A Dublin nurse paralysed from the chest down after a holiday accident speaks out about her ‘why not me’ attitude and how the incident hasn’t held her career back.
Karen Farrar now uses a wheelchair after she was seriously injured in Spain in 2004 after falling off a wall.
But, Karen has ended up becoming one of the joint first Advanced Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health in Ireland since the life-changing accident.
She also founded and chaired the Nurses in Colonoscopy Clinics in Ireland (NICCIA), set up the Woman’s Preventative Healthcare Unit in Tallaght and sat on the board of the Adelaide Hospital Society.
“When I became paralysed it was pretty much business as usual,” she told RSVP Live.
“I was in a management role in the Middle East but that was still very hands on, so I went down a couple of grades hoping a new role would come up that suited me better.
“I ended up able being able to pioneer the position of Nurse Colposcopist – how often in a lifetime does one get to do something like that?
“I was actually very lucky as it was a sit-down job, all computerised. I could continue to examine my patients and when necessary perform the LLETZ treatment
“And it was a challenge – I love a challenge!”
Karen was working with patients with abnormal smear tests, and she said most of them were so worried about their own health that they didn’t notice she was paralysed.
“Some of the patients wouldn’t realise I hadn’t stood up to get from one place to another,” she said.
“We girls know that if we’re going for a colposcopy we’re going to be parting company with our pants, which is stressful and embarrassing in itself.
“And if you have abnormal cells your anxiety is going to be through the roof.
“So you can understand why it’s all about them.
They aren’t looking at the person in front of them, they just want somebody who is going to answer their questions and be kind and gentle.”
She has now taken a step back from full-time nursing work but still sits on an Education Committee in Tallaght Hospital, and volunteers when she can, including as a receptionist in a nursing home.
Karen spends a lot of time in her holiday home in Spain and lives alone, although her sister is right next door.
“I’m able to lead an independent life, she said.
“My sister Ruth is my Earth Angel and makes my life so much easier here.
“I live next door to my sister, her husband and my two nephews. It looks like one big house but there are two separate entrances.
“People sometimes wonder who ‘looks after me’ when she’s away but I look after myself.
“I have a pick up stick which works for almost everything unless I drop a credit card. I could be ten minutes trying to pick that up!”
When it comes to assumptions being made about her, she remembers an incident a few years ago when she took time off work to take care of her father who has dementia.
“We went for ice-cream in Dun Laoghaire and they gave the change to him – obviously they thought he was the one taking care of me, because I was in a wheelchair!”
She admits that people also tell her she’s an “inspiration”, but she doesn’t feel like one.
“I always feel a bit guilty when people say I’m an inspiration because there are people with chronic and terminal illnesses who don’t get told that because they sometimes look fine.
“I have all the bells and whistles with my wheelchair – ‘Look at me, I have a problem!’”
Where does she get her can-do attitude?
“When I regained consciousness after the accident, I checked that my brain was working by asking myself questions like what day of the week it was. I could move my arms.
“Then I tried my legs and I couldn’t move them. I thought ‘OK, I’m paraplegic.’ I’ll be fine, I’ll be able to do my job.
“There was this guy, Pat Molloy, who was quadriplegic. I thought about how he never complained and got on with working and having the craic.
“If he could do it, I thought, I could do it.”
She said she’s excited for what the future will bring.
“I hope there’ll be lots of new adventures along the way. I think life is very exciting.
“My advice to anyone else who is in a wheelchair is try to concentrate on what you can do.
“Say yes to everything that you can, otherwise you don’t know what you might be missing out on.
“On the days when you think ‘why me’ just think ‘why not me?’”