It was a muggy Saturday afternoon and I felt bleary and bewildered after being up all night with a fractious toddler. I was on my way to interview a woman named Heidi Herkes who I’d never met before. She’d had been introduced by a mutual friend over email. My friend had insisted that Heidi was very interesting and I should feature her on my blog. I was excited to meet Heidi but I was wrung out after the night before. She’d suggested that we meet in a pub in Hampstead, I when I checked the address my heart skipped a beat. It was the venue where we held my dad’s wake. To add to the serendipity, it was one day shy of the five-year-anniversary of his funeral. I considered messaging Heidi and asking if we could change the location, but it had taken a long time for us to arrange this meeting and I didn’t want to mess her around.
When I arrived Heidi was already there, sitting in the pub garden with the afternoon sunlight illuminating her blonde hair. She looked radiant in her metallic pewter top, her long legs swathed in white skinny jeans, chic tan flats on her feet, legs crossed just so. Her wheelchair was the last thing I noticed.
I said hello and how nice it was that we’ve finally managed to meet up, after chatting on email for a few weeks. I felt a little awkward because I wasn’t sure how much Heidi could move her upper body and I hesitated to offer my hand in case she couldn’t shake it. A hug seemed inappropriate as we’d only just met and I was loath to invade her personal space. Fortunately, Heidi seemed pretty relaxed and didn’t appear to mind my clumsy social skills. I went inside to order a coffee, Heidi already had a glass of water and didn’t want anything else. While I was waiting for the barman to make me a flat white, I looked in on the function room that housed dad’s wake, 5 years and a day ago. Another wake was winding up; six black-clad mourners shuffled about, picking up bunches of flowers and condolences cards. The staff collected dirty champagne flutes in crates and ferried them away to be washed.
The barman called to say my coffee was ready, I paid and carried it outside and took a seat opposite Heidi. She beamed when I sat down and started asking questions about my life. Her warmth and vivacity distracted my thoughts from lingering on the wake room. When I asked Heidi to tell me a bit about herself, she launched into her story with no hesitation and disarming honesty.
Five years ago, Heidi was a makeup artist and ran her own bridal hair and makeup business. One innocuous Sunday in March, she had been trialling a woman’s look for her upcoming wedding day, at Heidi’s house in Richmond. Heidi and her client were getting on like a house on fire and excitedly discussing her wedding. After the session was over, Heidi walked up the stairs, lost her balance and fell backwards; she tried to grab the balustrade to steady herself but she slipped and tumbled to the bottom of the staircase. Her neck was broken and she never walked again.
She woke up in hospital after being in an induced coma for 3 weeks. The doctors had performed a tracheotomy and inserted a tube in her throat so she could breathe. When she woke up she could not speak and she could not move. Heidi was then told that she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. She cried for two weeks and was eventually put on anti-depressants but after a week of medication, she’d had enough.
‘That was it, I’d done with my crying and I didn’t want to do any more. So I moved on to mastering the art of what I have left. My identity had totally changed and I had to think about how I was going to represent myself in society. Suddenly people were looking at me very differently and that was a shock. The woman I had been had disappeared, I felt like a shell of the person I used to be.’
She remained in hospital for six weeks after the accident and moved to a rehabilitation centre in Stoke Mandervile hospital, where she stayed for over a year. Heidi worked tirelessly to regain as much movement as she could, determined that she would not be defined by a moment of horrible bad luck. I asked her how she coped with such a cruel change of circumstance.
‘I said to myself this has happened now and I’m going to have to deal with it. I just concentrated on the next thing, being able to speak, then eating and so on. I had to go through the steps and getting to a level [of mobility] that was acceptable to me.’
After months of rehabilitation, Heidi regained some movement in her arms and hands, as well as mobility in her neck. Friends and family visited Heidi while she was in hospital, their love and support held her through the darkest days. They would come to Stoke Mandervile hospital and take her out for lunch in the surrounding area. Having been a successful, glamorous woman who had travelled the world, adjusting to her new identity was difficult.
‘I was in a wheelchair that I didn’t identify with, this big old cumbersome thing with big red buttons. I had to wear my gym kit because I had to be careful of pressure sores and I felt really daggy and frumpy. It was a difficult time for me, I felt very self-conscious and my self-esteem was out the window.’
It hadn’t occurred to me that a wheelchair user would need a chair with which they feel an affinity. As Heidi told me her story with methodical serenity, it was clear that she harbours no self-pity. It’s impossible not to be impressed by Heidi’s strength; there’s a steely glint in her blue eyes that speaks of her irrepressible courage and determination. When she was discharged, Heidi was left wondering what she should do next.
‘I can’t use my body as I used to, however, I still have a mouth, I still have a brain and I still need to do something with my life.’
She had to start over with her new identity as a disabled woman. Heidi realised that she could use personal style as a form of empowerment. She didn’t want to be defined by her wheelchair and taking care of her appearance was not only a form of self-care, but also a way to assert her herself as a strong and capable woman, not a victim of chance. Fashion became a way for Heidi to say that she was still here and she would not surrender. She decided that she would like to do something that was not only fulfilling for her, but also be of service to others. Heidi trained to be a personal stylist and now works with disabled women, helping them feel more confident and reclaim their identity. Being useful to someone else is the most fulfilling and empowering part of being a stylist.
‘I am always saying thank you to someone. Thank you for giving me the water, thank you for helping me get dressed. Now that I can do something for other people and they say thank you to me, which is so rewarding.’
Despite her resilience and success post accident, there are still difficult times. Her friends say that they Heidi looks like the same woman she always was, just sat down. Sometimes the fact that she can’t simply get up is heartbreaking. Heidi couldn’t dance at her sister’s wedding, which she found deeply upsetting. When faced with the stark contrast of how she used to be, verses her current limitations, she can become very low.
‘I start comparing myself now to my previous self and that is the worst thing you can possibly do. Sometimes days afterwards, I’m still thinking about it. Then I get to a point where have to say, no, don’t even go there. That’s why I’ve thought of ways of how to make myself feel better, and doing my hair and makeup and all the rest of it is so important. If you look good then you feel good, that’s a way I keep myself going.’
It’s unsurprising that Heidi’s mental health would be affected by the accident. Fortunately, she has the strength of mind and relentless positivity to lift her out of those difficult moments and move forward with her life. I can relate to Heidi using fashion as a tool to feel stronger; when I’m struggling with my bipolar disorder, I utilise my personal style as a way to separate myself from my illness.
As Heidi talked her smile illuminated her face, I was struck by her vibrancy, her enthusiasm and tenacity. She did not pretend that things aren’t hard for her and she doesn’t miss her old life. But her acceptance of what is and her willingness to make the best of every day is inspiring. When the interview drew to a close, with her permission, I gave Heidi the hug I’d been shy about earlier. I said goodbye and walked up the street. My mind wandered back to dad and I remembered how brave and positive he had been when he was ill with an aggressive, degenerative illness. Like Heidi, he was determined to make the best of the situation, to master the art of what he had left. Heidi nearly died, if the break had been further up her neck she would not have survived. Her proximity to death taught her how precious life is, and how easily it can be taken away.
I see an echo of dad’s strength in people like Heidi, who have learnt that life can go horribly wrong and in a heartbeat, everything can change forever. However, their spirit remains unbroken and untarnished. I don’t believe in fate, but there was something uncanny about meeting Heidi at the same place where I said goodbye to dad, practically on the anniversary of his funeral. Perhaps there was a lesson there, if I could give myself permission to receive it. If the universe was trying to teach me something, it might be this; bad things happen and it’s not bloody fair but we have no choice but to carry on. This doesn’t mean that anyone should deny their grief and sadness because no good can come from it. But if we’re smart, we’ll have faith that we have the requisite strength to get through the dark times, find a way to be helpful to others and squeeze every drop joy from the time we are granted on this earth.
Heidi’s Instagram feed is full of beautiful images and inspiring words about how to make the best of every day, no matter the circumstance. All images courtesy of Heidi Herkes.