Category Archives: Feature stories

SCI Spotlight: Caitlin – the Aussie Wheelchair Wanderer

In Australia, taking off and traveling for long periods of time is a rite of passage. So when Caitlin was paralyzed when she was 18, she was determined not to say goodbye to her love of travel. Embarking on an epic sojourn just three months ago, we’re excited to share Caitlin’s adventures in our new SCI Spotlight series.

Her Injury & Vet School

Growing up in Sydney, Australia, Caitlin’s mother instilled in her a love of travel. “We were fortunate to go on dozens of family holidays growing up,” she says. She also discovered a love for –animals, and knew early on she wanted to be a veterinarian.

But her life plans changed when she broke her back. “I fell off a horse when I was at university,” becoming an incomplete paraplegic, which means she can stand and take a couple of steps if she’s holding on to something, but she uses a wheelchair for daily life.

After her injury, Caitlin was determined to return to a normal life as soon as possible. “My biggest fear when I had my accident was that I would lose my independence, have to move back home and I couldn’t be a ‘normal’ 18 year old,” she says. “After a couple of months of living at home I moved back to uni (which was six hours from home.) I had an accessible room on campus and a few of my very close girlfriends moved in with me. That way they were able to help with my washing and we all cooked together and did the shopping together. This helped me tremendously as it was like a gradual reintroduction to independence with a great support network.”

At first, Caitlin didn’t think she could continue her veterinarian dream, so she got her equine science degree instead. “Subsequently, I got a job in an office at a racehorse syndication company in Sydney, however I knew it wasn’t for me,” she says. She decided to apply to vet school and was accepted to Sydney University. “I found the first year very stressful because there wasn’t a lot of support,” she says. “The vet facility was a very old two-story building, with no lift.” To make it work, she kept a wheelchair on the second story and climbed the stairs every day.

Caitlin persevered and graduated, then embarked on a lengthy job search, eventually finding a position at a veterinary clinic on the central coast of Australia. “When people see disability in a resume, I think sometimes they discount it too quickly because it’s the unknown,” she says. “They don’t know what you can or can’t do and I think they assume that you can’t do a lot rather than asking. I’ve actually gotten into the habit of deleting any mention of disability off my resume entirely.”

Despite getting a job she loved in the face of such hardships, Caitlin was still jealous of all of her friends who were traveling, and she felt she was missing out, which pushed her to quit her job last year. “It’s a very Australian thing to go traveling for a long period of time, I think it’s because we live so far away from everywhere. I didn’t want to miss out on this Australian rite of passage just because of my disability.”

Trying Something New – Travel

Caitlin’s travels are just getting started. She began her extended vacation (and her blog) at the beginning of this year, and we can’t wait to see where she goes. What we love most about her new life of traveling is that she’ll be sharing it with the world, including every wheelchair travel tip she uncovers. And her blog, Wheelchair Wanderings, already has a number of posts.

She has even perfected the art of how to wear a backpack while using a wheelchair, which she shares in a blog post (you can read it here). So far, she has traveled to Amsterdam, Munich, Paris, and London. Who knows where she’ll land next, but we know it’ll be good. We leave you with some of Caitlin’s top wheelchair travel tips below:

  • Be flexible.
  • Don’t worry if something isn’t 100 percent accessible. There is always a way around it.
  • Keep an open mind to people and experiences.
  • Be open to assistance. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness.
  • Not all of your trip has to be planned. Leave room for a little spontaneity. Says Caitlin: “I hear this all the time on accessible travel blogs, ‘Make sure everything is planned you don’t want to get stuck.’ However, as a young person, planning everything is a bit boring. I think not planning everything makes it a bit more exciting. It all adds to the experience.’’
  • Don’t be upset if a tourist attraction isn’t accessible or a city you want to go to is not possible (eg. I really wanted to go to Venice but I knew it wasn’t worth it because I spend the whole time being angry and frustrated.) There are so many other amazing destinations and experiences in the world.
  • Learn wheelchair skills (paraplegics/low quads): Wheel stands, gutter drops, more difficult transfers etc. Learning these basic skills will open up more options.
  • Say hi to people: People at backpacking hostels are so friendly and always up for a chat
  • Always carry essential things: Medication, tools for wheelchair, catheters and a spare change of clothes.

Would you quit your job and travel the world as a wheelchair-user?

– Make sure to visit her travel blog: Wheelchair Wanderings

#WhatSCI Winner Profile: Marrianne Rooprai

Beautiful. That’s the first word that comes to mind when you see Marrianne Rooprai, one of the most well-known SCI recovery advocates in the UK, but her beauty goes deeper than just a pretty face. With her strong spirit, she’s made it her mission to disprove some doctors’ limited expectations of what people with SCI are capable of doing.

And she’s making her dreams come true. From co-founding the Rooprai Spinal Trust to raise money for SCI rehab to helping others with SCI by donating equipment worldwide, Marrianne is a fierce female who’s making a huge difference. As the winner of our first #WhatSCI contest, we’re thrilled to share her story.

Her SCI Journey Begins

In 2004, Marrianne was 27 years old and had just started a hospitality company with her now-fiance, Andy. Her life was filled with travel and work she loved, but it all came to an abrupt halt when she sustained a C2-3 injury from a car accident and was told she would never move anything from her shoulders down again. She was left with the mobility of a C4 quad.

Marrianne refused to take the prognosis at face value, looking at it instead as a challenge. She immediately undertook one of the most incredible regimens ever attempted by anyone with her level of injury. She combined exercises such as treadmill walking, weight training and biofeedback (which stimulates weak nerve connections) to get to her current mobility level (around C5).

And Marrianne has been working at it for nearly 13 years to get as much return on her investment as possible. In fact, she has achieved many “firsts” in the exercise world as a quadriplegic. In 2012, she became the first female quadriplegic to use a FES rowing machine (using her Activehands gloves). The next year she became the first quadriplegic at her level to use the Ekso exskeleton (watch her walk in it here).

For biofeedback, Marrianne travels to Miami yearly for sessions at the Brucker Biofeedback Clinic, which have helped her immensely. From her hands to her overall great shape and muscle tone, and her strong biceps, Marrianne has indeed proven her doctors wrong.

For intense activity-based rehab, Marrianne goes several days a week to Prime Physio, a SCI gym in the UK that offers a wide range of physiotherapy treatments including FES and treadmill-assisted walking. Learn more about Prime Physio here

Helping Others

Soon after her injury, Marrianne’s boyfriend, Andy, proposed a genius idea – to start a spinal cord injury trust. The goal would be to raise funds for spinal cord injury rehab scholarships, help pay for Marrianne’s rehab, and to send equipment to people in need worldwide. They named it the Rooprai Spinal Trust and it’s 100% volunteer-run to this day.

And the trust has done a lot to help the lives of others with paralysis since its founding. One of its biggest donations is supplying Activehands to quadriplegics (who can request them on the site), which are life-changing gloves that allow many to lift weights again. The trust also includes the Physio Scholars program that helps people with SCI get the rehab they deserve and need. Learn how to apply here. And they’ve also donated tens of thousands of pounds to SCI research.

Marrianne and Andy have taken a seemingly life-ending situation and turned it into a full-blown success. With their successful Rooprai Spinal Trust, annual fundraisers, constant networking and a life filled with travel, they have proven that with raw determination, and let’s face it, a lot of high-quality exercise, dreams can be realized.

Have you tried activity-based rehab since your injury?

Like The Rooprai Trust on Facebook

– Visit the trust: Rooprai Spinal Trust

– Marrianne’s preferred gym: Prime Physio

Watch Videos of Marrianne!

Marrianne Rooprai walks in an Ekso exoskeleton

Marrianne’s injury story and rehab progress