If you haven’t seen Jimmy Jan’s face from one of his viral TikTok videos, allow us to introduce you.
A 3rd year medical student at the University of Newcastle who has captured the hearts and views of millions around the world after sharing his story of why he is in a wheelchair, Jimmy broke his back in a freak skiing accident last year.
Left with the inability to walk, it’s his upbeat attitude and positive outlook on life that the internet can’t get enough of.
“Last year during COVID, all my studies went online, which prompted me to take full advantage of my season pass for the snow. So I moved down to snow, in the van which I had been living in for the last two years. It was so awesome to be smashing out my uni work from the slopes, listening to lectures while carving the day’s fresh powder,” Jimmy tells Men’s Health. “I spent most of the time on my snowboard but was also having fun on my skis. One beautiful bluebird day, I drove up the mountain for a half-day on the slopes, as I had an afternoon class. I chose to go with my skis, caught the chairlift up, and decided to hit the terrain park on my way down the mountain, as I had done many times before. This time, however, after taking off of the biggest jump in the park, I performed an unintentional backflip and ended up on my head. I woke up on the snow a few minutes later and tried to get up, but I couldn’t. I didn’t realise what had happened until the ski patrol asked me to try and move my feet, or if I could even feel them. I had broken several bones in my spine, and in doing so had obliterated my spinal canal and the very important spinal cord that runs through it. This spinal cord injury resulted in complete paralysis of my legs and the lower half of my torso.”
Jimmy was airlifted to Sydney for emergency spinal surgery, where his spinal cord was decompressed. He spent a month in hospital, and then a few more in rehab.
“After the first 5 days in ICU, I decided I didn’t want to fall behind on my studies and kept going with university. After a month in hospital and many more months in intensive rehab, I am now living back in Newcastle, still at uni and adjusting to my new life in a wheelchair.”
Here, we speak to Jimmy about what it’s like living with a spinal cord injury, and how he has managed to stay so positive.
What does suffering from a spinal cord injury look like on a daily basis?
Firstly, I wouldn’t say I am suffering from a spinal cord injury. I’m living with a spinal cord injury, and oh boy, does it look different to my old life. I used to be the kind of person who rolls straight out of bed and goes for a surf or a swim. Now, I wake up and have to spend 20 minutes stretching my stiff ol legs out, before I can get into my wheelchair. My day is a lot less spontaneous than it once was, and a lot more planned out. I can’t just throw on my wetsuit and go for a surf, everything needs to be planned and takes a lot longer. I have to look at the world very differently now, as kind of like a puzzle of accessibility. What route do I have to take to get where I need to be? How do I get around that set of stairs? Why is there a step to get onto the train?
I rely on the help of my friends a lot more than I used to. I can’t just run down the beach to go for a surf or a swim, I can’t get up the stairs by myself. I’m very fortunate to have such good friends who will hold my feet and wheelbarrow me to the water, or push the beach wheelchair for me, and heave me up the stairs when there is no lift. I’ve only been in a wheelchair for 8 months, so each and every day is new and different, and I’m still figuring everything out as I go.
How did you mental health fare once you has realised what had happened?
Finding out that you have a complete spinal cord injury (complete loss of sensation and motor function), and that you might never walk again, is a hard thing to hear. But losing all of the independence that I had enjoyed for so long was even harder. Immediately after my surgery, I couldn’t even sit up by myself, let alone get out of bed, or shower myself. It was very frustrating to have to rely on someone else for absolutely everything, but this served as a really strong motivator to work hard in rehab to gain all of my independence back. It was overwhelming to look far into the future and try and restructure my whole life, so instead, I tried to take everything day by day, and work on each challenge as it presented itself.
Instead of getting angry about everything that happened, I kind of just thought, “well, it happened, oh well, and there is nothing I can do to change that.” Rather than thinking about everything I lost, I gave myself goals to work toward, to keep moving forward, and this mindset allowed me to move on with my life. Obviously, some days were/still are better than others, and I’ve never loved being paralysed, but I certainly love the life I get to keep on living.
Also, at the time of my injury, I was in the middle of my semester of university, and only took 5 days off class while I was in ICU. I even sat my end-of-semester exams in hospital, so between rehab and studying, I was quite busy. Keeping my mind occupied with my uni work helped my mental health tremendously, as it made me feel like I didn’t have to put my life on hold for rehab, or give up my dreams of being a doctor.
How do you stay positive?
I get this question a lot, and to answer it, it’s easiest to look back on my life before my accident. My life was awesome, I lived in a van and spent every day exploring. I was swimming, surfing, running, snowboarding. I had amazing friends, and a loving family. After my accident, none of that really changed. Sure, the way I do a lot of things have changed, and my life is very different, but all those important things are still there. Really, it’s just another day in the office for me.
I used to brag to my friends about being the luckiest boy in the world, and after my accident, I consider myself even luckier. You might think, “you’re in a wheelchair, how lucky can you be?” Well, when I came off that jump, I landed right on my head, and I could have easily broken my neck, and lost a lot more of my body, and more importantly, I could have broken my brain, and lost a lot more than just my body. But I walked away– sorry, I was dragged away from that situation with an intact brain. Every day I get to wake up, and I know exactly who I am, and who the people I love are, and because of this, I will be forever grateful. I am so grateful for the amazing life that I get to continue, albeit in a different way, but amazing nonetheless. This kind of perspective is what keeps me positive.
How do you keep fit without being able to use your legs?
Before I was in a wheelchair my main favourite form of exercise was running. Love me some cardio. That is no longer on the cards for me, but I can still do a lot of the other exercise I did before. I go to the gym and use weights to improve my upper body strength, and I skip leg day, everyday. For cardio, I like to use a handcycle to go for a ride, or I cycle on a stationary handcycle. I’m a big fan of swimming and like to swim laps at the pool a few times a week. I’ve also tried my hand at wheelchair racing, which is a lot harder than it looks, but heaps of fun. And when I have the chance, I like to jump in a sports wheelchair and shoot some hoops. I also prioritise a healthy diet, to fuel my day.
How do you look after your mental health?
Staying active and doing the fun things that I love is the best way that I take care of my mental health. Whether its swimming, the gym, or just wheeling about the place, exercise plays a huge role in my mental well-being. Heading to the gym in the morning always sets me up for a good day, and it also helps me prioritise my sleep at the end of the day, which is so important for my mental health.
I keep a pretty busy schedule, between studying full-time and social media, but making sure I make time for myself and friends, is also very important in preventing myself from becoming burnt out.
What did you hope to achieve with your TikTok and did you expect it to blow up?
I really didn’t expect my TikTok to blow up as quickly as it did, so I didn’t really have any hopes or plans for it at first. I made my first TikTok as a way to quickly tell people what happened to me. After my accident, I never posted about what happened to me on Instagram, I just posted, and suddenly I was in a wheelchair, so I figured I should tell people, so I didn’t have to keep explaining to all the people who were asking “what happened!?” After the first video, I had a funny idea for another one, and then that took off. Now I hope to use my platform to shed some light on what life with a spinal cord injury is like, and promote awesome initiatives and organisations, like Wings for Life World Run.
Jimmy Jan is an ambassador for Wings for Life World Run and will be attending the Sydney event at Centennial Park on 8th May. To register – www.wingsforlifeworldrun.com.au and 100% of the entry fee goes directly to fund spinal cord injury research