My spinal cord injury story and how it changed my life3 min read

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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If you have any questions or feedback regarding this article and any of the issues it raises, or if you’d like to get in touch to find out more about fulfilling your true potential I would love to hear from you.

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