SINGAPORE: It was a “beautiful day” in Glenlorchy, in New Zealand's South Island, and the scenery was “gorgeous”, with mountains, open fields and a lake. Ms Jean Ling Ching Yee was driving on the aptly named Paradise Road.
All it took was a split second of checking the rear-view mirror - and the next thing she knew, the car was skidding.
"I kind of saw a cliff down the road. I was trying to avoid the cliff, and I turned far right, back onto the road,” she said. “That was when I hit a tree.”
Later, the police would tell her that there was no cliff, and it had been a trauma-related memory sprung from fear. But on that day, all she knew was waking up in the car in pain, her life changed forever.
“I couldn’t feel my lower body, so I thought that my whole body was amputated. But when I looked down, my legs and my body were still all attached,” the 35-year-old recalled of that day in March 2014, on the programme On The Red Dot. (Watch the episode here.)
“Blood was coming out of my mouth. I couldn’t breathe that well, and I started to press the horn before I fainted.”
She was five minutes from her destination, a horse ranch where she'd planned to go riding with her companion, when her car crashed.
Ms Kelly Louise Morritt, who lives close to the accident site, still remembers hearing “the screech of tires and a massive bang”. She was surprised to find Ms Ling still alive. "The car was pretty awful,” recalled Ms Morritt, who ran back home to call the ambulance.
The Singaporean was flown to the hospital in the country’s southernmost city, Invercargill. She had punctured lungs and fractured ribs – three on the left and two on the right.
“They had to insert a metal rod to pump out the blood inside my lungs so that I could breathe well,” she recounted. Her companion, amazingly, had only minor injuries.
"I WAS LIKE A BABY"
But worse news was to come. As the doctors kept touching her “from head to toe”, she thought to herself, “What are they trying to do?”
They were testing her for sensation – and she had none from the waist down. Her spinal cord was “severely cut”.
The first thought was, ‘Oh no, how am I going to carry on with my life? How am I going to work? How am I supposed to take care of my mum when she’s old?’.
For a young woman who loved travelling and exploring new places, trying things from horse-riding to rock-climbing, it must have been a gripping fear to find herself immobilised.
“I couldn’t control my bowels. I had no balance; I had no core muscles. I was like a baby. From dressing up to cleaning up and showering, everything started from zero,” she said.
She was flown to Christchurch’s Burwood Hospital, where she spent four months undergoing rehabilitation, and crying “every night”.
Her brother and sister-in-law as well as three of her friends took turns to visit her. It was their love and concern - most especially her mother's - that Ms Ling drew strength from. The former accompanied her through those long months, staying with a family living near the hospital. “Her concentration was all on me.”
“I told myself that I needed to be strong because there were still lots of people who cared for me, who wanted to see me stand up again and be myself again.”
And so, she took to her physical therapy with determination. Ms Eny, who goes by one name, said her paraplegic friend kept a “brave front”. “Even the therapist mentioned that she was one of the faster learners. And from what I saw, she was doing things very well," she said.
But on her return to Singapore, Ms Ling's feelings of helplessness returned almost immediately – when she found she could not enter her home by herself. “People had to carry me, with my wheelchair, in."
“I couldn’t reach things any more. I couldn’t take my clothes that were hanging up there. I couldn’t enter the toilet freely.
Every time, I had to call for people to help. It was, “Ma, can you help me with this? Ma, can you help me with that?
She felt terrible, like she had when she'd just had her accident – “that kind of feeling that I was going to have to start all over again... I just went to the living room window and burst out crying."
"IS THIS LOVE TRUE?"
The question of whether anyone could love and accept her in a wheelchair was one of the first thoughts she had in hospital.
Her doubts grew when her then boyfriend, who was her travel partner in New Zealand, left her because he was unable to handle her disability.
Then about three years ago, Ms Ling met Jake Oh through mutual friends. They were not close initially, she said, but as time passed, he “expressed his love” for her.
At that point, however, she had yet to regain her faith in love. “Is this love true?” she asked herself.
(But) he used his love and patience to touch my heart. He told me, ‘It’s fine. Time will heal, and my love will heal you. It’ll prove (itself) to you.’
So it did. On Dec 23, 2017, they got married. And the bride “arranged a surprise” for her groom at their wedding dinner, which also fulfilled her own dream - of literally walking down the aisle.
“I didn’t want to roll myself in; I wanted to make the day very memorable. I secretly trained myself to walk. And I tied myself with equipment to straighten my legs,” she recounted.
The day came, and using a walker, she pushed herself to make her entrance on her feet, clad in a beautiful white gown, and in heartfelt tears. “It was so emotional that day,” said Ms Ling, who now has a “good husband who knows how to cook and doesn’t complain”.
Their flat for their life together was designed for wheelchair access. “There are some places high up that I can’t reach, but with some technological enhancements, I can actually dry my own clothes,” she said.
Mr Oh, who sometimes works overtime and night shifts, wants her to be capable of such things. “I’ll try and accommodate her when I’m around,” said the 28-year-old. “I also have to let her be independent when I’m not around.”
WATCH: A journey of grit and love (6:09)
A NEW LEASE OF LIFE
It was a trip back to New Zealand, some months before their wedding, that roused Ms Ling’s can-do attitude again.
Back there for a medical check-up in July last year, she did things she had never done as a person with disability. Adaptive skiing, for example, was “fun”, despite her lack of balance. Skydiving was another sport they tried.
And she managed to “complete” her journey by going horse riding. “It was difficult. I did a small circle, and it freaked me out so badly because I didn’t have any balance,” she admitted.
But she kept going – “through the woods, and the snow and the trees”, the movie-setting she had hoped for three years ago when she first set out for the ranch. “The feeling was awesome. It was so good,” she said triumphantly.
She also revisited her accident site in Glenorchy town. The trees were gone, the open field there was fenced up and “the feelings were totally different” in the cold of wintertime. "It was very emotional," she said.
In a sense, I was back to the place that changed my whole life. But also, I was back to a place that gave me a new life.
As part of that fresh start, Ms Ling is now looking forward to having a family of her own. “I still can conceive, and there’s no problem with me at all,” she said. But having a baby "will be another challenge again".
With a confident smile, her husband added: “I don’t think it’ll be that challenging because our love has overcome everything.”
Buoyed by the knowledge that people with worse conditions than hers are still travelling, Ms Ling has also told herself that there are more things to do, places to go and people to meet.
“You just have to pick up the courage, and learn to take the first step. You just tell yourself that you can. Being disabled won’t stop you from doing that,” she said.
“You just have to try. If you try and fail, nobody will blame you.”
Jean Ling is one of four Singaporean travellers who shared their stories of terrifying misadventures abroad with On The Red Dot. Watch this episode here. New episodes air on Mediacorp Channel 5 every Friday at 9.30pm.