'I got obsessed with healing'

I got obsessed with healing

Four years ago, doctors told Caroline Leon she may never walk again after an accident left her needing extensive rehabilitation. Today, the Dubai-based expat has her sights set on a world mountaineering record by climbing 15 peaks in the Middle East in 31 days


Karen Ann Monsy

Published: Fri 13 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 13 Sep 2019, 2:00 AM

"Have you seen Finding Nemo? The fish with the little fin? Yeah, that's me," says Caroline Leon, laughing good-naturedly. The 34-year-old is referring to her right leg, which still bears the effects of a freak climbing accident in Jebel Ali that the Australian expat suffered four years ago, in which she broke both her feet, her pelvis and her spine. After 14 surgeries and 23 blood transfusions, Caroline gradually taught herself to walk again and went on to co-found an online fitness education platform. Currently, however, she's on a mission - she's attempting to summit all the mountains in the Middle East in just a month.
With a warm, self-deprecating sense of humour that makes her instantly likeable, the former Pilates trainer is using the challenge to fundraise for local charity Gulf for Good, but mostly, the feat is to make a point to herself - to ensure that one accident does not define the rest of her life. In the process, she hopes to set a global record - and inspire the world.
Excerpts from the interview:

Can you tell us what was going through your mind when the accident happened?
Lots of people have asked me this, and I can tell you that when you go through something like that, you regress back to really basic things. I was awake the whole time. If I tried to roll onto my side, I felt all the bones in my pelvis move separately. I remember tasting blood and seeing blood pool around me, not really realising it was my own. Surprisingly, I was really calm while waiting for the ambulance. I just put my hands on my heart, and focused on my breathing. I was literally hypnotised by the sound of my own heart beating.  
When something like that happens, all you can think about is whether your body is okay. So, I was more occupied with how I was often thirsty, cold or in all-consuming pain - not so much with 'What am I going to do with my life?'. And looking back now, I'm so glad that my brain 'shut down' that way. I don't think I could've endure it if I was fully functioning.

It took you two years to learn to walk again - that too, after doctors said you might not. What do you credit with overturning such a bleak prognosis?
Recovery is a hard process. You have to have a really strong mind, feed it good things. I have a Bachelor of Medical Science, so I know anatomy and physiology really well. I read up on all the clinical studies of people who had injuries similar to mine. Fifty per cent of them didn't live, most never walked properly again. I read all of it so I could be realistic about where I was. After that, I made a really difficult decision to heal - and heal completely.
I spent the next two years doing just that. I watched documentaries of people who healed, drank litres of organic pressed juice, read fervently (including books like The Placebo Effect about how your mind can make you sick or better), swore off painkillers, went to physiotherapy and rehab, did acupuncture and hydrotherapy - all of it. Then, I'd lay on my bed at home and picture myself walking. I'd ask myself: what am I going to wear? I know it sounds silly, but it was little things like that, visualising the dress I'd walk in, that pushed me further towards that goal.
I got obsessed with healing, because I didn't want the alternative to be my life. I was either going to be in a wheelchair forever or I was going to get off my butt and really try. I picked the latter, because the alternative was unthinkable to me.

What was the most difficult part of the recovery process?
The whole thing! (laughs) Probably getting your mind on board. Do you know how easy it is to pity yourself, to not go out when your friends invite you, and be so embarrassed and deflated about having to depend on people for everything? Your mind is the most important thing. So, I decorated my wheelchair, wore these special shoes even though I couldn't walk. And it's still the challenge - to feed my mind with good things, so it's always on board with what I want to do in my heart.

Any standout moments that come to mind?
There were several milestones; the first time I could stand up and take a few steps was great. But I also had a lot of bad moments when I pushed myself too much. Like the time I thought I could get to the pool on my own. I lowered my hospital bed all the way to the floor, commandeered myself all the way to the pool and threw myself in - only to realise I couldn't swim. I almost drowned. Somehow, I managed to get to the side of the pool, and lift myself up enough to breathe. My husband found me soaked and shivering about six hours later, and completely freaked out. He hired a full-time carer to look after me after that!

Did you develop a new appreciation for the human body?
Oh my, yes. Two things: one, don't disrespect the human body, because it's so hard to fix once you ruin it. I learnt that the hard way. And two, I also learnt to appreciate how unfathomably miraculous it is. There were days when I'd wake up after 20 hours and feel something was different. My body was making me sleep and it was healing. Every day, I could do something more, like sitting up for five more minutes or being able to have a conversation with someone without being completely exhausted.

It's interesting that after suffering such a horrific climbing accident, you're going back to summit not just one mountain, but several - and attempt to set a world record while at it. What's the idea behind that?
It was my best friend in Australia who suggested the idea, actually. My intention is just to do something amazing for myself, so I know I'm not 'disabled' any more, and because if I can do this, I'll know I can do anything. Whether I achieve the world record or not, the fact that I tried means there are no limits to what any of us can do and it just goes to show the power of your mind, really.

You're attempting to climb 15 peaks - all the highest mountains in the Middle East, basically - in 31 days. Some of these countries are politically challenging terrain. How are you working around that?
To be honest, I'm just going to take it as it comes. I've got all my visas sorted out. I have guides in all the dangerous places, and I've been talking to them for a long time, using them as my eyes and ears. If they think it's too dangerous, we won't go. I'm going to places with clashes on the border, terrorist activities in the mountains, land mines to navigate. I'm just trusting that the people I've found - all of whom were thoroughly researched and came highly recommended - will take me through.
I'm not there to do malice to anybody. I intend to be extremely respectful of culture and customs. I also want to show people that all of these countries are really beautiful, especially now when there are so many battles about differences that don't need to be that way. We'll have to see how it goes. But if you don't live, and don't have courage to live completely, then what is life worth?

How did you prepare for this trip?
I've been going to the gym every day, walking as much as possible, doing hikes around Dubai, hiking up Ski Dubai every weekend, and stair-climbing Almas Towers (which I hate because it's 66 floors!). Nothing's going to really prepare you for something like this though. Life never prepares you for those big moments. You just have to leap in the hope you'll grow wings on the way down. So, I'm just going to do that and hope that the best of me comes out.

The accident flipped your life upside down. If you could do over, would you opt for it to not have happened?
I would probably do everything again. Adversity makes you strong; it's your greatest teacher. You just need to find the strength to see that. If you can, you can make it into a treasure. And that's what I'm trying to do with this challenge. The accident is already the best thing that happened in my life, because it led me to so many beautiful people. People have been so generous and kind. Random strangers have stopped to help. Was it the best thing in my life? I'm not going to lie: it was hard. Would I do it again? Yeah. Despite the fact that I'm 'Nemo', yeah, I would do it again.

You've summited several mountains in the past. Does it ever get old?
Summit night is torture. You leave at two or three in the morning. If the weather is great, you summit at zero degrees. If it's bad, you summit at -20 degrees. You walk for 10 hours in pitch darkness to get there, and you're freezing. Everything hurts. It's so cold that your lips freeze. It's torturous.
But when you get to the top and see the arc of the earth and all the clouds beneath you. it just puts everything into perspective. You realise how beautiful this world is. Does it get old to see that view and feel that amazing sense of achievement? Never.

More news from