A Sherwood Park girl is slowly adjusting to her new reality more than five months after a fall from the top of a waterfall left her paralyzed from the waist down.
Hailey Cheng, then 11 years old, was hiking with her uncle, cousin and brother to Troll Falls in Kananaskis Country on July 17, when one moment changed her life forever.
“It was a beautiful day. They went for a hike,” said Hailey’s father David Cheng. “They saw a waterfall. They went to the top to look over the waterfall and it was an accident.”
“It was a bad step in a bad location. She slipped and went into the water and it took her over.”
Hailey said she doesn’t remember much of what happened.
“I only remember slipping on a rock. I went down. I just remember closing my eyes… because it’s a really scary drop,” she said.
Hailey was airlifted to Alberta Children’s Hospital. David, who was working in Lac La Biche at the time, remembers when he got the call about the incident.
“Every nightmare a parent can have,” he said about what went through his head during that conversation.
David describes the drive down to Calgary as “sheer terror,” though nothing could have prepared him for the extent of Hailey’s injuries.
Hailey had severed her spinal cord, had a secondary compression fracture on a vertebrae, a severe head fracture on the back of her skull, a collapsed left lung and a partially collapsed right lung. The family waited a tense 72 hours for Hailey to stabilize inside the Intensive Care Unit (ICU).
“It was sheer terror of just sitting beside her and holding her hand. That’s all we could do,” David said.
New way of life
Before the incident, Hailey enjoyed hiking, snowboarding and spending time at the beach. Now the 12-year-old is confined to a wheelchair.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen next and stuff like that,” Hailey said of when she found out she was paralyzed.
“It’s different for sure. You get used to it.”
It’s clear the Grade 7 student is resilient and strong-willed in the face of extraordinary circumstances.
Hailey demonstrated a wheelie in her living room to Global News on Saturday — a testament to how quickly she has adapted to her new way of living.
“I had a lot of frustration and stuff, but as you get farther and farther away thinking about it, it just disappears out of your mind a bit,” Hailey said.
The 12-year-old occupies her time now with various arts and crafts. She is fond of knitting, drawing and making toy animals. She is back at school, though she admits she can’t zip around in her wheelchair because the hallways can get crowded. She is also looking into the future and is pondering a career in physiotherapy.
“Things can change pretty fast,” she said of what has learned from this incident.
“You want to do all the stuff you can do before anything happens in the future.”
Accessibility at home
The family’s house is two-storey and, with no way to safely bring Hailey upstairs, her bedroom has been moved to the main floor. There is no accessible bathroom in the house so the family takes Hailey to the leisure centre every few days to shower.
“We just call it our new normal. She’s still her but living accessibly is totally new to us,” David said.
There are plans for a home-building company to renovate the family’s house in January and create a wheelchair-accessible bathroom and bedroom for Hailey.
The family said, with support from friends and the community, they are coping as well as they can.
“It’s a lot of trial and error, a lot of Googling,” David said. “We do the best we can.”
Patience, said David, is the biggest lesson he has learned.
“It’s not a sprint; this is a marathon. It’s a full journey for us. We have good days. Some laughs, some tears, some anger sometimes but it is what it is,” he said.
“She’s living in the now. I’m not going to try and guess at the future. Sometime in the future, hopefully she can get out of that chair, but for today, we’re in that chair. We live for today.”
David admits he has moments of frustration but says accidents happen.
“It’s an accident. Value life. She’s hurt but we’re fortunate, even with a head injury, she’s totally healthy.
“She’s still her personality, her smile, her jokes. She’s just as smart as a whip, as compassionate as ever, still a pain in the butt sometimes.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up to help the Cheng family with renovations and other accessible-living accessories for Hailey.