NI mum Marina Sloan rebuilt her life after being left paralysed in a horrific car crash
A brave single mum-of-two from Ballygawley has been nominated for a prestigious award by Advice NI for her work and dedication to help other disabled people have a voice, following an horrific road accident which left her in a wheelchair. Karen Ireland reports
Talking to Marina Sloan on the phone, you can hear the Co Antrim mum is bright, bubbly, articulate and full of enthusiasm for life. It is hard to imagine her on the other end operating the controls of the phone from the wheelchair which has become part of her life for the last 14 years.
Marina (53), from Ballygawley, Co Antrim has been a wheelchair user since January 2003 when a car accident left her paralysed from the chest down.
Recalling the cruel day which changed her life forever, Marina, who is mum to Emma (24) and Katie (18), recalls: "It started like any other busy day in the house. I got the girls who were four and nine at the time up and ready for school and I left to go to a meeting in Antrim.
"I was working as a catering manager with the Education Board at the time.
"We went under a bridge and a lorry jackknifed and went into the side of the car. All the impact was on my side. I had a colleague in the car but they just had small injuries.
"I knew instantly that it wasn't good and as I lay there waiting for the emergency services. I couldn't feel anything.
"Everything was numb. It felt like an eternity but, in reality, I know they got there very quickly and I was taken to Antrim Hospital which was very close," she says.
This was to be the first of three hospitals for Marina who was hospitalised for a total of six months.
"I was transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Belfast, and then when I was ready for physio and occupational therapy I was moved to Musgrave Park Hospital, also in Belfast."
Marina admits that as a young mum of two small girls, six months was a very long time to be lying in hospital.
"I was told very early on that my injuries were permanent. I had a long time to come to terms with things.
"Most people with spinal injuries are in hospital for long periods of time."
Asked how she coped with that period in her life Marina reflects: "For the first while I was very sick and in recovery.
"I had to have a lot of tests and then when I started to improve I was getting physio and occupational therapy every day.
"That filled the time as well as building relationships with the other patients and having my own visitors.
"Most (patients) are in for long periods of time so you really get to know each other and build strong bonds. I made some really good friends when I was in hospital.
"You just learn to be positive and accept what has happened to you. There is no point in thinking 'why me?' because it won't change anything."
With her upbeat personality Marina says friends and family pulled her through the "dark days".
"I did have times when I felt low but the girls would come to the hosptial for a visit and I knew I had to be in good form for them as I didn't want to worry them.
"They were so young and it was a lot to cope with but they just accepted things and got on with it. My family pitched in and looked after them, bringing them back and forth from the hospital."
Marina was finally discharged on the day of her 40th birthday in June that year and a very different life began for the young mum.
She has no feeling from the neck down and has limited use of her arms and hands.
"I had to learn to rely on other people for everything," she adds. "That was the toughest challenge out of everything.
"From then I have had carers who come in four times a day and look after me. They help get me dressed and up in the mornings, look after meals and help me during the day.
"Someone always has to stay with me at night. If the girls aren't at home, a carer or a family member will be with me. I can manage for periods on my own during the day but I need someone at night.
"It is difficult if I want something or see something that needs done, having to wait on someone to come to help. I just have to be patient."
Marina admits that she was patient and adjusted to life and focused on seeing her children grow up for the next 10 years. That, she says, was all that mattered. "These were the things that mattered. I did nothing else but focus on adjusting to life in a wheelchair and making sure my girls had everything they needed. It was difficult and frustrating at times but we all got through it," she says.
"The girls were young enough to adapt. This is all they really know.
"They have grown up with me like this and they never pass any remarks or say too much about it.
"We just make the best of things. They are a fantastic support and are so good to me."
When she was ready and she felt the girls were more independent, Marina made the brave decision to not only venture out of the house but to go back to school in Belfast.
"In 2014 I decided I wanted to do something for me and I wanted to get out of the house. I got the opportunity to study Independent Advocacy with Advice NI.
"Twice a month I had to go to Belfast for the day, which might not sound like much to most people but for me this was a huge deal. Getting picked up early in the morning and travelling down for the day for classes was difficult,
"I was able to type a little with one finger and then I dictated the rest of my assignments to my carer and support worker, Catherine McCrory and my tutor Marion Cinnamon, from Advice NI who provided wonderful support.
"Eventually I got RSI in my finger and I had to type less and less but I finally got my Level 2 and then Level 3.
"I was delighted and the girls were so proud and supportive of me throughout all my studying."
Not content to just sit at home, Marina wanted to put her new qualifications into action so she started volunteering two days a week at Willowbank Community Resource Centre in Dungannon.
She works there as a peer advocate for other disabled people, working alongside them to ensure they have a voice.
"I wanted to put what I had learnt and all my experiences to good use. I knew I could identify with other disabled people and understand what they were going through and issues they were facing.
"This gives me a focus and a purpose and I love it.
"I would encourage anyone in a similar position to me to get out there and realise life isn't over. There is still so much more to be done."
Marina has had such an impact with her inspirational story she has now been nominated for an award through Advice NI,
She has also been awarded a City & Guilds Medal in Excellence in recognition for her outstanding performance.
She will now be up for a People's Choice Award at the City & Guilds Lion Awards.
Thanks to support from Power NI she will be able to attend the glittering ceremony at Kensington Roof Gardens in London on Thursday.
"I am thrilled to be nominated for the award and really looking forward to going to the ceremony in London. It will be a special night for me. Thanks to Power NI for helping pay for my travel costs I am able to go along with Catherine.
So with a bright and busy future ahead, Marina says life is good. I ask her what she misses most about her previous life and her answer is like Marina herself - humble.
"Most people think when they ask that it will be something like walking or running about and using my legs. Of course I miss that but the one thing I miss the most is being able to write.
"I miss simple things like picking up a pen and a piece of paper and writing a note."