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“Hope is a huge motivator”, and other experiences on resilience and optimism from Chris Fraser 

On her 21st birthday, Chris Fraser embarked on an adventure that would magnificently shape her life trajectory. Her journey began with a backpacking trip across Europe, where she connected with some new friends from South Africa. After coming back from this trip, she finished her biology degree at Western University and her post-grad plans consisted of attending Brescia College to pursue a degree in Nutrition Science. However, Chris’s wanderlust returned, and she made plans to travel before starting more schooling. Coincidentally, around this time she received an invitation from the group of friends she had made in Europe to explore the beautiful landscapes of South Africa.  


On May 5th, 1988, Chris and a friend went hiking in an area with cliffs that overlook the vast ocean on the South African coast - “God’s Window,” it was called. The view was spectacular, and Chris’s friend urged her to pose for a picture overlooking the breathtaking ocean water. Chris’s back faced the water, but it was her friend who saw a massive tide form (a rogue wave), surging rapidly in their direction. In an instant, Chris felt an enormous force that knocked her off her feet. She was swept by the water and described the feeling as akin to being inside a washing machine, spinning and tumbling in the watery turmoil. Chris was an avid athlete at the time and had been training for a triathlon - instincts kicked into action as she worked hard to swim up to the surface. Yet, another tide formed, pulling her under once more. 


Amid this chaos, she remembered thinking, “My parents are going to flip.”  


Finally, the water calmed. Chris started swimming to shore. It was then that she realized that she couldn’t feel her legs kicking while trying to swim. The nature conservationists of the area came along, National Sea Rescue got contacted, and a physician ran to the remote location to provide care and morphine.    


After being transported by air ambulance to the central spinal unit in Cape Town, Chris received news that she had a broken neck, back and pelvis and multiple lacerations. At that moment, she remembers being in complete denial about never being able to walk again.  


Shortly after, her family made the journey to South Africa and they were warmly embraced by the diverse staff and local community. The extraordinary support that both she and her family received from this foreign community was incredible. They invited her family to different events; the staff would often sit around her bed and eagerly ask about her life in Canada. Chris also learned about their community, culture, and life in South Africa. She felt a depth of gratitude for the community and support she received during the initial months of her recovery. 


Chris remained at this facility from May 5th until September 18th, 1988. 


After this, a physician from the Netherlands would fly home with Chris, where she would arrive at Parkwood Institute for in-patient rehabilitation. Over the next few months, Chris completed her in-patient rehabilitation from September to December, after which she transitioned to outpatient care. During her outpatient care, Chris was determined to return to the community; she went back to Western university part-time to finish her nutrition degree, took on a part-time job and began volunteering for the Spinal Cord Society.  


At 28, Chris graduated with her nutrition degree in the spring of ‘92 then completed her dietetic internship at Grand River Hospital. After living and working in New Jersey for a year and a half, Chris returned to London, Ontario. In a full-circle moment, she returned to Parkwood Institute in 1995 to fill the dietician position for the spinal cord and acquired brain injury rehabilitation programs and led seated aerobics classes for the Parkwood Fitness Centre, where she would serve for the next 25 years.  


Today, Chris is a visionary and instrumental project lead of Possibilities Project, which raises money to purchase assistive devices for persons in financial need within the Parkwood Rehabilitation programs and co-lead for the Possibilities Project Plus, an Ontario-wide assistive device exchange hub, linking people who wish to donate equipment at no cost to persons in need in the community, which also keeps needed equipment out of landfills.   


The following is an interview with the remarkable Chris Fraser.  


What are you doing these days Chris? 


I certainly don’t feel retired!  The original Possibilities Project and Possibilities Project Plus keep me busy.  I teach seated aerobics classes for the Parkwood Virtual Fitness Centre and for another group of people who have spinal cord injuries and other disabilities and conditions.  We work out together a few days each week; the group is also an informal peer support network.  I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, music, making workout playlists and relaxing watching Netflix.  And I always have a good book on the go.   


You described your injury experience, but, what was your initial reaction to the injury and how did you cope with it? 


Complete denial. My belief that I was going to recover was one of the factors that kept me moving forward. Because of the experience I have had working with people with spinal cord injury, I feel strongly that clinicians should never tell someone “you will never walk again”. I also don’t believe in such a thing as false hope. Hope is a huge motivator. So yes, I was in denial. There was not a doubt in my mind that I would walk again. But as time passed, I eventually came to accept and came to terms with it. By this time, I was working, driving, dating and spending time with friends; I had a full life. I got married and have two stepkids and six grandkids.  Often, people are in such denial that they won’t go into the community. They will wait to recover. This is when denial becomes very detrimental and where peer support is so important.    


How did your life change after the injury, both physically and emotionally? 


I remember a girl being admitted in the same hospital as me with similar injuries, but I remember that she had recovered and walked herself out of there. I remember feeling happy for her, but I also wanted that recovery for myself. This shook my confidence a little bit. I remember feeling self-conscious in my wheelchair, initially. After this, my experience took me on a journey. I started getting into meditation, transcendental meditation specifically. I started reading a lot - specifically books about the mind-body connection, psychoneuroimmunology and more. This opened up another world of possibility and physical potential. All of this continued to fuel my mind and body connection.  


The experience changed my perspective….I became aware of examples of the strength of the human spirit in everyday life.  It provided opportunities to meet people whose stories were inspiring and thought-provoking and opened up possibilities.    

I was able to have a positive journey because of my very supportive family and friends. It is important to remember that when something happens to you, it also happens to the people around you. You don’t want to be a person that other people don’t want to be around. 


Can you describe your rehabilitation process and the challenges you experienced during it? 


At that time, following spinal cord injury at the hospital I was at in South Africa, people were not allowed to get out of bed for six weeks.  I remember the day that they brought me a wheelchair and put it beside my bed.  It was surreal.  The physio gym was in a completely different building.  This hospital in South Africa was overcrowded and we had to share a physio mat with another patient.  At that point in my recovery, I also couldn’t weight-bear. I eventually got leg braces.  At that point in my rehab in South Africa they weren’t teaching me transfers or any skills for independence.  Once at Parkwood, I did physio twice a day. I was taught to do my own bladder and bowel management, transfers and other life skills as a wheelchair user.  


How has your support network played a role in your recovery and adjustment? 


It was key. I got calls and messages in South Africa. I got letters from friends and family. The staff had to keep putting more strings on the wall for these letters. My friends video taped a message for me to watch. They had already arrived at Parkwood before I got there and decorated my room. They continued to be there. There were times when I didn’t want to go into the community and they forced me to. One of my friends said to me “you don’t have a choice”. They truly pushed me out of my comfort zone.  


Thirty-five years post-injury, my belief in the necessity of support systems, mutual support, is even stronger.  Because of the support that I received, I hope that I am paying it forward.   


I am keenly aware of how fortunate I was and continue to be because of the love and support and my family and friends.  


Can you talk about your hobbies and interests before the injury and how you’ve adapted them to your current self? 


Before my injury, in public school and high school I was in competitive sports and was on a number of teams and groups and committees. I got into sports when I was ten years old. Being fit saved my life the day of the accident. The joy of sports and the social part of competition were really important. The fitness aspect for me since my injury has been in a gym with a class full of people and now working out with groups virtually.   


I loved hanging out with my friends, socializing, dancing, listening to music. I never did things like knitting or crafts - I tried and was never good at it!  


After my injury, there was so much opportunity for rehab. I was trying to re-learn my body, trying to walk, to learn other skills as much as I could. I said that I would never dance in my wheelchair but in more recent years I have started to and love it.    


Are there any milestones or achievements in your post-injury life that you are particularly proud of? 


Completing my education, my career as a dietitian and what I hope were the contributions that I made to my patients and co-workers.  The fact that I maintained physical activity in my life. Being contacted after my retirement to contribute to new projects.  The relationships that I cultivate and are blessed with.   


What advice would you give to others who are living with a spinal cord injury or facing similar challenges?  

Don’t lose yourself. Do the best you can with what you can physically do today. Don’t stop living your life. Don’t stop having goals and don’t wait for recovery. Don’t let your life pass you by, and go out into the community. There is life after injury. That is a seed I try to plant when I speak to people.  


How do you stay physically active and maintain your overall well-being?  

A lot of human connection. Being a part of something.  Feeling that I am making a contribution, big or small, is very important to me and that I work toward.  I live out loud and I like to share with people. I am a seated aerobics instructor. I lead two classes a week. I am a part of three other group workouts each week. The workout groups are not only about fitness but also about chatting, venting, problem solving, laughing.  Music is a big one too. Classic rock. Upbeat stuff. Songs with motivational messages. And I try to practice what I preach (most of the time!) with my nutrition.   


Did you join any support groups after your injury? 


After my injury I declined being paired with a peer mentor. I initially identified myself as a person with an injury, not a disability.  I avoided anything associated with disability.   The irony is that now so much of my life - my profession, fitness pursuits, research involvement, what I educate about, many aspects of my social life - are related to disability or people who also have disabilities.  In retrospect, my avoidance of peer mentorship in the early years likely limited my perspective and experiences as a person newly disabled.  I am a strong advocate for peer support, whether someone is newly injured or years post-injury.  Finding a community of people with shared experience is empowering and affirming and fun.   


Can you talk about your self-concept and where disability fits into it? 


So many aspects of my life are about disability - it is what keeps me busy. It’s what I do, teach, talk about, work with. But my identity is not someone with a disability.  Disability is a part of who I am but it is not the whole picture.  The person who I am is very much rooted in relationships and connections, the hope that I am making a positive contribution somehow.  I am very aware of how fortunate I am and am grateful every day.    


To end on a positive note, what are some things you do to maintain a positive mindset and keep a sense of purpose in your life?  

Some days when life circumstances happen, it can bring you down. But this happens to anybody. I’ve always been wired to do things, to participate in things.  Gratitude is huge for me. Many people can’t participate fully in their lives because they just don’t have the support systems and basic needs, assistive devices, to do it (this is where Possibilities Project Plus comes in). Yes, so positivity is how I’m wired.  I’m grateful that I can be a part of groups of people who are “possibility thinkers”, participate in things and contribute to the community and see results.  



A very special thanks to Chris Fraser for taking the time and being willing to share her extraordinary story!




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