Zoe Walton

Zoe WaltonNew Year's Eve 2019 started as a fun night for Zoe Walton who was enjoying a pool party at a friend's house. She had no idea that it was a night during which she'd come very close to having her life forever changed.

Zoe, who was in her late teens at the time, said it was a fairly typical party for people in her age group - lots of friends, lots of laughs and a few drinks. "We'd been drinking around the pool and had already had a swim that evening. A friend and I decided to walk down to the pool to have another swim, so I jumped into the pool but I went in without my hands first so my neck went in at a bad angle."

For Zoe there was an instant realization that something wasn't right. "I could feel my neck and I knew that it was really bad but I just didn't know to what extent. My mum has always told me you know what your body feels like and if its wrong then you know - so that just kept going through my mind and knew something was wrong."

Zoe was with her friend Nadia at the time, who says her immediate reaction was to downplay any possible injury:

"I just said 'it's fine, it's just a bit sore, let's just float for a bit and it will be fine."

"Obviously in hindsight knowing how bad it was that's not how I would have responded." Zoe and her friends admit that their response to the injury would have been very different had they not been intoxicated that night.

However, Zoe did insist that something was very wrong with her neck, so her friends managed to carry her up to a bedroom and call the ambulance. She felt a little better once in the hands of the paramedics but had no idea what the extent of her injury was, believing it would just be a bruised spine. In fact, it was a lot worse than that!

"It turned out that my C7 vertebrae at the back of my neck had completely shattered – they call it a burse fracture – and the bone had started to encroach on my spinal cord.

"It hadn't severed the spinal cord – thank goodness – but there was bone going into the spinal cord so it had just touched it."

Once the injury had been diagnosed, Zoe spent the next six days lying flat on her back in hospital, waiting for the inflammation in her spinal cord to reduce ahead of surgery. On the seventh day, surgeons removed the damaged bone from Zoe's neck and grafted in bone from her hip to rebuild the C7 vertebrae, before adding a metal plate to complete a spinal fusion.

Zoe says it's taken quite a long time to recover from her injuries, both physically and mentally. "It was probably about a month before I had enough energy to walk around uni. I was in a neck brace for three months so that was quite hard to get used to, and I still have pain here and there many months later - it's an achy pain in the back of my neck and arms. I think mentally it's probably taken more of a toll now."

"I really pushed away all of the fear and mental turmoil initially because I just wanted to deal with physically getting better, but I think now its starting to come back and I'm having to actually go through the trauma of the night."

Friend Nadia says the incident was a real eye-opener for everyone in their group. "Nobody had a knowledge about neck injuries, we were all 19 or 20 and very naïve, and also somebody breaking their neck to that extent is something that was not in the realm of possibilities for us - no one had suffered a serious injury before."

Another of Zoe's friends, Tom, says that after seeing what happened to her he'd give some very clear advice to other young people:

"Definitely don’t undermine the risks associated with swimming while drinking. Just because you're an excellent swimmer when you're sober doesn't mean you'll be a good swimmer when you're drunk. If you are drinking avoid all pools, the beach etc. and just look after each other."

Royal Life Saving WA is pleased to have Zoe on board as an Ambassador for our Mermates campaign, reminding young adults across Western Australia about the dangers associated with drinking and swimming and the importance of looking out for your mates.

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