By Scott Thompson
MEET THE inspirational woman who is lucky to be alive after a horrific collision between her taxi and a horse KILLED HER BOYFRIEND and would have killed her too if he hadn’t pushed her out of the way – and although she now faces life as a paraplegic she is determined to honour his memory by living life to the full.
Public figure, Tamara Mena (33) from Los Angeles, California, USA and her boyfriend Patrick Riner had been enjoying their third care-free year together and were planning to get married.
They were excited to let their hair down across the border at the famous party resort of Rosarito Beach, Baja, Mexico on October 15, 2005 where they were going for the night with their friends.
Knowing they’d be drinking, the pair decided to take a taxi but as they were on the motorway going approximately 70 miles an hour, out of nowhere a saddled horse was standing in the middle of the road. The taxi driver tried to avoid it, but it was too late to react, and the car ploughed directly into it. The animal landed on the roof, crushing the vehicle’s left side.
Sadly, her boyfriend and the taxi driver were killed instantly but astonishingly, Tamara survived after her boyfriend pushed her down to protect her. She didn’t escape unscathed as she was left with a broken spine, neck, ribs, shoulder, nose – and a broken heart.
When Tamara woke up and realised her loss, she was forced to make a choice to give up on life or to carry on without him. Patrick was a positive force and loved the life he was robbed of, which helped to make her decision to continue.
“I had a terrible accident. Me and my boyfriend at the time took a taxi to go dancing because we didn’t want to drink and drive and wanted to be safe. I’d just moved to San Diego for university and we went across the border into Mexico for a night out near Baja.” Tamara said.
“Little did we know what our fate would be. On our way there, just seconds from our exit we crashed on the highway into a saddled horse going about 70 miles per hour.
“Because of this impact the horse landed on the roof and crushed us. It’s truly a miracle I’m alive.
“In that split moment my boyfriend pushed me down low into the vehicle and saved me, but himself and the taxi driver sadly didn’t make it. For them, the impact killed them instantly, unfortunately.
“The roof literally crushed everything in me. It broke my spine, my neck, my ribs, my shoulder and my nose… my lungs collapsed but even more was my shattered heart because my boyfriend was taken away far too soon.
“I was absolutely heartbroken and devastated and that is an understatement, because words can’t describe how much it hurt losing my boyfriend. Three amazing years together had tragically come to an end in an instant, just as we thought we’d live a long and happy life in San Diego, where we’d been wanting to live for a long time. Finally, our dreams were coming true. We were so in love, and in an instant all of that was shattered.
“After the accident I just wanted to run towards him, but I couldn’t because he wasn’t there anymore… and I was paralysed and hooked to a dozen machines and couldn’t move at all, not an inch. It was like being locked in a very tight cage. I couldn’t eat for myself, I couldn’t even talk, I had no voice and had to be hooked to a ventilator.
“He was in my dreams whenever I slept, and I kept waking up in shock wondering ‘where is he? Where’s Pat?’ the pain was just too much, and I couldn’t stop crying, it was utterly unbearable.”
For three months Tamara was cared for full time at the hospital, while painstakingly putting her life back together. Her collapsed lungs made it impossible to talk, and she had to write things down instead, but her broken shoulder made it difficult to write.
Tamara is now paralysed from the chest down and her excruciating daily nerve pain is a stark reminder of that devastating night. In addition, she now faces challenges of discrimination from society and prospective employers who see her being in a wheelchair as limiting her ability. However, she sees this aid as a means of freedom, mobility and independence.
After two years of rehabilitation, Tamara triumphantly returned to university and completed a course in communications and achieved a first-class degree with honours. However, this was not an easy road, as she struggled with infections due to a lack of mobility which lead to sepsis and hospitalisation in ICU in 2009 and 2010.
After getting her life together again, Tamara found love again with old high school friend, Chris Matysuk (34) and they’ve been together for four years.
“I had to be rehabilitated for three months. This was such a hard time, alongside all the physical pain, I was emotionally scarred too. I couldn’t communicate with people because my lungs had collapsed, and I had to breathe through a ventilator. Everyone wanted me to write things down, but I’d broken my shoulder and couldn’t even write. I couldn’t ask what happened, I couldn’t ask where Patrick was, it was so frustrating,” Tamara continued.
“I’m paralysed from the chest down now and I need to use a wheelchair. Shortly after the accident my family were trying to save thousands of dollars for treatment in hopes I’d walk again. I just wrote a lot in a journal, and this is what I wrote, ‘my legs are not my life. Walking is only one of the many activities we do as a human being. Just because I can no longer walk, doesn’t mean I can’t live a full life.’
“I live with my chronic nerve pain every day now and I’m reminded about my disability from society and employers. But I’ve pushed forward and past all that by always believing myself and my strength. I’m blessed to have amazing support from all my family, especially my mum and Chris. I always remember my mum’s words ‘You can do it, you can do anything you set your mind to and if you work hard for it’. They’re always cheering me on and encouraging me through difficult times.
“After two years of getting things back to normal I went to university. I was in hospital several times while doing my degree. My condition lead to a few infections and then sepsis which can be deadly. It was tough, but I’m so proud because I still finished my degree with a first-class honours in communications.
“I then broke another barrier by becoming the first CSU commencement speaker in a wheelchair and delivered a speech to over 10,000 people which was finished with a truly heart felt standing ovation from my audience. It was such an amazing experience that I’ll never forget.
“I continued to deliver talks all over and was even interviewed by several big TV shows including Sabado Gigante which I even watched as a kid growing up. One of my biggest participations I’ve had on TV was Nuestra Belleza Latina and I was the first person to audition with a disability. Although I made it in the competition, they didn’t let me go forward because of my physical condition. Shortly after then I decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue a career in entertainment.
“I found love again several years after my accident. We knew each other in high school, and he has just been amazing. He even moved to LA with me to support my dreams. He understands how important my career is, but even bigger, my mission to break perceptions and barriers about people with disabilities. I’m blessed to have him by my side because he believes in everything that I do and supports me unconditionally.”
Tamara’s key motivation for speaking publicly is to help drive awareness and reduce the risk of others in her position being faced with a lifetime of discrimination.
“One of the biggest things that has motivated me is that I don’t want other young girls or guys to have to face the discrimination I have faced. If you have talent, why does it matter that you can’t walk?” she said.
It’s already so difficult to sustain a spinal cord injury because it affects your body so much more than walking. It affects your bladder, bowel, your everyday activities and it touches everyone around you too. Still, you can overcome anything.
“I’m always pushing for more inclusion, and social media is helping a lot with this area. I use my Instagram handle @tamaramenaofficial to share my life with others and inspire them to never stop dreaming.
“It’s important to always believe in yourself, show off who you are, and this will empower you and put you in control.
“Ultimately, people with disabilities may be limited in some or another, but we’re still talented and capable and we would love for other people to please see past the ‘disability’ or ‘wheelchair’ etc. In the end we are all different and it’s time to embrace more of those differences.
“On a final note I really want to say thank you to my mum, Martha Perez. I’m an only child and she’s always been there for me, but especially during my accident, she gave me the strength I needed to keep going. She is amazing and completely selfless. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today without her.”
Here is a link to Tamara’s personal website.