asked the nurses to help me but I couldn’t get out of bed,’ explains Jess. ‘They brought a portable toilet over to me but all of my internal organs were paralysed.’
Two days later, a consultant told Jess she had had a stroke. She says: ‘He said I wasn’t ever going to walk again. I didn’t know how to react and couldn’t process what they were saying.’
Jess explains how she was a fit and healthy 18-year-old. She danced competitively at Yasmin Taylor Academy of Dance, Locks Heath; she had the rest of university to get through; she had a part-time job; and all of her friends who she regularly went out with.
‘I don’t think I fully understood. I was determined I would move again,’ adds Jess. ‘I find it hard that there is no explanation for why this happened to me.
‘If it was because of a car accident, at least I would know the reason for this. But for me there is no closure.’
The mornings in hospital were the worst for Jess. ‘I had to take 27 tablets lying down and was washed by a nurse. Every time, I would start crying which would make my eyes burn.
‘I asked the nurses to wake me up at 5.30am to take my tablets so the burning sensation stopped before my parents arrived at 7.30am. Being washed by a nurse at 18 years old is really difficult.’
What lay ahead for Jess was a tough five months in hospital. During her time at Southampton General, she caught a cold which was so much harder for her body to battle. Jess explains: ‘You don’t realise how incredibly hard it is to cough when your lungs are paralysed.
‘I was admitted to the intensive care unit because I needed constant help.
‘But being admitted to an intensive care neurological ward was horrible. You are surrounded by people who are unconscious or in comas. I was in my own private room but I saw some horrible stuff.
‘Everyone around me wasn't aware of their surroundings, but I was. That’s when I thought some people have it so much worse than me.’
Unbeknown to Jess, her parents had been told by consultants that it may not have been a stroke. She says: ‘They thought it could have been a rare condition called transverse myelitis, which is essentially the swelling of the spinal cord. They didn’t tell me at first because they didn’t want to give me false hope.
‘My recovery chance with a stroke was better than transverse myelitis. I assume because more people know about strokes and it happens to people everyday.
‘By this point, I was making some progress. I could wiggle my little toes and I could lift my arm up to wave.
‘The swelling had affected my C2 vertebrae, which is at the top of your neck, to the T2 vertebrae, which is at the middle of your spine. It had essentially killed all the nerve endings along it.’
Throughout each day, Jess would have countless visits from family and friends. She says: ‘My friends would make a point of coming home from university to see me. You can’t be miserable when you have that many people supporting you.’
Jess left Southampton General Hospital at the end of February 2017 and was moved to the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury District Hospital.
Jess says: ‘I missed Southampton General because they really helped me. I had one physio, Nikki Seal, who changed my life. When I wanted to walk again, she supported me. She’s like my best friend, I still talk to her now.’
Jess finally left Salisbury District Hospital in June 2017 and started attending a private physiotherapist in Winchester three times a week, for up to three hours at a time.
‘I know I am very privileged and I am so grateful that my parents were able to pay for my physio privately. My grandparents drove me there each week,’ says Jess, smiling. ‘We fundraised too. My old dance school put on a show to raise money for me. We split the funds, half went towards my physio and the other half went to Southampton General.’
With her new physio, Jess was able to use advanced equipment such as an exoskeleton which helped her walk.
‘My physio listened to me and incorporated movements like stretching to help my arms and legs. I loved that because I have always had to stretch as a dancer,’ explains Jess. ‘I never wanted my parents to do anything for me because I didn’t want them to become carers. I wanted to do it myself.’
Jess still has regular physio and had operations to make her stronger. She now drives an automatic car and plans to graduate in 2022. Jess says: ‘I was studying stage hair and make-up at Solent but had to leave because you need two working hands for that.
‘I have made some really nice friends at university. I was so anxious because I didn’t want people to judge me for being in a wheelchair, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Everyone has been so kind and supportive.
‘I hate the way people stare at me when I’m out and with my friends. I know I don’t look like your typical person in a wheelchair and I would rather they asked questions to me.’
On top of everything else, Jess launched a business called Wheelie Good Designs in August, which creates bespoke shot glasses, hair clips, combs, keyrings and cake toppers out of resin or graphics. It all started when she was planning her sister’s 21st birthday party.
‘We started buying supplies and I hate those plastic shot glasses,’ explains Jess. ‘I found on the internet these designs of ones you could make out of resin so I bought the equipment and made four. I put them up on my Instagram afterwards and people loved them.
‘My cousin Flo Simpson has a large following on TikTok and she mentioned them. I gained so many followers in a couple of hours.
‘I bought resin moulds and glitter to decorate them.’
Jess was originally reluctant to launch a business as she was already busy with physio and university. But with the unwavering support from her family and friends, Wheelie Good Designs has shipped 130 orders since September.
‘I really want my business to grow and continue,’ adds Jess. ‘I am taking some time off now until January because I am trying to create a website.’
Jess’s family has been her rock. ‘I could not ask for better parents. It makes me quite emotional to talk about it,’ says Jess.
‘They are the best humans you could ever imagine. I don’t think people realise that even though I am the one who is ill, it has affected our whole family. The four of us have gone through so much and we are such a team.
‘My parents had to go back to work while I was in Salisbury District Hospital. My sister passed her A-Levels the same year I was so unwell and she has got a first in her degree. I am so lucky to have them.’
Alongside her parents, Jess's friends have also been a constant support system. ‘The best part is they never act like I am disabled. I am the same person I was before this happened.’
In spite of everything that life has thrown at Jess, she is still smiling. She is a true fighter who does not give up, taking each day as it comes. Jess adds: ‘I never view myself as inspirational.’
To view Jess’s business, go to @wheeliegooddesigns on Instagram.