Nightmare’ first date left her in a wheelchair

A date changed Rabi Yim’s life forever – the man who had just professed his love for her crashed his car, leaving Yim in a wheelchair

My mother was a nurse and after she married, she began working with my father in his jewellery company. I was born in Hong Kong in the 1970s – I have an older brother and a younger brother.

My father was quite traditional in that he saw boys as more important than girls; I always had to help my brothers or do housework. Sometimes, after school, I’d do my homework in the jewellery shop in Lyndhurst Terrace, in Central on Hong Kong Island.

Perhaps it was working together or money issues, but my parents often argued. I preferred to stay silent.

I went to St Stephen’s College, Stanley. As a teenager, I was eager to leave Hong Kong, I liked art and wanted to study abroad. My mother wanted me to be independent and have my own career.

After secondary school, I studied French for a year and then went to Paris to study at the ESAT (École Supérieure des Arts et Techniques). It was challenging – my French wasn’t that good and I was a student so didn’t have much money and had to get used to a new culture – but I learned a lot and loved it. I’d achieved my dream.

When my French improved, I got a French-born Chinese boyfriend. It was an exciting time.

Date with disaster

After six years in Paris, my parents wanted me to return. I felt I had no future with the boyfriend in Paris and he didn’t want to come to Hong Kong, so I came back in 1997 and within a month got a job at a design and brand consultancy, TM&N.As a young woman, I was asked on a lot of dates. I went on a date with one of my admirers, Wilson, who was introduced to me by friends. He took me on a date on Valentine’s Day.

He borrowed his uncle’s car and picked me up from my parents’ house and we drove to Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon for dinner. I felt a bit wary that day; he gave me flowers and was quite overwhelming.

I was a little confused about love. I’d only recently broken up with my Paris boyfriend and Wilson seemed very forward. After dinner, we took a drive to the beach at Gold Coast in the New Territories. He said, “I will love you forever.”

I told him not to say that, it was just a first date. I was tired and went back to the car and said I wanted to lie down for a few minutes. I fell asleep and the next thing I knew there were flashing lights around the car.He had started driving and had crashed in front of the Lion Rock Tunnel, the car had flipped and rolled. I never heard the crash or felt any pain. I lost consciousness and when I woke up, I was in the Prince of Wales Hospital and my mother was there.

Waking to a nightmare

I had been tossed around in the back of the car and my skull was cracked. The ER doctors fixed my skull, but two days later, when I was fully conscious, I was told I had a C7 spinal cord injury, which meant I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I realised I was paralysed; it was horrible.

The doctor told me there was a chance I could recover a little in the first three months, but he wasn’t optimistic. He told my mother to be prepared to look after a paralysed girl for life.

My mother was angry with Wilson; she had never met this boy. He had a small injury to his hand, so he was in the men’s ward upstairs, and he visited me. He felt very guilty.

My little brother came over from England. My father told him off for crying in front of me. Wilson said he’d take care of me but my brother said, “You did this! How can you take care of my sister?” There was a lot of arguing.

It was a nightmare; it didn’t feel real because I hadn’t heard the crash, I didn’t feel pain. How could I have gone from being on the beach to being paralysed? My parents knew my Paris boyfriend and they told him, and he came to visit me.

Asleep at the wheel?

After two months, I was moved to Sha Tin Hospital for rehab. I wanted to be independent and go back to my career and I worked very hard. In the beginning it took two hours to put on a pair of trousers and now I can do it in 10 minutes. Maybe because I was young it was easy to pick up everything.

Friends in the United States knew Wilson and said he’d fallen asleep driving before. When he visited, I asked him if he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, but he kept saying it was just an accident. My parents couldn’t forgive him, so even though he said he loved me, after a while I told him not to visit any more.I asked to be moved to the MMRC (MacLehose Medical Rehabilitation Centre, in Pok Fu Lam), which was closer to home. There was less arguing and my mother was calmer. I recovered quickly and was released, and by October was using a wheelchair.

The rehab staff encouraged me to learn how to drive and I passed my test the first time, in 2000. I was so happy to have the freedom to drive places.

Family misfortunes

In 2001, I got a flat in an estate near Chai Wan, where I could park and be close to the MTR, and my brother moved in with me for a while. My brothers and I are very close.

I started to do some freelance design work; it gave me the confidence to have a home office and my own career.

My mother was diagnosed with stage four liver cancer in 2003. I took care of her and drove her to hospital appointments. She died; she was only 57. A year later my father got lung cancer and he died in 2005. At the funeral, I remember someone asking why our family had had such bad luck.

A better place

I joined the Direction Association for the Handicapped, to support public education and to group together to tell the government how to improve the situation for people with disabilities. Before, I could go to any restaurant I wanted but now I can only go to ones that are wheelchair accessible.

I have been involved with the association for many years and after six years as the chairwoman I stepped down last month.

I have been part of a research study at Chinese University trying out exoskeleton robotic legs. After using the legs once a week for a year, my bone density has increased, as well as my bladder function. The results will be published next year.

There are only six or seven robotic legs in the whole of Hong Kong, but after fundraising there will hopefully be more.

Wheelchair fashion

I have a boyfriend, Albert, who is an engineer. We’d met briefly in person and, although we didn’t speak to each other, he later saw a video about my story and messaged me.

He said he found my story inspiring. We talked a lot and then we met up; it was quite romantic. We’ve been together for five years.

I want to focus on my design work and start something new. I love beauty and I’m thinking about doing something in wheelchair fashion, creating clothes that are cut especially for people in wheelchairs.

A lot of wheelchair users have a hard time finding suitable clothes; they might love to wear a dress but because it’s not practical, they end up wearing T-shirts and baggy clothes. I could even model my clothes. I’m thinking of talking to H&M about a disability line.

I’d also love to travel and be a wheelchair travel blogger. I’m looking forward to doing some fun things.

Original Link: Post Magazine

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About author

Kate Whitehead

Kate Whitehead is a Hongkonger and has made the city her home since she was eight. She got her first degree (BA English Lit) from Warwick University and her postgrad (MA English Lit) from Sussex University. She was on staff at the Hong Kong Standard and South China Morning Post and was the editor of Cathay Pacific’s inflight magazine, Discovery.

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