When a skydive went wrong, Emma Carey literally fell 14,000 feet from the sky. Living to tell the tale, the Gold Coast based author, key note speaker and artist shares her heart-felt appreciation for life, and how her darkest moments became her greatest triumph.
Written by Alison Bone
In 2013, Emma Carey flew to Europe with her best friend Jemma Mrdak. They were 20-years old and had been dreaming of the trip for years. Skydiving was also a dream of Emma’s, and five days after arriving in Europe, she leapt from a helicopter over the Swiss Alps. The elation and excitement of what she describes as “One of the best moments of my life,” quickly turned into her worst nightmare, with the realisation that something was wrong. They weren’t slowing down; the parachute hadn’t opened.
“While I was falling to the ground, I had been so petrified of dying that it never crossed my mind there could be something even worse,” says Emma. But as she lay in agony, face down on the ground, pinned under the instructor, she realised that she couldn’t move her legs. “Worse than the physical pain, was the heartbreak,” she says. “I had to live in this body for the rest of my life and I had ruined it.” Emma was airlifted to hospital, where a doctor informed her that she had crushed her spinal cord, and broken her sacrum, sternum, L1 vertebrae and pelvis. He told her she would never be able to walk again.
In the dark days that followed, a thought kept running through Emma’s mind. The morning of the accident she had planned to go for a run along Lauterbrunnen’s picturesque walking trail, but hadn’t bothered. “I was angry with myself because I didn’t do the thing I loved most in the entire world while I had the chance, and now it seemed I never would again.” Reaching for a notebook she wrote down the five words, ‘If you can you must,’ which would become a kind of mantra for her. “If there’s something that we want to do and we have the ability to do it, we must while we have the chance… we think we have forever, but we don’t,” she explains.
Two weeks after the accident, Emma had an epiphany, “I remember laying there and vividly thinking, you can be paralysed and miserable, or be paralysed and try to create a fulfilling, exciting life regardless,” she says. And that shift in perspective has defined her journey ever since. Back in Australia a few months later, something miraculous happened. Emma began to experience movement, and gradually over the next year – despite never regaining feeling from the waist down – she began to walk.
Fast forward ten years and Emma describes herself as a walking paraplegic. While there has been a lot of focus on the fact that learned to use her legs again, what she is most proud of is the difference in her mind. She attributesbeing conscious throughout the fall and impact, and genuinely thinking she was going to die, for her deep gratitude in being alive. "A bad situation can turn into the best thing that ever happened to you, if you make it," she says.
Emma shares her story in her best-selling book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, and recently spoke at TEDx, Currumbin. Her popular Instagram account has 192,000 followers, who see her face beaming off the screen as she lives her best life – jet skiing, surfing, riding a bike along the coastal paths of Palm Beach, and travelling to exotic locales around the world – including Antarctica. “I’ve found a way to see beauty in absolutely everything… and feel a kind of happiness which I had never experienced before my accident,” says Emma. And it is this mindset of gratitude, self-acceptance and taking nothing for granted, that inspires her legion of followers. In June 2023, Emma and Jemma returned to Lauterbrunnen to mark ten years to the day since the accident that transformed her life. In a moving post we see Emma bathed in sunshine in a beautiful alpine field, sharing thoughts on what she would tell her younger self. “There’s a future and you are in it and it’s brighter than anything you’ve felt before, I’m so glad you stayed so I could live it.”
Inspiring is the first adjective that comes to mind when you hear Emma’s story, but she likes to make it very clear that she doesn’t hold some kind of secret cure to healing. “It’s not something you can manifest, or believe in enough and it will happen. Yes, I put a lot of work into my physical therapy, but no amount of sheer willpower can force a nerve to work when it is severed… it really came down to sheer luck in the way my spinal cord was damaged.” She adds, “If positivity, resilience and determination were all it took to heal a damaged spinal cord, not a single person I’ve encountered in a wheelchair would still be sitting down.”
More than a journey about learning to walk again, Emma’s story is about embracing life with enthusiasm, and finding beauty in every moment. Through her words and images, she invites others to share in her excitement for living and the joy that has become her reality. Follow her @em_carey, or head to her website emcarey.com.