Emily Wornes: Surviving a four storey fall in Peru

Emily Wornes was having the time of her life exploring South America when one wrong step resulted in a terrible accident in Peru which instantly turned her world upside-down.

After falling 15 metres through a Peruvian rooftop terrace, shattering her back and several other bones, the 24-year-old with a bright smile and burning desire to travel again, has now made one of the greatest achievements of her life - learning to walk again.

It all started on the 15th of December 2015.

Emily Wornes and a girlfriend were travelling with five others to Columbia, the last stop on their two and a half month South American adventure.

Exhausted from the drive, they stopped at a hostel in the surfing town of Huanchaco, Peru. That afternoon, while on the rooftop terrace, Emily unknowingly walked across a skylight which shattered beneath her feet.

“It was like walking on the grass and some of the grass just sucked you in,” says Emily. “I remember putting my arms out trying to grab anything around me and then realising everything around me was going down too.”

“I don’t remember anything after that.”

Emily fell 15 metres or four stories, onto the ground floor of the hostel. Her friends feared the worst.

“I honestly should be dead. It’s crazy.” 

Emily Wornes and her father Ron

Emily was seriously injured. Her L3 vertebra (a bone in her lower back) was shattered along with her pelvis, sacrum, both her ankles, her right elbow, arm and every toe on one foot.

She was rushed to a Peruvian hospital, but in a country where poverty abounds, every simple medical treatment had to be paid for in cash, even basic painkillers.

“I didn’t get painkillers for the first three days. Because of the language barrier, we didn’t realise you had to go and buy painkillers and bring them in,” she says.

Fortunately Emily's parents had made the decision to purchase Bupa Travel Insurance for her as a Christmas present, and back in Australia the claims team were working around the clock to organise treatment and negotiate payment with the Peruvian hospital. They were also frantically trying to find flights for Emily’s parents over the busy Christmas period, so they could be at her bedside. 

Emily was in and out of consciousness and had lost a lot of blood. She needed a blood transfusion, but in Peru there’s no blood bank service, donating blood is something family does for one another when required.

With her family still en route to Peru, the then 23-year-old’s friends took to the streets, with their limited Spanish, to ask locals for donations. They also used social media to find donors of blood and money to help provide urgent treatment.

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“It was incredible how the five people and the girlfriend who I was travelling with became like family to me,” says Emily. “I formed such an incredible bond with them and I couldn’t believe these people I’d known for five days were helping to save my life.”

Emily’s injuries were so severe it wasn’t safe to move her, and the long-haul flight to Australia was out of the question. After a conference call between doctors in Peru and Australia, her parents had to make the difficult decision on whether to have Emily’s spine operated on in Peru, before she was moved to a hospital in America.

Emily at Machu Picchu

“There was a chance if they didn’t operate on me then and there (in Peru) that I might not be able to walk,” says Emily.

“Because it was Peru, we had in the back of our minds that it wouldn’t be the best medical care, but thankfully when I did get to the States the surgeon who operated on my back said that the job done in Peru was actually amazing and that the surgeon in Peru did a really good job of stabilising my back.”

By the time Emily emerged from surgery, her parents were at her bedside.

After the longest seven days of her life, it was time for Emily to be transferred to a hospital in America. However, because of the severity of her back injury, there was no way she could sit up in a commercial flight.

Through her Bupa Travel Insurance, a medical evacuation to California on a Lear jet was arranged for Emily and her mother Janet, where she was then taken to San Diego’s Sharp Memorial Hospital.

“When I saw the doctors and paramedics from America I was so relieved, I remember mum and I looking at each other thinking ‘it’s going to be okay now’,” she says. “When I arrived, they took me out of the ambulance that had taken me from the Peruvian hospital to the airport and she (the paramedic on board) gave me a dose of morphine and I just remember it being the first time I’d felt relief in a week.”

“By the time we got to the hospital in the States there was already a team of seven doctors in their white gowns ready to operate immediately so it was incredible, the team at Sharp Memorial hospital were amazing.”

Emily in San diago

While arriving in America marked the end of one battle, it was the beginning of a long, challenging road to recovery.

Emily needed several operations on her spine, pelvis, sacrum and limbs. Once her bones had healed, Emily had to push through terrible pain to regain movement.

“From the beginning when I woke up in that hospital bed and realised what had happened, I had in my head there is no way I’m letting this become my life. I’m not going to spend it sitting and laying down,” says Emily. “No matter what anyone said to me I had in my head I will walk again.”

The positivity of her family, friends and the staff at the hospital gave her the relentless determination she needed to persevere, through the hardest of days, to reach her goals.

“I think to get through something like this you have to have the right mindset, but you also need people around you to keep you in that positive mindset.”

“I remember one day they (the nurses) said do you want to try to sit up today and I was thinking ‘there is no way I’ll be able to sit up but if they think I can well I probably can’,” says Emily.

And she did. It was just one of many milestones Emily resolved to work towards.

“After that in my head I wanted to set myself little goals; my first one was to be able to feed myself again because one of my arms was so bent that it couldn’t be straightened to reach my mouth,” she says.

Going outside for the first time in a month was another major step forward for Emily.

“I had to be able to sit up and get in a wheelchair to be able to go outside and that was incredibly painful,” she says. “In the beginning I could only stay in the wheelchair for 15 minutes at a time, so they’d have to quickly whiz me outside to get some fresh air.”

After two months of treatment and rehabilitation in San Diego, Emily was finally able to sit up by herself. It was a major milestone. Now it was time to head home, to Australia. 

“After 8 weeks I still wasn’t able to travel sitting up, I was too fragile, so even in the plane they looked at taking me back business class but that still wasn’t an option because the chairs couldn’t recline far enough.”

In another extraordinary act of kindness Bryan Kjer, the paramedic who transported Emily from Peru to San Diego, came to the rescue for a second time.

“He actually walked into the hospital in the States and said ‘girl I want to make sure I take you back to Australia to your father’.” 

With travel options limited, room on a commercial aircraft was arranged through her Bupa Travel Insurance, with some seats taken out to accommodate a bed by the window and a curtain for privacy. With her mother, Bryan and a doctor at her side, Emily made her way back to Australia. 

“It was uncomfortable and my back was hurting but it was helped (by having Bryan at her side) because he was like a fatherly figure.”

Emily and nurse on the plane home

Back in her home town of Albury, where she is surrounded by family and friends, Emily is working hard to get back on her feet.

“I had in my head that I wanted to walk with at least a walker by my birthday (April 1st) and I’ve managed to do that,” she says. “Taking those first steps was great, but having said that it’s been hard work to get to that but I feel worse if I sit down and do nothing.”

Determined to travel again, the 24-year-old has persevered through painful rehabilitation, crediting the many acts of kindness she experienced for her positive attitude.

While she still has a long road ahead, Emily has defied the odds and is back on her feet, walking with the help of crutches. And she has no plans to slow down. 

Emily Wornes walking with her crutches

“Travel was what made me want to hold on and get better, get moving,” says Emily. “The people I met on the way, the places I saw, there was no way I was accepting lying on my back and missing out on that.”

Emily would encourage all young people to travel the world, but she warns travel insurance is a must. Her claim, including medical treatment, an air ambulance, travel and accommodation for her parents and her repatriation home to Australia wound up costing more than $1.2 million.

“I nearly wasn’t going to spend my last $700 on travel insurance but now I look back and think thank God I spent that $700.”

Bupa Travel Insurance really took care of my family and I, not just throughout the accident but after, with rehab and accommodation close by for my parents,” she says. “I’d travel again after such an accident, with peace of mind, ensuring I’d be looked after thanks to the above and beyond efforts of Bupa Travel Insurance.”

The 24-year-old is determined to return to South America when she is well enough to finish the trip she describes as “the ultimate best time of her life”.

“The next goal for me, is running,” says Emily. “I guess my long term goal, would be in some way, to help and encourage others who have suffered a spinal injury.”

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Emily and a friend at a gorge in South America

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