My spinal cord injury story and how it changed my life

by Dr Olivia Ong

It took a traumatic spinal cord injury in 2008 to transform my life.

The experience was a radical awakening. I was told that I would never walk again.

On one fine Spring Day in 2008, my life changed forever. I was walking to work when I was hit by a car at high speed. My body was flung into the sky, and as I hovered, like a slow-motion movie, a few thoughts ran through my head.

See, a few years earlier in my late 20s I had ticked all the success boxes:

  • I was working as a doctor in a reputable hospital
  • I was happily married
  • I had my own house and car, and
  • I had a great network of friends.

You may be wondering how someone who seemingly had it all lacked self-worth.

How did that happen?

Being a perfectionist, I used to beat myself up for making the tiniest of mistakes.

I didn’t listen to my own needs when work got busy. I did my job on autopilot, running around from ward to ward, doing my charts. As a doctor, I was programmed as a lone ranger. I did not seek help because that meant I was weak, not capable and not competent. My lone ranger programming made me feel isolated, disconnected, and helpless.

Isolated, disconnected, and helpless…..

Which was exactly how I felt flying through the air after being struck by a 3000-pound vehicle travelling 40 miles per hour. I landed with an Earth-shattering thud. The impact left me a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair and told I’d never walk again.

But I was resilient and never gave up hope.

I spent three years in Project Walk, San Diego and I did learn to walk again with grit, determination, and the support of my husband, family, and close friends.

At first, I thought that the state of the art technology was what was going to help me but after spending two years there I realised that my experience at Project Walk taught me a far more powerful life lesson: Self-Compassion.

See, my experience to learn to walk again was the exact opposite of my life as a resident:

  • Instead of being on autopilot wishing that I had a catheter to not think about going to the bathroom, I had to be mindful of each step I took.
  • Instead of being a lone ranger struggling to seek help, I connected with fellow spinal cord injury survivors, bound together by our common humanity and our common suffering being spinal cord injury.
  • Most important of all, instead of being a perfectionist beating myself up for every mistake I made, I learnt to accept myself for who I was.

Mindfulness, Common Humanity, and Self-Acceptance – These are the 3 pillars of self-compassion.

And these were the things that gave me self-worth – Not walking again, and definitely not the initial success I had earlier. I’d learnt what it was like to be a patient on the other side of the healthcare system, and when I returned home to Melbourne, I threw myself into my new private practice in rehabilitation and pain medicine.

I became a mum and continued my studies. I managed to advance my career as a dual-trained rehabilitation medicine and specialist pain medicine physician.

I overcame my imposter syndrome by learning how to master my mindset, and I stepped up as a clinical leader at work using my compassionate leadership skills. These are all the skills that can be learnt and the centre of my practice here at The Heart-Centred Doctor!

P. S. Impacted by Imposter Syndrome? I’ve created a guide with my best tips to beat it, and you can download it for free HERE!

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1 comment

Harvey Bruce October 20, 2021 - 6:37 am

I am intrigued by your life story, particularly your amazing recovery from your shocking car accident which I applaud you for. I am a longstanding lawyer in Melbourne who has done considerable personal injury work & act, in particular, for a young Chinese girl from Singapore who was very severely injured in a motor car accident in May 2016 which, inter alia, has left her as a paraplegic. Her passion beforehand was rock climbing. She was on holiday here from Singapore before taking up a medical degree at Dukes University in Singapore. Can i speak with you re her? My mobile is 0402098226, if & when convenient to you.


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