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This able woman

Winning Worker of the Year is no mean feat, but Vickie Gauci née Sciberras has impressed with bigger achievements in life. Thrown into a wheelchair by a freakaccident eight years ago, she tells Ariadne Massa walking does not top her wish list.

With a headline ‘Critical after bus accident’, the four-paragraph news item in the corner of page four on March 10, 2003, was nothing out of the ordinary.

It quoted police saying a 37-year-old woman was getting into her car in Independence Avenue, Mosta, when she was run over by a bus. But what really happened was a freak split-second accident that whisked Vickie Gauci off her feet and spat her into a wheelchair for life.

It was a Monday – just seven weeks before her wedding and two days after the EU referendum – and Ms Gauci was in animated discussion with her mother over the subject as she got ready to leave for work at 7 a.m.

Her car was in the driveway, but since her brother was parked right behind she first had to move his into a parking bay in front of the house to get out.

“I had just come out of the driver’s side onto the road when apparently, because I don’t remember, a coach came round the bend and for some reason the side door of its baggage compartment sprung open slicing my spine in half. I was looking the other way so didn’t see it coming,” she says, shrugging her shoulder matter-of-factly.

It later emerged in court that after driving past Ms Gauci’s car, the coach driver looked in his rear view mirror and realised the luggage compartment was open so he pulled over to close it. It was only then that he saw a woman sprawled on the floor and her car door ripped apart. It was such a freak accident that not even the court could establish exactly what happened or what led the compartment door to spring open.

With the blow she hit the ground, smashing her teeth and jaw and breaking her right hand in several places – the lower part of her face had to eventually be reconstructed.

She was at death’s door and spent four days in the hospital’s intensive care unit playing hide-and-seek with the grim reaper. She managed to escape his clutches and was transferred to the orthopaedic ward to start her long journey of rehabilitation.

When she came round at hospital she didn’t know what hit her. All she knew was that she had no sensation in her legs and couldn’t move them. Being a qualified occupational therapist who had done her Masters in neurorehabilitation, she immediately realised what had happened – she was paralysed from the waist down.

During her stay at St Luke’s Hospital she received hundreds of letters, SMSs, cards, flowers of encouragement from family, friends and complete strangers who were stunned by the bizarre accident. All this love was instrumental in her healing and fed her with the strength to persevere.

“I don’t remember being irrationally angry or bitter at what happened, more puzzled by the freak nature of what had taken place. I obviously cried a lot and I cannot say I didn’t have difficult moments,” she recalls.

She smiles as she remembers how many holy pictures were stuffed under her pillow and prayers were said for her full recovery.

“If a miracle did happen I wouldn’t know which saint I’d have to thank,” she says, laughing heartily.

Becoming all solemn, she stops to reflect: “The miracle wasn’t about getting up and walking again, it was about coming to terms with it – quite quickly I must say. For me that was the miracle and I believe in it.”

She describes how one morning, while she was still at St Luke’s filling in some forms to get a special ID card, it suddenly dawned on her.

“It was like bang – I looked at my legs and I thought fine, they don’t work and I’m incontinent, but I still have my hands and I’m writing. It dawned on me how lucky I was that I didn’t lose my arms as well, and my head; the little grey matter I have,” she laughs.

“So I thought I can focus on what I still have, not what I lost. That was the moment.”

But there was another hurdle to surmount. Lying in a hospital bed she had to rethink her plans to marry John Gauci.

“You realise your partner has been thrown into a tricky situation, to put it mildly. I came straight out and told him that if he felt it was too difficult for him to cope I would understand if he broke it off. I didn’t want him to go, of course,” she says. They had only been together for two years, but it was a relationship few situations could shake. He stood by her and they went on to tie the knot three years after the accident.

“He’s the best husband I could ever get,” she says, looking at the sparkling wedding band as she heaps her partner with eulogies.

How did he deal with it?

“It was a very tough decision for him, but John has a very big heart and he continued to see me as Vickie. He did not focus on how my limitations were going to affect him. He loved me as myself and continued to do so... What else could I wish for?”

His support coupled with her decision to focus on what was positive changed her attitude to strengthen her abilities. It was also what made her lap up the learning opportunities she was given when she spent three months undergoing rehabilitation at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK.

There she learnt how to “do the basics” on her own from dressing and bathing to domestic activities such as cooking and cleaning. She was also taught wheelchair skills and how to drive.

Ms Gauci will never be able to walk again, but if the genie had to grant her three wishes, walking would not be top of the list.

“My three wishes would be – first eradicate the chronic pain, get rid of the incontinence, and then to be able to walk again.”

Dealing with incontinence, she admits, was psychologically difficult: “You either get on with it or you get stuck in it. There are ways of managing it and rarely do I have accidents, but it’s a pain and you have to insert a catheter every three hours. You get used to everything, and you adapt, as opposed to accept.”

Apart from this, Ms Gauci is wracked with a constant burning pain from her waist down and medication only helps to numb its acuteness. She can choose to take more tablets to alleviate the pain, but one of the side effects is drowsiness so she has to find a level where she can function to drive and still go to work.

“I prefer being independent than being drowsy all the time and not working. It’s a choice. I’ve met other people in my situation who choose to stay at home.”

But she has chosen to tolerate the pain and tries to split the day by fitting in a 90-minute siesta after work.

“Work doesn’t give you time to think about yourself. You’re so busy it distracts you from your pain, so from a selfish point of view it’s important to work. I cannot imagine staying at home all the time,” she says.

Always one to look on the bright side, Ms Gauci speaks about how fortunate she is that she was still able to put her profession as an occupational therapist to good use at the National Commission for People With a Disability, even though she misses working in hospitals because of her limitations.

Her unique position of being a therapist with a disability has made her most sought after and she jokes that she’s a good deal – “you buy one, get one free.

“I’m not going to be presumptuous and say that I can even begin to understand what every disabled person who turns up at our offices for help feels. I don’t know what it means to be blind or deaf,” she stresses.

But as an occupational therapist, whose enthusiasm is contagious, she helps people who have had a stroke, accident or amputation, among others, to seek their independence. More often than not, she helps them adapt by using different techniques or, with the help of equipment, guide them to continue with their life.

“Some people think life has stopped and they don’t know what opportunities are out there. That’s our job to make them more aware of how they can become more independent.”

When she first joined the Commission in December 2003 she had already set her sights on how she could somehow recreate the assessment services she received at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Malta.

“When I went to Stoke Mandeville I had a complete assessment of my driving abilities, for example. They taught me how to fold my wheelchair and put it in the car. It was like ‘wow, I can drive again’. In Malta, we’re lucky family members are there to jump in and help... But we cannot continue to rely on them.”

So the team started carrying out research in 2004, and in 2005 they obtained EU funds to pay for their visits to similar centres abroad to see what was needed and how they functioned.

After seven years of painstaking work and mounds of paperwork to secure two different EU funds – to build and pay for the equipment and to train the staff – the independent living centre will open its doors in Ħal Far on June 15.

Costing about €2 million, the project is an assessment and training centre with four units: an assistive technology and mobility unit; a wheelchair and seating clinic – no wheelchair is the same and it has to be tailored according to the person’s life roles; a section dedicated to adaptive equipment that involves adapting things, such as a bath; and adaptive driving, which includes a simulator that virtually tests your orientation and reflexes on the road.

This project, coupled with the recognition of her hard-working, efficient, determined and honest nature, is what won her the national Worker of the Year award. Nominated by commission chairman Joe Camilleri, she was last week chosen from among 23 other nominees. But if you had to ask her what she did to deserve this prize, her immediate reply is “nothing”.

“I didn’t do this alone. There was a whole team behind me at the commission and whoever has worked to get EU funds knows the stress involved... It’s not something you do on your own.”

Media reports about her prize described Ms Gauci as a “wheelchair-bound occupational therapist”, something she hated, and she takes the opportunity to challenge society’s way of pigeon-holing people.

“Am I defined by my wheelchair? If I was diabetic would we say ‘diabetic Vickie Gauci’,” she asks.

Tackling the challenges disabled people face, Ms Gauci believes there are more attitudinal barriers than physical ones, even though there is never any shortage of the latter and it is what has snuffed her spontaneity in life.

She recounts a humorous anecdote of when she was in a lift with her husband and a gentleman turned around and asked him if she needed any help.

“It’s like, ‘hello’! I’m here and I can speak for myself. Just because I’m in a wheelchair I’m not stupid. Oh well, I guess to a point I am,” she laughs.

Another situation the 45-year-old woman frequently faces is when people speak to her as if she’s a child.

“Who knows how many times somebody comes up and pinches my cheeks. Has somebody ever done that to you? No! This would have never happened if I wasn’t in a wheelchair,” she says.

“And we’re not talking just of anybody – once a minister came to kiss me on my forehead. People tell me it was his way of showing affection, true, but it’s belittling. Or you get people saying I’m not going to offer you help because a disabled person once snapped at me for asking,” she adds, insisting she does not want to be misunderstood. “Why don’t we simplify matters – just come and ask if I need any help and if I say ‘no’ then buzz off, but if I say ‘yes’, then help me,” she says, acknowledging that these attitudes stem from the kind-heartedness of people and it is important to strike a balance.

Ms Gauci is a woman who speaks her own mind and throughout the interview comes across as confident and determined. Her perseverance not to allow the disability to define her is impressive. How did she do it?

“I was 37 when I was injured so I had various experiences that had formed who I am and made me better equipped to deal with it,” she says.

Coming from a big family – she’s number nine of 11 siblings – taught her how to get on with things in life. It meant rolling up their sleeves and giving their share, but it also meant that whenever something happened they were all ready to rally around each other.

Spending a few years living abroad, doing voluntary work with the Focolare Movement, helped change her attitude , while the tragic loss of her two nieces – a 10-year-old who died of a sudden illness and a nine-month-old baby with Down’s who passed away two months later – made her look at life differently.

Another incident was when she suffered “very, very bad depression” at the age of 32. She had been leading a hectic life and it took her more than a year to come out of it.

“Something like that in my opinion is far worse than a physical disability. You think it’s the end of the world and that there’s nobody out there to help you get out of it. There is a blackness inside and the absence of hope,” she says, admitting that when the accident happened she feared she would be thrown back into the abyss.

“But by then I was equipped to cope. The love of my family and friends lifted my spirits too,” she says, describing how the accident also made her relationship with her husband all the more special.

The two have had to adapt – she credits her husband for being flexible and easygoing – and forced them to deal with previous plans to raise a family and intimacy issues.

Since she cannot feel and move from the waist down, the relationship cannot only be based on the physical aspect and takes on another dimension.

“It becomes more true because if everything was based on whether you can feel or not, then disabled people have no chance... The expression of love goes much further than this,” Ms Gauci says.

She adds: “Theoretically, I would have loved to have children and physically I can, but, practically, can I really bring them into the world? What use is it dwelling on what I could have had or what I could have done?

“I treasure what I have now. The accident makes you appreciate the littlest things and you realise how much time we waste on trivial matters.”

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