As Nepal enforced its shelter-in-place order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Jill Wheatley was some 4,500 metres up in the Himalayas, back-country skiing and climbing in a mountaineer’s paradise. A traumatic brain injury in 2014 left her with just 30 per cent of her vision, yet there, among nature’s sharp drops and rocky crags, the outdoorsy Canadian found strength and perspective while navigating a life changed by a freak accident.
Closing down even these remote pristine peaks was surreal. Wheatley wished she could just quietly hide there with her two local friends and isolate way up in the region’s vast Annapurna Conservation Area, among snow-dusted mountains and lush green trails under spring sunshine. They were the very last trekkers to evacuate the Ghandruk region, forced out as every last lodge and tea house shut its doors. Wheatley hoped they could at least walk down the mountain, a four-day journey with skis on their backs that would stretch their abbreviated time in the Himalayas. But that wasn’t permitted, and they were instead whisked down in a jeep.
While her two outdoorsmen friends isolate with their families in Nepal, Wheatley is alone in a modest rental apartment in Kathmandu, the capital city under a strict national lockdown enforced by police. Nepal has reported just 48 cases of COVID-19, but no deaths, and is desperate to avoid an outbreak that could rock its limited health care system.
Wheatley passes the time journalling, talking to friends online, sitting in a small garden outside her door watching monkeys scamper by, or fashioning workouts with heavy garden pots as weights. She doesn’t mind the solitude. She’s been travelling the world alone with her extra-large backpack. But the freedom, mountains and exercise – those she craves.
Unlike other Canadian visitors stuck in Nepal, Wheatley isn’t trying to leave. Although she has occasionally been home to see family, she hasn’t lived in Canada since 2001. Indoors in Kathmandu, she is faced with an unwieldy pause. She had hoped to be up in the Himalayas through the spring. Wheatley is in the midst of travelling the world’s mountains, deep into a journey of self-acceptance after an accident with a baseball that altered her life forever.
A phys-ed class changed her life
Jill Wheatley is someone I knew from my high-school days in London, Ont., in the 1990s, but we had lost touch. We had played field hockey together. She was the youngest of three children in a family that lived in Thunder Bay and Sault Ste. Marie before moving to Dorchester, Ont., and attending our school. She was a competitive ski racer, played on the high-school soccer team and acted as girls’ athletic rep on the student council. Our yearbooks are filled with photos of Wheatley smiling, her arms wrapped around friends.
I recently noticed through Facebook an old friend sharing a blog about Wheatley with details of an extraordinary personal story I had never heard. I began to follow her on social media. Her photos and movingly written travel entries about running and climbing peaks all over the world showed someone every bit as athletic and intrepid as I remembered her. How, I puzzled, could she be traversing mountains after all she went through?
Isolating in my own home in Canada during this pandemic, I decided to reach across the globe to Wheatley for the first time since high school. In a lengthy video call, she wore dark glasses, but welcomed me into her story. She shared poignant details of persevering through an injury that left her vision-impaired and reeling from an eating disorder, spiralling in seven hospitals across three countries over two years.
After high school, Wheatley studied at Wilfrid Laurier and Lakehead universities and became a teacher. She began her career in Ontario, then left in 2001 to teach internationally – first in Singapore, then Russia, Switzerland and Germany. Weekends were always spent outdoors. She ran, cycled, tossed skis or a mountain bike onto the roof of her Subaru, and took off to the Alps, never at busy ski resorts, but rather in quiet remote spots.
She was teaching a Grade 10 physical-education class on Sept. 3, 2014, at an international school in the countryside outside Munich when her life was flipped over. Her class was playing baseball. As a strong teenage boy connected his bat with the hardball, it rocketed in an unexpected direction, crushing Wheatley flush in her right temple. She fell hard to the ground. Her students scrambled to get help.
“I remember being in a car rushed to hospital and just feeling like my head was in a washing machine,” Wheatley said. She also remembers other details of the incident as well, including being grateful the accident didn’t happen to one of her students.
She arrived at the local emergency room disoriented, her right eye already swollen shut. Medical staff examined her just briefly, diagnosed her with a black eye, and sent her home to ice it and rest.
Traumatic fractures to the skull
Her colleagues drove her to the flat she was renting on a Bavarian farm. Over the next 48 hours – home alone – Wheatley was in and out of consciousness, trying to soothe the violent pounding in her head with a small bag of frozen berries. She was vomiting, but was too listless to make it to the bathroom, and too dazed and zigzagged to call for help.
Wheatley was scheduled to compete in a duathlon that weekend, so a friend arrived at her apartment ahead of the event, and found her badly bruised and dangerously ill. He raced her back to the ER. The same medical staff – stunned – sent her by ambulance to a trauma hospital.
Home alone with that black eye, Wheatley’s brain had been bleeding and swelling. She had traumatic fractures of the skull. Her right eye never reopened, no matter how many specialists tried their various eye gymnastics. Wheatley’s left eye had limited vision and movement – leaving her with just 30 per cent of her sight.
She suffered cognitive impairments to her memory and ability to concentrate. The idea of eating repulsed her. The athletic and fiercely independent young teacher, still in her 30s, was suddenly bed-ridden.
Her journey got very dark through the next two years, including a flurry of ambulance rides and nurse-escorted flights to various hospitals for brain trauma and eating disorders in Germany, Guelph, near her brother, and Denver. Healing her injured brain and learning to move, balance and navigate the world with one limited eye was frustrating work, complex and exhausting, especially as she wrestled an alarming aversion to food.
Wheatley grew perilously thin and was at first labelled anorexic, but then diagnosed with avoidant/restrictive food-intake disorder. When doctors decided to feed the critical young woman with tubes, she yanked them out or poked holes in them. During her stay in Denver, she could glimpse Colorado’s mountains from her hospital room, and she mourned her independence and active lifestyle.
“I was a horrible patient,” Wheatley said. “I remember saying, ‘Just let me go to the mountains and I’ll figure it out myself.' My brain wasn’t working properly. I could not see that these people wanted to help me survive. I had to recognize, ‘I’m not going to get out of here and I’m not getting into those mountains if I don’t do what they’re telling me to do.'”
A team worked to reintroduce her to foods in what Wheatley can now playfully describe as ‘eating school’. By late 2016 – 26 months after she was struck by the baseball – Wheatley was ready to leave the Denver hospital, but she had a long way to go in accepting her new normal. Nourishing her body would be a beast to confront each day, tackled meal by meal. She could no longer drive and had to relearn many of life’s tasks on her own, with altered vision. But it wouldn’t stop her from seeing things.
Mountains provided therapy
She decided she would run through mountains to regain her confidence. In 2017, she picked a list of the world’s most stunning peaks and began travelling alone, darting solo through massifs in places such as Andorra, France, Italy, India, Nepal, New Zealand, Argentina, Patagonia and Peru. She explored the U.S. Rockies and stopped to thank the hospital staff in Denver on her trip.
She planned to travel for 12 months, but when that was up, she was just getting to know herself. She was beginning to open up – running some trail races, talking about what happened to her and publishing a blog. She had collected friends around the world, become adept at tourism offices, with trail maps and language apps, and was growing confident in her footing. Single and with no dependents, she lives a frugal and humble lifestyle, living off savings.
She is back in Nepal because she loved it so much the first time. Being kept indoors now triggers that loss-of-control feeling she experienced in hospitals. Wheatley still has a scar on her abdomen from the feeding tube that kept her alive, reminding her to eat. It tells her survival story, along with the many scars on her knees, acquired when she fell on countless mountain trails before getting back to her feet.
“People ask me how I adjust, how I run, and I don’t know any differently now. We all see things differently through our eyes, and it’s just what I’ve become accustomed to,” Wheatley said. “Just like I did, from a wheelchair to a hospital hallway, to walks on a trail around the hospital or a treadmill, I just put one foot in front of the other.”