With her studies finished and a job offer lined up as an occupational therapist at a major hospital, the future was looking bright for 24-year-old Jade McAlear.
Then through no fault of her own, Jade lost control of her car on a slippery road, emerging from the wreckage barely clinging to life and with a traumatic brain injury.
She woke from a coma four months later unable to breathe, swallow, talk or lift her head unaided.
Doctors told her parents, Karen and Zac, their daughter was unlikely to walk again and recommended she be put into a nursing home.
After the horror 2022 accident, Jade’s dedicating her life to getting better and encouraging others to never give up.
Determined to prove doctors wrong, her close-knit family brought Jade home and are doing everything they can to support her rehabilitation.
Last year her parents received Jade’s degree at the ACU graduation ceremony on her behalf.
But recently Jade proved her incredible grit and zest for life when she received her bachelor’s degree in occupational therapy, in her own two hands, in a special ceremony arranged just for her.
Watched by her parents and supported by her sisters Shai and Tyla, Jade left her wheelchair to receive her degree from Professor Justin Kemp, deputy dean of health sciences at ACU.
“It was incredible, I couldn’t stop smiling,” Jade said.
Each week she racks up more than 20 therapy appointments including osteopath, physiotherapist, speech pathologist, occupational therapist and psychologist appointments—much of it funded by the family themselves.
“My full-time job is to get better. I’ve got a lot of support and I really appreciate it,” Jade said.
Before the accident she had secured a job at Austin Hospital near Heidelberg in Victoria.
“I always wanted to help people,” she said. “My older sister suggested occupational therapy and it worked really well. I loved it so much.”
She doesn’t remember the accident or her time in Royal Melbourne Hospital, including when her family were sure she was trying to communicate with them, although she seemed unresponsive.
“I definitely know in my heart that I was trying everything in my power to let [my family] know that I was there,” she said.
As Jade lay seriously injured, her parents were given no real hope that if she survived, she would ever recover enough to walk again or manage her own care.
“We just looked at our beautiful Jade lying in bed and we just held onto any gain we could see,” said Karen.
“We started with tracking. Her eyes started to follow photos that we showed her, then we saw her lip or finger move, and then her leg. By around mid-July she started to talk in a whisper or make some noises.”
“But doctors didn’t paint a very positive picture. It was very clear that they didn’t think things were going to progress very far.
“Now they’re saying it’s quite amazing where Jade has got to.
We’ve been thrown a really unfair ball but we’re going to fight this and beat it and Jade’s going to have a beautiful quality of life.”
Once she woke from the coma Jade began to learn to talk, swallow and eat.
Her brain injury has caused muscle spasticity and shortened tendons in her hands and feet, so she fights a constant battle from the moment she wakes until bedtime, to keep stretching as much as she can.
Recently she had steel pins inserted into her fingers to help them to stay straighter. She had similar surgery on her feet to help her to be able to stand and support her weight.
“Jade’s gone from being completely independent to now needing full time nursing care and we never have a day when Jade doesn’t do therapy, because if she misses a day then she loses a bit of flexibility and she has to make it up again,” Karen said.
“It’s relentless, from the minute Jade wakes up she’s stretching, and to the minute she falls into bed I’m still moving her fingers for her.
“Even cognitively Jade has worked really hard.
“She has a wonderful friend group and they help her with her memory, they took her to a pub for a parma the other night. It all helps with her recovery.
“We’re aware that we’re not going to get her back to where she was but as long as we can physically get Jade moving, the rest of it is going to be ok.”
Karen is a clinical psychologist who also studied at ACU, as did her two other daughters. She said the love and support the family have received from the university has been “empowering.”
“Jade’s personalised graduation ceremony was the nicest thing that had happened in the last year and a half, it was a lovely day and no one was in a hurry to leave,” she said.
“It was a chance to stop, breathe and re-energise. For our mental health alone what they have done for us you just could never ever buy, it was amazing.”
Danielle Czapnik, a speech pathologist at Epworth Healthcare, is a key part of Jade’s rehabilitation team.
She also knew the young woman when she was a student at ACU and by an amazing coincidence was also working at Royal Melbourne Hospital when Jade had the accident, and was present at the first graduation ceremony that Jade wasn’t able to attend.
“It really is a privilege to be part of Jane’s therapy team and see what she’s achieved in the last couple of months has been phenomenal,” Danielle said.
“She’s got incredible support from her family, friends and community.
“She’s very blessed and very inspiring so I would confidently say ‘Watch this space’ because she’ll achieve a lot of things with the right support.
“Her story also shows how important it is to see the person beyond their disability.”
Madelaine Sealey, student success officer at ACU’s Indigenous Higher Education Unit, said she first met Jade, who identifies as indigenous, as a first-year student in 2018.
“We developed a strong rapport with Jade due to her regular engagement with our student space and her bubbly personality,” she said.
The accident came as “devastating news” to the team, who arranged for Jade’s family to attend her graduation on her behalf.
They worked closely with Karen and Danielle to organise a re-creation of the ceremony for her so that she could celebrate her accomplishment and have the joy of throwing her mortarboard cap in the air.
“Jade’s family have been so incredibly resilient throughout this whole time and there is so much love from their family for Jade and for each other,” said Madelaine.
“It is such a blessing that Jade is alive and responding well to her recovery.
“However, based on conversations with Jade’s family these last few months, it is evident there is still a lot for the family to manage moving forward in terms of Jade’s recovery and ongoing care.”
After everything that’s happened, Jade still wants to help people.
After her graduation gained attention in the media she hopes to keeping sharing her hard-won wisdom and will make her first presentation to a group of speech pathology and occupational therapy students.
“I want to tell people to stay strong, be positive and never give up,” she said.
Follow Journey of Jade on Instagram or support her road to recovery at her mycause page In Support of Jade.