ACT News

Brave recovery for the girl who fell to earth

Canberra's Emma Carey, 21, has a date tattooed on her forearm - June 9, 2013. This was the day she fell from the sky and crashed to earth in a freak sky-diving accident.

She and her best friend of 15 years, Jemma Mrdak, also have small matching diamonds tattooed on their wrists, because diamonds are unbreakable - and forever.

Emma and Jemma, who met in first grade at St Thomas the Apostle Primary School, were fulfilling their dream of backpacking around Europe together last year. After a concerted campaign by the adventurous Emma, Jemma agreed to join her on a sky dive near the Swiss Alps.

The day arrived and while Emma was calm and excited, Jemma cried from terror in the helicopter and kept her eyes shut the entire jump. She never saw Emma plummet to the ground.

Emma jumped first and can only remember feeling as though she were falling too quickly and that her pony tail had been yanked back somehow.

What she didn't know was that the parachute and the emergency chute had become entangled and had choked her instructor unconscious.

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The accident is still under investigation, with a legal case for compensation also in train.

The pair landed with a sickening thud just metres from a road - Emma flat on her stomach, the instructor on top of her. Her back was broken in two places and her pelvis was shattered. She could not feel her legs.

By the time Jemma descended safely, she could hear Emma screaming her name.

Jemma's tiny 157-centimetre frame was not strong enough to lift the instructor off her friend, but when the emergency helicopter arrived, Jemma physically fought her way on board to stay with Emma. The instructor survived the accident, but with serious injuries.

As Emma was rushed into surgery, Jemma made the heart-wrenching call to Emma's mother, Lisa, in Australia.

''We had played so many prank calls on our mothers over the years, I remember Lisa saying she didn't believe what I was trying to tell her.

''It was a nightmare. Well worse than a nightmare: I was in a foreign country, with no clothes other than my skydiving suit, no money, no phone credit, and my best friend was not going to walk again.''

Jemma spent three weeks by Emma's bedside in Bern hospital. Emma says that, thankfully, she doesn't remember those weeks.

''I don't really recall any of the details, I was on so many drugs and was being sedated, but I know I was hysterical.''

The doctors told her she was unlikely to walk again.

Emma was flown to Australia after three weeks and remained in the Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney for a further three months.

Jemma's family, meanwhile, convinced her to stay on an extra month in Europe - to complete a fashion course in Italy and to temporarily take her mind off Emma.

But, miraculously, Emma began to feel sensations in her feet a few weeks after surgery. These feelings ran further up her legs as the days passed.

By the time Jemma returned to Australia, Emma was able to stand and greet her in the hospital corridor.

''I will always remember that moment,'' says an emotional Jemma. ''I was just so proud of her.''

Emma is now able to walk with the aid of a crutch, and with a demanding schedule of physiotherapy in Sydney two days a week, is gradually building up her strength.

''I'm pretty slow and I get tired easily, but I'm not in a wheelchair, and that's the main thing.''

Her X-rays show the extent of the artificial support her broken spine requires. But she notes that despite the metal, she doesn't set off the airport metal detectors.

Emma and her family are planning to make a fresh start this year on the Gold Coast. She can attend physio in Brisbane.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that Jemma will look for a job in Brisbane when she graduates with her public relations degree from the University of Canberra at the end of the year.

Emma is using her experiences to write a blog encouraging other young people facing adversity. She's also considering a career in physiotherapy.

''I have been really inspired by the physios that I have worked with and think I would bring a lot of personal insight to the job.

''I also know that sometimes your mind can be stronger than your body.''