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Volunteer taking leaps and bounds
Growing up with parents, Kathleen and Trevor Smullen, who operated the Clyde Fire Brigade base radio, Rachel Christie “got sucked into Juniors at 11”.
At 17 she pulled back from the brigade to focus on her VCE year.
“At 18 I was invincible,” she recalls, “but then Mum found me unconscious at home. I’d had flu-like symptoms but Mum found herself performing first aid on me and I was rushed to Dandenong Hospital.”
Rachel was placed on life support and given only a 25 per cent chance of survival in the first 24 hours. She was in an induced coma for two and a half weeks and initially diagnosed with a form of meningitis, but was eventually found to have one of the first cases of meningococcal in Victoria.
“I lost both legs mid-shin and the tips of six fingers,” explains Rachel.
“Rehab was a long process – occupational therapy, physiotherapy twice a day, building up muscle and getting used to prosthetics. The next-youngest person there was mid-70s but I went home on day release sometimes which gave me normality.
“I got out of rehab after five months and I remember it well. It was 1 December 1999 and 2 December was a 40 degree day with a major fire at the Cranbourne Botanic Gardens. I was answering phones at the station that day and thought, ‘This is my home’.
“I still had my whole life ahead of me.”
Rachel has been nominated for an Inspire Awards®, an initiative of the Funds in Court (of the Supreme Court of Victoria) with the support of the Transport Accident Commission, Women with Disabilities Victoria and the Portland House Foundation.
The Victorian awards recognise a person 18 years or older who has a disability and is well respected in their field of work/interest and community.
This year CFA has been given its own award category – Best Achievement Award in the Country Fire Authority.
Since then, Rachel has moved in leaps and bounds.
In 2000 she moved to Cranbourne Fire Brigade and helped establish their Junior Development Program. She works as a radio operator in an incident management team and offers general operational support.
She met her now-husband Mark in 2002 and they both helped run the Juniors program. They now have two children: Olivia, 8 and a half, and Vanessa, 7.
“Mark accepted me as I am,” says Rachel. “My kids don’t see me any differently and I’m very open with them. They’re really lucky to be healthy. We’re a very active family and get out camping and bike riding. I get around in shorts. I have prosthetic lower limbs so I walk around and drive a regular car.
“I just don’t see myself as having a disability.”
The high school student who started a part-time job at K-Mart at 15 is now one of their full time business analysts.
“They kept in contact with me through rehab,” says Rachel, “and I’ve been with them ever since. I’m willing to work with a business that works with me.”
Rachel is also a motivational speaker to high school students, passing on a message of resilience to young people making major life decisions not only about further study and careers but also about alcohol, experimenting with drugs and driving.
“You can make the right decision,” says Rachel. “Make the most of what you have. I’d wanted to get into the police but then I couldn’t pass the physical. Change direction; move on.”
It’s a message she’s also called on to deliver when a young person is diagnosed with meningococcal, faced with the loss of a limb or struggling with prosthetics. It’s not a been-there, done-that message. Everyone’s struggle is unique to them, but talking to someone who has not just survived but thrived can be just the boost of confidence they need; a view over the horizon to the life ahead.
The Inspire Awards ceremony is on Wednesday 26 April 2017.