Peta and Rhiannon discuss Rhiannon's incredible journey of resilience and determination after a life-changing accident in Bali. She turned that trauma into Next Steps, a thriving community-focused organisation empowering individuals to heal physically and emotionally.
Get inspired and learn valuable life lessons from Rhiannon's story of strength and growth.
Connect with Rhiannon:
Rhiannon's Website: https://rhiannontracey.com.au
Connect with Peta:
Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to The I Can't Stand Podcast. The podcast exploring what it's like to live with a disability. My name's Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host and I'm very glad to be back. I had a lovely time in Europe. Thank you so much for your patience with me. I hope you enjoyed the replay of the podcast of some of my favourite episodes, but I have to say I'm so excited to jump back in with fresh new episodes today and I couldn't think of a better person to do it with. Then Rhiannon Tracey Rhiannon is just sunshine in human form. She's absolutely lovely. Her whole life changed when she was just 20 years old and she dove into a swimming pool while on holiday in Bali. Her life has been extraordinary since. I really enjoyed this chat with Rhiannon and I can't wait for you to hear it. So without any further ado, let's hand over to Raanan.
Rhiannon [00:01:16] Hello friends. I'm Rhiannon. Tracey and I live my life on wheels and it's wonderful.
Peta [00:01:23] It's a wonderful life. You do. And can I say you're a very chic lady on wheels. I'm always very envious of your outfits and also your hair. Your hair, particularly today, is very odd trend Adult Brad This is.
Rhiannon [00:01:38] Two days into Dyson. Dyson in my hair. But I mean, if you saw what I was wearing, I'm literally wearing a pyjama top and tracksuit bottoms, so I know how shake it is today. But it's the work from home work wardrobe today. So we make most of it.
Peta [00:01:55] It's all about the zoom illusion. As long as you look good from the top up. Who, Kids?
Rhiannon [00:02:00] That's it.
Peta [00:02:02] If people don't know who you are And how do you normally describe yourself in a nutshell and how do you approach your disability? Because like like me, it's obvious and, you know, people are thinking it. So how do you approach people that have never met you before?
Rhiannon [00:02:19] I mean, when I'm meeting somebody new, my disability is probably not something that I approach as such because, I mean, you can't really be inconspicuous when you live your life on wheels, can you? I'm not one to point out the specifics of loss of having a disability unless it's kind of forming into an organic conversation around it. It's always pointed out that my hair is great and that's what I really roll with. That is definitely my hair is my brand. So generally people choose that as the conversation starter and I'm so okay with that. I spent so many years trying to find the confidence to start conversations and I'm open to engaging in any conversation as long as it has a positive starting point and it stops my hair. And that is so fun. But I guess when I am up on that stage and I am giving a keynote presentation, I'm so transparent with my audience and I just literally say, I've been living my life on wheels for 14 years. I am a Scorpio. My favourite colour is pink and I am newer as bossy. I'm somebody living with ADHD, diagnosed ADHD, and I want to ensure that the time that we spend together is fun and engaging. Because if it's not, I'll be bored and you'll definitely be bored.
Peta [00:03:39] I never know how to start talking about somebody's disability because I know that a lot of disability can be connected to trauma. But I know you're also really passionate about encouraging people to gain travel insurance. Can you talk to me about why that so important?
Rhiannon [00:03:58] Well, I had my injury in Bali, so it'll be 14 years this September, and Bali was a place that I would go to every year, my with my mum generally. I was 20 when I had my accident, so getting travel insurance for me was like $100 that I could spend on like the genuine fake Louis Vuitton bags that I could buy in Bali. So we would have the same disagreement every year where I would, you know, make it apparent that I want to buy those bags. And I would say, But this is more important then I guess now I understand why. So having travel insurance was the best hundred dollars that I've ever spent in my life because it quite literally saved my life. I actually spent two and a half weeks in the hospital in Bali after my injury. So I mean, I can go back and read my story if you're listening to this podcast. But the long and short of it, I guess because I can talk about it for hours, is that I had my injury and then a few hours later Bali was struck with a massive earthquake and I guess that kind of put a halt on quite a few things, including my emergency surgery that I was waiting to have. I did have my surgery hours later, but I ended up in the hospital for two and a half weeks as the medical team in Indonesia were relating the wrong messaging back to Australia and they were letting Australian know that I was getting better when in fact I was getting worse. And by the time I got through it and came back over to Bali to bring me home, two and a half weeks later, I wasn't very well. So I had collapsed. So I was I had blood clots. When I got back to Australia, it turned out the surgery that they had done was a complete failure. It was amazing that I was even alive. So yes, I should have been brought back to Australia, you know, quick, smart, but it didn't quite work that way.
Peta [00:05:53] You must've thought at some point like, Oh my God, how am I still here? And why am I still here? Hmm. I think I.
Rhiannon [00:06:02] Have those both often still to this day. I mean, definitely not so much the why am I still here, but how I'm still here or how I, you know, how I'm even doing the things that I'm doing with the trauma that I've experienced both physically and emotionally. But, I mean, you know, I love a corny I love a corny, corny quote, but, you know, we go through what we go through. And I chose to be where I am today. And I've done a lot of work to get here. So here we are.
Peta [00:06:35] And what does it look like inside an air ambulance? I've always wondered.
Rhiannon [00:06:40] Oh, look, just to be entirely honest with you, that's probably a bit of a blur for me. It was a very, very small plane. Like I was literally on a gurney with, like, what looked like two computer screens, like laying across my chest. I should have been put into an induced coma, given how unwell I was, but I actually went into anaphylaxis due to one of the medications that I was given just before the flight took off. So there was a lot going on, but it was literally just the pilot, the co-pilot, the nurse and myself on the plane. So it was a very, very small plane with a lot of things crammed into it.
Peta [00:07:23] Oh, my goodness. I mean, as you say, that's such a traumatic experience. From the time your injury happened, the earthquake, having the operation, that wasn't correct. And like you almost basically dying and going through that. How did you from like the very beginning, how did you go? Watching people's reactions to you and watching their grief of what reality was.
Rhiannon [00:07:49] Here is something that I really pride myself in, is that I don't think that my trauma is comparable to anybody else's. And I think that that's something that, you know, has been instilled in me from kind of day. One of all of this. Like I remember a very significant moment in the hospital where I was going to be kind of the first wheelchair that you put in when you kind of transitioning from bed to chair. And I mean, I couldn't push it. It had a really high back and I was pushing it into the kitchen of the Royal Talbot. I got quite emotional during that moment, and Mum just assumed that I was emotional because of what was happening to me, but I was more sorry that I was looking around and I was watching how sad everybody was and I was feeling this extreme grief not just for myself, but for everyone else around me. And I started crying and Mum was trying to console me and I said, Oh, I'm not actually crying to man. I'm crying for everybody that's going through this. You know, Mum reminded me, she said, you know, I know your body's broken, but you're quite lucky because, I mean, telling someone in a vulnerable position like that, that they are lucky, you know, it's a big, it's a big late. But mum said, you know, at least you, you still, you like, you still have your mind and you're still mentally sound enough to make your, you know, your own decisions and things like that. So I mean I guess for me in that moment that kind of set the tone for life moving forward because I realised like it truly doesn't matter how she dies, but there's so many other people out there in the universe that I know. Again, like it sounds super corny, but it's the truth. Like, no matter how bad we're feeling, somebody is out there and they're doing it so much worse than you. I mean, I use, you know, my facility, which I know we're going to talk about, but I use that as an example to show people perspective as well, because it's not that I'm not compassionate to people's mundane issues because, you know, I am, but it's like, oh, come on. Like, you know, we're having a shit day. I say, you know, we can't control everything that happens to us, but we can always control the outcome. And I know for me, like, if I'm if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed or if I'm having a shitty day, I'm going to spend the entire day trying to turn that day around. Like, I don't just throw my hands up and say, Well, you know, today's the day. I wish it was done. I go, Well, what can I actually do to make this day better? And that's how I feel about life in general.
Peta [00:10:23] I love that. So you've already pre-empted my next question. So tell me about next steps. And why did you start next steps?
Rhiannon [00:10:33] You know, again, I was 20 years old when I had my injury, and my overall goal was to walk again. I am I am quadriplegic. I'm not sure if we've touched on that yet. So I did break my neck and my back and I was instantly paralysed from the neck down. Spoiler alert I can and I can take unneeded steps, but my quality of life is being on wheels that, you know, I talk a lot about how I felt like my wheelchair was my anchor, but it's actually given me wings. And throughout this journey, I, you know, I have this incredible love for my chair. But in saying that, there are a lot of things that I still wanted to be able to do throughout this life. And when I was newly injured, I was just being fed a lot of light. You can't you have to accept this. This is your life. So we set out my way, being my mom and I set out on this adventure across the world to a facility that was a spinal cord injury recovery facility, you know, from Melbourne to San Diego, having to fundraise every time because I had my injury that was not NDIS. There's no compensation because it was in Bali. Travel insurance doesn't cover life after injury, it just covers your medical expenses when you have your injury. So my community had to continue to fundraise to keep going over there because I'd go over there and amazing things would happen physically and mentally, and I'd come home and I'd fall into, you know, a series of depression, depression, and there was nothing here that I was able to access that I was getting over there. We were at an outpatient appointment at Royal Talbot, and I was looking around the gym floor and seeing all the people that were sad and depressed. And, you know, I just said to mum, we're going to do something like we're like, we've got to open a facility here. And at that point we'd exhausted all funds, both personally and within our community. We literally did a call out to every media outlet that would hear us and we said, this is what we want to do. We want to open a facility, build our own little community. And that we did. And we just said we want a one stop shop where people can come that have physical and emotional support, but also their support networks can have support as well. And that became the next step. We called it the next step because we knew it was a gap that was lacking within what we were offering here in Australia with regards to rehabilitation and after leaving hospital. You know, it's not just about the physical steps. In fact, it's hardly about the physical steps. It's more about, you know, what's next for us within improving our quality of life.
Peta [00:13:30] And if you always wanted to start a business like before your accident, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career? And have you found running your own business? You must enjoy it.
Rhiannon [00:13:42] Well, that's an interesting question. I went I left school at 16 and I became a hairdresser. I've got better hair now than when I was a hairdresser. Let me tell you that, because when you're a hairdresser, you just want to keep up with the latest trends. So you cut it off, you bleach, it falls out all the things. And then I you know, I found myself in a spot where I just wasn't enjoying that. So I actually went back to school and did my year 11 and all through breakout and I became a veterinary desk because I grew up with animals. I'm an only child, so I've always had animals. When I look at the next step, it's I don't see I mean, obviously it runs and it operates as a business. It is a not for profit organisation, but somebody's still going to run the show and that somebody is May, but it's so much more and it's a it's the family I never had because I never had brothers and sisters, you know, I've got, I've got cousins spread out the country, but nobody that I'm super close to. I've had my same staff for the majority of the time that the doors have been open, which is almost been ten years. It is support. It's support for me. It's support for this community. I don't say it as a business because it's such a part of my life now, like or, you know, like it's been there through everything and it's grown and evolved as I have as well. And I'm at a point now where, you know, like, it wasn't a dream. It wasn't a dream for me to have this facility. It was a need. It was a need for me and my community. Even though we're exercise activity based facility, we're also a place where people can just come and have space held for them. And I mean, if it does it for me that I know it's doing it for other people.
Peta [00:15:35] On a very different note, and this is probably a selfish question from my point of view, but I need all the help I can get. I'm on the dating scene and my dating life is horrendous. Like, I'm not good at it. So do you have any tips? Because I know you have an amazing partner. How did you go about the dating scene and Yeah, how do you approach that?
Rhiannon [00:15:57] Oh, my gosh. I still to this day, like something I heard years ago, was like I was reading one of the 500 dating advice books that are out there. And the question that came out was like, would you want to date yourself? And I remember that when I heard that question, I was in a really interesting point in my life because I have been married and divorced. I married my high school sweetheart who we'd been on again, off again for, I think like 14 years or something like that. And I thought that was my fairy tale happy ending. I was completely, like, blindsided when that broke down. And it was something that was entirely out of my control. But it destroyed me like, I mean, it destroyed me emotionally more so than having my injury. I know that that probably sounds very bizarre to a lot of people, but I think it was because it was the built up of grief from my injury that led into that as well. So it was like a double whammy when I was reading all these these books and listening to all these Break-Up podcasts and Rebuilding a Life podcast, I was like, Oh, what I would like, would I want to date me? And that had that question, had nothing to do whatsoever with my disability. I was 29 when my marriage broke down. I was like a few months from turning 30. And that was super significant for me because. A lot of things happened during my marriage right down to turning 30 that I was like, Holy crap. Like, this is a bit of a pattern here that I just want to I really want to spend my next 30 years, you know, living the way that I've been living. And I did it. I threw myself into the dating scene and it was frickin scary. Like, it was scary because I didn't know. I mean, the weather was a thing. I lived in the small country town, so it was the acts like there was no local places that I could go. I had the internalised debates on, you know, do I put photos of me in my wheelchair? Do I even say that I'm in a wheelchair? And, you know, I was like, well, I'd hate to be catfished by anyone, so of course, I'm going to I'm going to do it. And, you know, when I do say that having a disability and you can probably relate to this, is that you have a huge bullshit filter. You can pick the shitty conversations before they even, like deep dive into your disability because you just know. You just know. I think I've done enough work on myself at the point where I knew that any she initially come in to conversations that were being said it was a them thing. It was not amazing. You know, I did get out there and I did get on the dating scene and I did go on dates and dates is scary and I hate them, but you just got to do it. Like, I mean, fear is a direct, you know, acknowledgement to where you need work. But in saying that, I met my partner at a funeral. So, yeah, I did. Well, technically, I met him on an app and he was somebody that I spoke to for like 24 hours and then said, Oh, well, you know, I actually don't really have time to be in a relationship and not just because of my career, but also my injury. Like, you know, I didn't want to have to worry about somebody else. And I don't know if that makes sense to you, but it was just like I was, you know, like I'd seen what being in a relationship had done to my body because of it not being the right relationship in the past. And I guess I just had a bit of a fear of having to go through that again. But yes, then few months later, we bumped into each other at a funeral and we haven't been separated since. And there was a lot of hard work that went into that. There was a lot of him not understanding boundaries that I had to set because my I'd gotten to my I got myself to a point where I was always number one, like always, if my health wasn't my priority, then you're nobody is going to get the best of me. And that took months and lots of conversations. But, you know, it was it was worth it all. And, you know, I say to people all the time, relationships are just as hard as being single sometimes. But I think that when you get yourself to a point that, you know, you can really filter out that bullshit and you can have that understanding of you will always be your own priority, then it'll happen.
Peta [00:20:37] Very sound advice. Thank you. But the dating pool socks.
Rhiannon [00:20:41] Sorry.
Peta [00:20:43] Tell me about it. Is there anything that you wish people better understood either about quadriplegia or just disability in general?
Rhiannon [00:20:53] So many answers to that question. I think one of the things, while the main thing is I wish people would just understood that we are we are like we are we are people. We are people's friends, we are colleagues, we are CEOs. We are incredible human beings. I'm not even going to sugarcoat it any more. I'm just so sick and tired of being invisible. It just pisses me off because, you know, I'm sick and tired of not being seen or heard. And I know again, like, one person can't speak on our community, like there's no one representation of who we all are because we are all different individuals, but we bring something significant to the plight. You know, there's something incredible about all of us, and we still wear clothes, we still consume products, and we still get up and we do our bloody very best. And we're also the biggest minority group in the world. But why are we still invisible? And it's because unless somebody has a reason to befriend us or to be aware of what our wants and needs are, then. People die. And that's what pisses me off, because we're just as important as the next person. And I'm not going to say, if not more, because I think then we're not talking about equality. And that's the biggest issue here.
Peta [00:22:21] Not to like take the mood down a little bit because that was such a beautiful answer. But I get so pissed off when older women complain that they now feel invisible because nobody looks at them. And I'm like, Dude, that's been my.
Rhiannon [00:22:34] Whole.
Peta [00:22:35] Life.
Rhiannon [00:22:36] I know. And you know, for us, well, I know for me, like I said earlier, to be seen, I have to have good hair. You know what I mean? Like, I had to have a conversation starter that wasn't like, about my disability, you know? And it's funny because all my friends and my family say, we don't even say it anymore like you do. Say it like you do. Say it when we're out and about. Like I know my partner recognises that people are staring more than I do. Like, I don't say it, but I say what is still lacking in the world that we live in. And that's the thing that pisses me off.
Peta [00:23:16] Is there anything you love or. Well, if love's too strong a word. But is there anything you like about having a disability?
Rhiannon [00:23:24] I talk about this when I give keynote presentations. I mean, we shouldn't have to experience trauma to realise our potential. But for me, that's exactly what it did. I mean, I couldn't tell you what I'd be doing if I didn't have my injury. I would. I mean, I would see my private nurse, but I'd probably have like lots of babies, which isn't a bad thing. But the things that the loss that I've created because of having my injury is what I'm really proud of. I mean, so if I can use that as an answer to this question, because I'm also asked if I could go back and rewind the clock and not dive into that swimming pool, would I? And of course I would. You know, the injury itself I don't love because it is a full time job and it it is exhausting. But I love the life that I've created to ensure that when I am that old lady that you speak about, I don't have to complain because I'm going to be so much more. I'm going to hold more gratitude for the life that I believed than complain about the life that I have lived.
Peta [00:24:30] Finally, what do you hope the future will be like for people with disabilities?
Rhiannon [00:24:35] I'm such a perspective kind of person. Like I really do try and find the good in all the bad. And I'm not saying that. Well, no, it is representation. It is still and access and inclusion is pretty bad, but it can only get better. But the only way it's going to continue to get better is if more of the able bodied community become allies and stop sharing this messaging with us. That's the only way. And I'm always asking that everybody community is their world accessible? Is the world that they live in accessible. If something happened to them, God forbid, you know, are they going to be able to even go to their own home, go to their work places? You know, something we all have in common, both disabled and everybody, because we all age and at some point in everybody, communities, life is going to need access to whether it be disabled Hollywood or disabled parking point or parking spot. So let's work on that now. So they're are more available for us or for them in the future. I look forward to the day where we as we are today, aren't so exhausted of fighting.
Peta [00:25:54] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I encourage you to leave a writing interview? If you listen on Apple or Spotify, it helps more people find the podcast. If you have a question for me or would like to suggest a guest for a future episode of the podcast, you can get in contact with me via my Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hook or send me an email. My email address is I can Stand podcast at gmail.com. Again, thank you so much for listening. It's great to be back, but until next week. Have a good one. Bye, guys. I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the Bunarrong people. Where this podcast was recorded.