By Alyce Collins
THIS WOMAN was left in a wheelchair for life after a horrifying reaction following heart surgery left her with a SPINAL CORD INJURY, but strangers keep telling her that she’s ‘TOO PRETTY’ to be disabled and that she doesn’t even ‘sound disabled.’
Online content creator Gem Hubbard (34) from Brighton, UK, had open heart surgery to repair an aortic coarctation at the age of nine years old, but after coming around she choked on the intubated breathing tube. There wasn’t enough time to get Gem down to theatre, so emergency surgery took place in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
The choking caused internal bleeding and left Gem without oxygen for nine minutes. Doctors told Gem’s parents that they feared she might not make it and she was placed in a medically induced coma for five days.
Despite this, Gem pulled through, although the surgical complications, coupled with a lack of oxygen, left her with a T10 incomplete spinal cord injury. Gem spent the next three weeks in hospital recovering before spending the following two years doing intense rehabilitation.
Adapting to life with a spinal cord injury was extremely difficult for Gem as she struggled to fit in with a wheelchair. The one thing that kept Gem positive was her passion for horse riding.
After leaving school, Gem went to college where she was able to be herself and she eventually met her partner, Shaun, in 2004, who has helped Gem achieve such a positive perspective.
Now, Gem, who is a mother to Daisy Belle (9), feels empowered by her disability and believes it has shaped who she is. However, she admits that she often gets stereotyped for having a disability, with people making comments that she’s ‘too young’ to be disabled, or ‘too pretty’, and Gem was even told over the phone that she ‘didn’t sound disabled’.
Recently, Gem set up her YouTube channel, Wheels No Heels, to connect with other members of the community and to show that a disability shouldn’t stop them from being happy and achieving their goals.
“At the age of nine, I underwent major open-heart surgery to repair an aortic coarctation,” said Gem.
“During the recovery period, my aorta ruptured when I choked and panicked on the intubated breathing tube. There was no time for me to be taken back down to theatre, so my life saving surgery took place in ICU.
“I suffered major internal bleeding and was without oxygen for nine minutes. Surgeons managed to restart my heart and repair the rupture.
“I was put into a medically induced coma and my parents were told to prepare for the worst, but with my sheer determination I pulled through.
“Due to the surgical complications, and a lack of oxygen to my body, I suffered a T10 incomplete spinal cord injury.
“I had two years of intense rehabilitation and ongoing rehabilitation for many years after that. Growing up was such a hard period for me, I had to adapt to life with a disability, and try and fit in, in a world that wasn’t designed for wheelchairs.
“I struggled to fit in socially, however I was able to keep one passion going, and that was horse riding. I rode at the Riding for Disabled Centre for years and continue to enjoy riding.
“It wasn’t until I left school and started college that I began to fit in and make friends and truly enjoy life again. I partied hard and began to learn who I really was. Then I met Shaun and he really helped me accept who I was.
“When I was a teen, I hated that I was disabled and that I was different. I would have given anything to have changed it. However, now I can truly say I am in a positive place. I feel empowered by my disability.
“I feel it has given me some amazing opportunities that I would never have experienced. It’s made me the person I am today, and I’m very proud of who I am.”
Gemma felt very isolated when she was growing up with a disability, so she speaks openly about life with a wheelchair in the hopes that she can prevent others from feeling the same way she once did.
On her YouTube channel, Gem discusses wheelchair accessibility, parenting while in a wheelchair, body confidence and the frustrating comments she receives regarding her disability.
“Living in a world that’s not properly designed for wheelchairs is difficult. It’s getting better, but there is a long way to go. I feel I’m very limited when it comes to employment, and career choices,” said Gem.
“Only recently I applied for a part time reception job and everything would have been perfect for me. Apart from the fact there was no disabled parking, no disabled toilet and the desks were at standing height.
“I also suffer with chronic pain, and that can put a huge strain on my family and social life. I have to make sacrifices. If I take my daughter to the park, I wouldn’t be able to do household chores on the same day, as it would end up being too painful for me. If I took a shower, I wouldn’t be able to see friends in the evening as I would be too exhausted.
“Shaun is amazing though and if I can’t get somewhere accessible, he will carry me and my chair. I must admit we have to plan ahead a lot if we are going out to check accessibility.
“I’m frequently stereotyped for being in a wheelchair. People assume that I’m mentally incapable and talk to me like I’m a child.
“The most laughable comment was when I phoned up to join a new disabled riding school, and the woman on the phone said, ‘you know it’s riding for disabled?’ to which I replied that I knew that, and she said ‘it’s just that you don’t sound disabled’.
“I hate it when random strangers, who I’m never going to see again, ask me what happened – it’s so rude and invasive. We don’t want to go into our medical history with complete strangers.
“It’s very personal and quite upsetting. A lot of people who have an SCI have a shocking story to tell from road traffic accidents, failed suicide attempts, to being shot. Quite a lot of the time, if people ask me, they feel incredibly awkward and don’t know what to say and just walk off.
“I also get told that I’m ‘too young’ to be disabled, even though disability doesn’t discriminate against age. Someone once told me I’m ‘too pretty’ to be disabled, which is not a compliment, and others just say, ‘it’s such a shame’. I don’t want pity, I have a lovely life.
“Despite disability, you can live a happy and fulfilling life. You can achieve anything you want, as long as you put your mind to it.
“I had an incredibly hard time growing up with a disability and I felt very alone and isolated. I never had anyone I could turn to who would know exactly how I was feeling.
“I don’t want anyone to feel like I did, and this is why I’m so passionate about what I do. I show people how to live a happy life despite disability.”
To see more, visit https://www.instagram.com/wheelsnoheels_/