A fitness fanatic has relived the terrifying August day when she went to bed all smiles – having found a house to buy with her boyfriend and with plans to advance her career – only to wake in the early hours with pins and needles, which eventually left her paralyzed.
Working out five times a week and eating healthily, life was good for Olivia Langley, 27 – particularly since finding her dream home to buy near Newark, Nottinghamshire, England, with her boyfriend Tom Wharmby, 26, who works for an agricultural machinery company.
A bookkeeper, she was preparing to sit accountancy exams when, on August 21 this year, she was woken up by back pain, for which she took ibuprofen, thinking it was caused by a trapped nerve.
Olivia and her boyfriend Tom before her injury (PA Real Life/Collect)
But when pins and needles struck and her legs began to feel numb, she suspected something was very wrong.
Olivia alerted Tom and was rushed to nearby King's Mill Hospital in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire, by ambulance, where an MRI scan showed a worrying mass on her spine – later revealed to be a hematoma, or blood clot – which caused a spinal cord injury, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Olivia, who has only a one to two percent chance of walking again, yet vows she will remain independent, said: “I felt totally normal leading up to what happened. There was no reason to suspect what was coming."
Olivia in hospital with Tom (PA Real Life/Collect)
She continued: “I went to the gym five times a week, looked after myself and had loads of outdoorsy hobbies. This just goes to show that it can happen to anybody.
“Nobody knows what will happen next, or whether or not I will walk again. The main thing for me is to keep my independence.
“This has been so hard on my family and Tom. You never think at 26 you'll be dealing with your girlfriend becoming paralyzed overnight. Sometimes I feel like I've ruined his life, but he has been there, carrying on beside me – and that's more than I could ever ask for."
Olivia and Tom (PA Real Life/Collect)
When she moved into rented accommodation in December 2018 with Tom, who she has been seeing for two years, it signaled the start of an exciting new chapter of Olivia's life.
Deciding they wanted a home to call their own, the young couple began searching and found their dream property – a new-build three bed – in summer 2019.
But, by the time they completed the buying process, Olivia was in the hospital, trying to process the devastating news that she may be permanently paralyzed.
Olivia in hospital (PA Real Life/Collect)
Looking back on the fateful August night when her problems began, she said: “As a teenager, I'd had a few back problems like muscle spasms, so I assumed it was that.
“I took some ibuprofen and got Tom to hold some frozen peas against my back. But over the next hour or so, the pain got worse, and I got pins and needles in my legs before they went numb.
“I knew then that something really wasn't right."
After phoning 999, Olivia was taken to King's Mill Hospital, where an MRI scan revealed a mass restricting blood flow to her spinal cord.
Transferred to the more specialist Queen's Medical Center (QMC) in Nottingham, she was given an emergency operation to find out exactly what the mass was.
She added: “I was in so much shock over how I'd been fine just a few hours before, and it was all happening so quickly that I didn't have time to really process it."
Olivia horseriding before her injury (PA Real Life/Collect)
She added: “I wasn't in the frame of mind to fathom it. It was terrifying, but I just went along with what doctors were telling me."
Raced down to surgery soon after arriving at QMC, Olivia had a four-hour operation, which saw surgeons “drill" into her spine to remove the mass.
While they determined it was a blood clot, which they concluded must have formed very quickly, given how rapidly she fell ill, they still do not know why it happened.
Olivia at hospital with her parents (PA Real Life/Collect)
“The focus at first was just getting rid of the hematoma before it got any worse," explained Olivia. “Paralysis had been on my mind as, when I arrived at hospital, I'd been unable to feel my legs. But I thought that the feeling would come back after my surgery.
“It was only when I came round and a doctor came to see me that it dawned on me it might not."
Following her operation, doctors told Olivia that she had sustained a serious spinal cord injury, which had left her paraplegic – a form of paralysis affecting the lower half of the body.
Olivia, pictured here before her injury (PA Real Life/Collect)
For the next six weeks, she remained in QMC, recovering and building up her strength before being transferred once again, this time to Sheffield's Northern General Hospital in South Yorkshire for rehabilitation, where she remains today.
“There's still no set answer about my paraplegia and whether I will ever walk again," she said. “Spinal cord injuries are very complex, and every case is different.
“At my last appointment, I was told that, although doctors are really pleased with the progress I am making in physiotherapy, I am working with a one to two percent chance of walking again right now."
Olivia practicing using her wheelchair (PA Real Life/Collect)
“It's all those little things people take for granted and don't even think of that have been the hardest. For example, my stomach muscles have gone so I can't hold myself up without leaning on somebody," she added.
On the rehabilitation ward, Olivia's days are made up of a timetable of physiotherapy, occupational therapy and optional extras like hydrotherapy, wheelchair sports and educational talks.
She continued: “As soon as I was able to do so, I signed up to do some sports. It's helped get me active again, and also meet some people going through the same thing."
She continued: “Although I haven't been able to meet many other young women, which has been hard.
“It does give me hope to see people coming out the other side of a spinal cord injury and rebuilding their lives, but it would help to talk to other young women like me."
One particularly challenging part of Olivia's ordeal has been the thought that it may potentially affect her chances of having children – something she had always dreamed of.
Olivia is now waiting for the home she bought with Tom to be adapted so that she can finally move in (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I very much envisaged being a mum, but that's now a long way in the future," she added. “I have to get myself back to where I want to be, and feel able to look after myself before I can think about looking after a child," Olivia continued.
“Plus when that day comes, I will likely need carers to help me, which is something I find difficult as independence is so important to me."
For now, Olivia continues to work hard at her various therapies and has a provisional discharge date of December 3, which doctors are confident she will meet – meaning she will be home for Christmas.
Olivia and her boyfriend Tom before her injury (PA Real Life/Collect)
Her plan once she leaves hospital is to live with her parents while the home she bought with Tom is being adapted to cater for her new needs.
To help with the cost of the alterations she will need, as well as equipment like a lightweight wheelchair and standing frame, and the cost of ongoing physiotherapy, which she estimates will be around £100 (~$130) a session, her best friend Rosie Bown set up a GoFundMe page.
Already, more than £4,000 (~$5,145) has been donated, and her loved ones have also planned a string of fundraising events, such as a marathon run and Bonfire Night event to help.
Olivia on an outing from hospital in October 2018 (PA Real Life/Collect)
“People's generosity has been overwhelming," Olivia said. “The donations have blown me away. The cards and messages wishing me well have been really comforting, too.
“My family have been especially incredible. For the six weeks I was in hospital in Nottingham, they didn't leave my side. This has turned everybody's lives upside down, not just mine, but my loved ones have been my rock."
Once home, Olivia has vowed to grow as strong as possible in the hope that she will one day be able to enjoy the hobbies she once loved, like hitting the gym, or exploring the countryside.
She concluded: “While nobody can say for sure what will happen in the future, I believe you get out what you put in, so I am doing everything I can to work hard and get strong. It's really important to have goals – however small they may seem – to get through.
“I'm determined to keep my independence, even if that means doing things differently. For example, I want to drive again, so have a plan to get a specially adapted car.
“I can't wait to be in the home Tom and I bought together. When I envisaged moving in to my first house with him, it wasn't like this at all. It's hard to know that he is there while I'm in hospital, but people's generosity through GoFundMe will really help with the adaptations."
Olivia and Tom had just found their dream home when her injury occurred (PA Real Life/Collect)
“This has all been so incredibly shocking. People often think a spinal cord injury happens after a fall or some trauma – but they can affect anybody. I had no signs or symptoms at all until that night," she said.
“Now though, I just want to work as hard as I can to get home in time for Christmas."
To donate to Olivia's page, visit www.gofundme.com/f/livs-recovery-fund