By Liana Jacob
WOMAN paralysed after her mum FELL ASLEEP at the WHEEL becomes a CATWALK MODEL – after her own doctor told her to consider ASSISTED SUICIDE.
In November 1995, model and PhD student, Claire Freeman (41) from Whangarei, New Zealand, was in the car being driven by her mum, Barbara (70), with her sister, Beth (43), who was next to her mum in the front of the car on a two-hour drive to Auckland.
The long journey caused her mum to fall asleep whilst driving causing the car to veer off the road and roll down a cliff crashing it on impact.
Claire sustained a severe spinal cord injury at C5/6 level. She was flown to Auckland Base Hospital by helicopter, where she was placed in an induced coma for two weeks. She spent a year in and out of hospital and was given less than a 10 per cent chance of surviving.
Despite doctors’ doubts, she made it through the three surgeries. She had an operation to stabilise her neck, a 14-hour surgery where a screw was placed into her spinal cord that caused further damage that caused paralysis in her wrist and triceps.
She was declared quadriplegic (also known as tetraplegic), meaning she was paralysed from the neck down and has been using a wheelchair ever since. Growing up with a physical disability and using a wheelchair made Claire’s life difficult and she felt like a ‘freak’.
In 2010, there was an earthquake where she was studying in Christchurch and again in 2011 which triggered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from remembering the accident. The trauma she felt caused her to attempt suicide four times within a five-year period, each time she fell into a coma. For 15 years she developed depression and she felt disconnected from the outside world, so she decided to create a page on Instagram, where she could talk to people.
In February 2018, she was approached by an Italian modelling agency called lulia Barton, which set off her career and has since been on the catwalk in Milan for fashion week.
She says that her mum has been her biggest supporter throughout her journey, despite being the one who was driving the car at the time of the accident and has been her rock through it all.
“At the age of seventeen, my sister, mother and myself were driving to Auckland from Whangarei (approximately two hours) when my mother fell asleep while driving,” Claire said.
“The car went off the road and rolled down a cliff. I sustained a severe spinal cord injury at C5/6 level (tetraplegia). I was flown by helicopter to Auckland Base Hospital where I was placed in an induced coma.
“I spent a year in and out of hospital before starting my design degree in Wellington, NZ. I completed my degree four years later, started working full time as a designer while completing my masters in health science.
“Initially, due to the severity of the injury, my chance of surviving was less than ten per cent. The medical professionals were amazing and a brilliant surgeon, Dr Hadlow, stabilised my neck in an operation that took around ten hours.
“Growing up after the accident was extremely difficult. The university campus was totally inaccessible, and I spent the first three years not talking to a single student due to being extremely shy, depressed and embarrassed about having to use a wheelchair.
“I also didn’t have any finger function so the design work was very challenging as much of it was not on a computer.
“I never returned home to the far north after the accident, I was too humiliated and didn’t want anyone to see me using a wheelchair.
“I felt like a total freak; I didn’t know anyone who was disabled, and I hated the fact I couldn’t walk. I despised my new broken body and would wear black baggy clothes and hide when I could.
“I spent a year in hospital after the initial accident. In the first two weeks after the crash, I underwent neck surgery to stabilise my neck.
“I then had surgery to connect my bladder to an external bag so I could manage toileting. Unfortunately, they used the wrong tubing at the hospital in Auckland and a week or so later, I fell into a coma.
“We then had the Christchurch earthquakes that brought on PTSD from the original car accident. I started attempting suicide (six times, each one ending up in a coma in hospital).
“I was encouraged by the suicide outreach clinic to ‘look into assisted suicide overseas’ as the psychiatrist said he ‘wouldn’t want to live with my disability’.”
Claire spent years feeling insecure about her disability and would hide away, until one day she decided to put herself out there by setting up an Instagram account where she could connect with other people.
Little did she know that this would boost her spirits and even her career. She now identifies as a ‘cyborg’, as her wheelchair is a part of her.
“The recovery process has been ongoing, over the twenty years since the first accident. I was very depressed for around fifteen years,” she said.
“Five years ago, after another neck surgery (this one went terribly wrong) I lost my job as a designer and started my PhD.
“I connected online using Instagram, where I amassed a fairly substantial following. I connected with others with the same injury and for the first time, felt happy and had a sense of purpose.
“I was also signed up to an Italian modelling agency lulia Barton and two years ago, was on the catwalk in Milan for fashion week.
“The irony of being there didn’t escape me as for so many years, I had hid from people, ashamed of using a wheelchair, yet now, I call myself a survivor and I only feel pride in who I am and where I’ve been.
“My wheelchair is a part of me, I am a cyborg and embrace life. My body doesn’t end at my flesh, I consider my wheelchair a part of who I am, much like an amputee feels like their prosthesis is a part of their body.
“The fact I model is somewhat ironic but it’s fun and I feel it’s important for people to see disabled models like myself out there loving life.
“Although she was the person driving the car that broke my neck, my mum has always been by my side. She broke up with my dad (who had a twenty-six-year relationship) to be with me in Wellington and has always supported me. She is my rock.
“I’ve spent a lot of time working on my mental health, allowing myself to grieve for what I have lost and being ok with not being ok.
“I have lived the most spectacular life in many respects. It has had its dark moments, but they have taught me so much.
“I feel I am a better person having had this injury. I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s not, but it is rewarding and through studying, I have realised how much work needs to be done regarding society’s perceptions of those with disabilities.”