When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
A wrinkle...an imperfect nose...a fresh blemish on your chin? In this age of air-brushed perfection and cleverly-filtered social media, it's easy to be self-critical; to compare your looks, wealth, success - your life - to that of others.
But what if you looked in the mirror and saw a paralysed woman in a wheelchair gazing back at you. Would you still focus on that spot on your chin...or the fact that you can no longer stand up and walk?
This is the reality for the 2.5m people around the world living with a Spinal Cord Injury; those who were going about their business when disaster struck. In a split second their lives altered forever. But wait. Does it have to be forever?
Surgeons have managed to get a man with SCI walking again using stem-cell therapy, but there is still a long way to go. More funding and research are needed if any of these patients are to have a hope of standing on their own two feet again.
One group of women who are only too aware of this predicament are The Cure Girls: a cluster of seven feisty young females from around the world, thrown together by a cruel twist of fate - and united in their determination to overcome it. The girls met online six years ago, and two years later The Cure Girls was born, the brainchild of Italian Loredana.
These were ordinary women just like you and me, whose everyday concerns were once superficial too. Only now they are forced to live extraordinary lives. One day, each girl suffered a tragic accident resulting in a spinal cord injury which instantly changed her life, including my good friend Lorraine (Lolly) Mack, whose story I've already written about on my blog and which appeared recently in HuffPostUK.
Suddenly, those little physical imperfections that used to be important just don't matter as much anymore. Now these girls have bigger concerns to occupy their minds - like finding a cure for the paralysis that dominates their lives, which would mean they could then get back to sweating the small stuff, just as they did when they were able-bodied. These girls would love to look in the mirror and see only a wrinkle or a spot...because that would mean they were cured, their reflections no longer dominated by the hard lines of a metal wheelchair.
Each Cure Girl has found herself sitting in this chair through no fault of her own - tragedy cutting her down in her prime. She's experienced the full spectrum of human emotions: shock, anger, despair, grief, frustration. Yet there is one emotion they all refuse to feel: defeat. They refuse to just passively accept their circumstances and give up on their dream to walk once more.
These girls have been to the brink, pushed to the very limits of human endurance...and have made the conscious decision to come out fighting. They may be in wheelchairs, but there's nothing wrong with their voices. And these voices will shout until they are hoarse in order to make themselves heard. They are shouting for awareness, for funding, for research, for a CURE. It may sound like a miracle: to make the paralysed walk again. But surgeons work miracles every day, transplanting hearts, lungs - faces even. Due to the wonders of technology Stephen Hawking can 'speak' using a muscle in his cheek.
Taking pride in your appearance is something most of us do instinctively, but it becomes a feat in itself when you cannot move from the neck down. However, don't be fooled by the girls' outward glamour. These pictures were taken on a recent photoshoot at The Hospital Club in London, since some of The Cure Girls were in the city for a series of important meetings and to get an update on the research news (the girls donated €70k last year to the cause).
These stunning pictures, shot by photographer Michelle George (make-up by Lauren Kay) illustrate their vitality; their feisty, vibrant characters. These are young women who want - who deserve - a cure. Yet while they enjoy dressing up and wearing make-up like any woman, they refuse to sugar-coat their injuries. The photoshoot is a useful vehicle for highlighting their plight and raising awareness, but they are careful not to gloss over the reality: they are in constant pain.
Whilst attention-grabbing images are vital, it's important that people understand their daily struggles, otherwise they may not understand the urgency of a need for a cure; instead wrongly assuming that they are coping just fine as they are.
Each girl's list of everyday ailments is extensive: chronic neuropathic pain to bladder infections, pressure sores to osteoporosis. Unsurprisingly, there are challenges to mental health too, with a high incidence of depression and suicide amongst SCI sufferers - meaning that the girls have also lost many friends along the way. Then of course there are the practical issues: complete loss of independence, the cost of medical equipment; whole teams of round-the-clock carers.
The Cure Girls work every day towards their mission, relentless in their endeavours to raise awareness; tirelessly fundraising through various initiatives such as sponsored FES-bike cycles, the annual Wings For Life World Run - even a skydive in Lorraine's case. They use blogging, newspaper and magazine articles as well as social media to highlight the cause. They will never give up.
So next time you peer into the mirror at the dark circles under your eyes with a sigh, spare a thought for these girls. They don't want your pity, they just want to walk again. With our support one day they too will be able to stand up and look in the mirror...
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Here come the girls....
This article has also appeared in The Huffington Post UK.
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