The doctors said Maija Vance may never walk again, but she was having none of it. The former jockey, who suffered life-changing injuries in a race fall in September 2018, last month climbed the 526 steps to the top of Mount Maunganui on the North Island of New Zealand to raise money for the CatWalk Trust to support spinal cord injury research.
The fact that Vance, daughter of former jockeys turned trainers Bob and Jenny Vance, can take one step, let alone 526, is a testament to her can-do attitude.
“I broke my back in five places and fractured my ribs in 13 places. I had some facial injuries as well,” Vance recalled. “They said I probably wouldn’t walk again because of the damage. The T8 level of my spine had crushed my spinal cord and I had lost all feeling and movement from the waist down.
“I went into a spinal unit in Auckland and was there for three months. I have a mini dachshund and he was the first dog they had let come in there and I was pretty lucky I had him with me. When I was in there, I had physio three times a day and put everything I had into my rehab.”
Vance said some of the injuries people had suffered that were in the Auckland Spinal Rehabilitation Unit were quite confronting and made her feel fortunate that her injuries weren’t worse.
“One day I got a little twitch in my toe. It flicked when I asked it to move and that was probably one of the best days of my life,” she said. “I had been laying there all day just trying to move my toes, just staring at them telling them to move.
“I got enough feeling back that I was able to walk with a walker, which I had when I left after three months. I had a walker and a wheelchair I used pretty much all the time. Now I am at the point 18 months later I can walk unaided and climbed a mountain.”
“I needed some recovery cream and a spa the next day though.”
‘I am lucky the damage wasn’t a millimetre more’
Despite the reserved forecast of doctors, the effervescent 28-year-old was positive she would get back on her feet. “I knew that I would definitely walk again. How well I didn’t know,” she said.
“When you go into a spinal unit, you have one session a day for physio and one for wheelchair skills. I told them I wanted more physio and they said they didn’t have enough slots, so I swapped out of wheelchair class because I said I didn’t need it because I wasn’t going to be in a wheelchair.
“The doctors weren’t confident I was going to regain anything, let alone be able to walk. I am just really lucky. Attitude gets you a long way, but I am lucky the damage done wasn’t a millimetre more or I wouldn’t have been able to walk again.”
Vance has been working with a physio ever since she came out of the spinal unit and said she got an interesting response when she told her physio, Tracey Sterling, of her ambitions to climb Mount Maunganui, an extinct volcanic dome overlooking the town of the same name.
“She said ‘why don’t we just walk around it’?”
But Vance said the challenge meant so much, given that, in addition to achieving a personal goal, she was also helping raise funds to find a cure for spinal cord injury.
Having ticked another box in conquering the mountain, Vance is stepping her way through new life goals and she takes great therapy from riding her station-bred Palamino called Panda.
She hopes to one day be re-united with 9-year-old grey gelding Zedsational, the now-retired horse who crashed to the turf with Vance that fateful day at New Zealand’s Rotorua racecourse in 2018.
“I think it would be cool if I did go and see Zedsational again and had a little jump on him,” Vance said.
“I would like to ride on raceday again. People always ask if I would like to and that is the ultimate goal if my legs were ever strong enough. They aren’t strong enough to ride trackwork at the moment, so I am trying to build them up to do that.
“It is not something I want to do as a job for the rest of my life but something I want to do to prove I can get to that point. The first gallop I ride, I think will be a really great feeling.”