ANU Master of Museum and Heritage Studies student Georgia Wilson is wearing a pair of white peep toe wedge heels. It was a special occasion when she bought them, in mid-October. Only a month earlier, she was learning how to walk in heels again. And three months prior, she was re-learning how to walk altogether.
In May, Georgia’s life changed dramatically. Before that, she had been a high-performing student at ANU. She’d learned violin at age 6, started playing with the Canberra Youth Orchestra and then the National Capital Orchestra. She played piano. She belly-danced, which she’d done for ten years, and had become good enough to perform all over Canberra – at Floriade, the Multicultural Festival, functions.
“I love performing,” Georgia enthuses. “It’s a lot of fun, a bit of extra cash. Great costumes!”
May came, and something happened to Georgia. She felt unwell unexpectedly. Her ability to move her body started to decline over the course of a day.
“Then the next day, I couldn't move the left side of my body at all,” she says.
Georgia was taken to hospital and initially placed in the stroke ward.
“You don't think about how to walk. I'd been walking for over 20 years and all of sudden I couldn't walk and it was terrifying,” Georgia recalls.
There’s a sense we have called proprioception that allows us to perceive the movement and position of our body and limbs in space. Georgia’s proprioception had been damaged. Gesturing to a magazine on the table, she says: “I know how to pick something up with my left hand now, but then, I’d know where it was but couldn't get the signal to my hand to pick it up.”
Even if she got her hand there, she wouldn’t have been able to complete the action. She’d lost use of her left hand almost entirely.
A neurologist at the hospital told her she’d had inflammation on the right side of her brain, causing a minor brain injury. The trigger for the inflammation was unknown.
“He was upfront and said, ‘We don't know the extent to which you'll recover, or the timeframe’,” Georgia says.
“I told him I play violin and dance, and he was sorry about that because those require fine motor skills and they're the longest to come back. He didn't know if they would ever be normal – recover at all or 90% or completely.”
She was 26 years old and had never been so scared in her life. Just last year, she’d spent some time in hospital for a severe stomach infection. But with that, she knew what was wrong and that it could be fixed.
“It was hard seeing my parents,” Georgia says. “When I had the stomach infection they knew things would be okay. They weren't fearful. But this time around, my dad would have tears in his eyes seeing me try to walk.”
“There are so many unknowns with neurological disorders and both my parents knew that.”
Georgia was given steroids to reduce the inflammation. Once she was well enough, she was discharged from hospital. After a few weeks, she began her rehabilitation.
“When I started going to my rehab classes, I started getting hope back,” Georgia says. “It was hard, but when you're stuck at home waiting for people to help you, that's terrifying. You just feel hopeless.”
She started to learn how to walk again, how to use her hands. And gradually, how to do everyday things.
“There are so many things you don't think of,” Georgia says. “It's crazy how much concentration it takes to walk.”
“I couldn't cook, do up my jeans. I couldn't do my hair – I have long hair, it's hard to dry it. I couldn’t wash it – had to have my mum help me in the shower. It was awful.”
Her rehabilitation was exhausting. She went to the rehab centre four times a week and did exercises at home: things like standing unassisted, graduating to going up on her toes and coming back down for balance. She had to mould putty into certain shapes, pick up dice and marbles and put them in certain cups. But she persisted.
“A lot of days I didn't want to do it, but you just have to,” she says.
“I didn't want to be 26 and never able to walk again without assistance, never able to play music again or dance, so I kept doing it.”
Georgia is slowly rebuilding her piano playing skills again. She’s just returned to rehearsals, for violin, which she says she still can’t play very well – but she’s trying.
“I’ve had to retrain my memory as well,” Georgia says. “It made things at uni a lot slower. It takes me longer now to read and digest information.”
The deficits she’s left with don't affect her day to day functioning anymore.
“With proprioception, that hasn't totally come back to normal but I've learned ways around it and it's not really noticeable to others,” she says. “You learn new ways around things you can't do. And everything else you can relearn and do as normal.”
“I just know there are certain things I might not be able to ever do. But it's okay because I can talk. I can walk, run and jump.”
Her wedge shoes are emblematic of her progress. They’re a symbol of how she can do things now like paint her nails, do her hair, wear nice clothes.
“Before, I didn't feel pretty or feminine or like myself,” she says. “I just felt useless and wasn't able to dress myself how I wanted to. So buying the shoes was wonderful – I feel like my old self again.”
When Georgia first started her Masters, she had expected to graduate in 2017. Then her stomach infection pushed that to mid-2018. Her brain injury cast the finish line further still – but she was resolute about making it there, by December this year.
“I'm happy that I made the decision to work really hard at rehab and at uni because if I didn't push myself, I wouldn't be here today,” she says.
Her experience showed her how determined she can be.
“It’s really great to know if something like this happens, I have the strength to overcome it as best I can,” she says. “I'm happy.”
Georgia Wilson shared her story of resilience and recovery on ABC Radio Canberra. You can listen to it here.