x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Putting a shattered life back together

A mother of three whose life was changed after a moped accident is finding that Dubai is not a handicap-friendly place.

Leanne Langmead, who was left paralysed from the waist down after a moped accident in South Africa, in her Dubai home.
Leanne Langmead, who was left paralysed from the waist down after a moped accident in South Africa, in her Dubai home.

DUBAI // On a family holiday to South Africa that featured shark diving, sailing and fishing, Leanne Langmead's life changed forever.

A self-proclaimed action woman who has lived and travelled all over the Middle East, Leanne fell off the moped she was riding on a visit to the Cape of Good Hope signpost last August. Barely escaping death, she broke her neck, back and jaw and was left paralysed from the waist down. Her face was also badly damaged, as the bike helmet did not provide enough protection or coverage. "My nose was by my ear," she says bluntly. "The doctors call it degloving. I am very lucky to even be here because the first doctors did not think I would survive."

Leanne, who has three children and is in her 50s, spent six months enduring gruelling surgery, physiotherapy and rehabilitation in a South African hospital. Her family - husband Douglas, 57, sons Nicholas, 27, and William, 24, and daughter Sophie, 18 - visited her daily. Leanne is now back in the family home in Dubai, learning to adjust to life in a wheelchair in a country that lags behind much of the world when it comes to accessibility. Instead she has had to rely largely on family, friends and the kindness of strangers.

In Dubai the traffic, potholed pavements, lack of proper sidewalks and large boulevards make navigating streets difficult for the able-bodied, let alone those in a wheelchair. There is also a dearth of toilets tailored for use by the disabled. But despite the odds being against her, Leanne refuses to stop enjoying her life here. "I have got determination but I am lucky that I have been able to come back here and get help. I never thought I would be able to come back here," she says. "I don't want to be a huge burden on my family."

The country lacks lobbying groups and has few charities devoted to campaigning for those with disabilities, which has not helped speed up the introduction of comprehensive legislation that would ease disabled access. Leanne is still waiting to receive a car sticker giving her permission to park in disabled parking spaces, having applied for it at the beginning of the year. She is not even certain if the sticker applies to a particular vehicle or individual. Attempts to reach officials at Dubai Municipality to clarify the situation were unsuccessful.

"I will not let it get to me, it is just the way it is," she says. "But it would be good if there were a few more bits of information, a central website with phone numbers and advice on where to get treatment, for example." Fortunately, where the public realm lags behind, the private has stepped in. One of the worst things for Leanne at first was that as a self- confessed "water baby", she could not get down to the beach in her wheelchair.

Enter a personal gym service called U Concept. Leanne has access to a special sand wheelchair which will allow her to get on to Jumeirah Beach with ease. The owner has offered the service to her free. And at a recent fundraising event held in her honour, friends raised around Dh30,000 (US$8,170) that paid for an electronic stair lift to be installed in Leanne's home. The determined Australian native chooses to focus on the kindness of others and future opportunities, instead of allowing herself to wallow in the fact her life has been turned upside-down.

"I think I have lived in the Middle East long enough to just think, 'If one thing doesn't work, try it another way,'" she laughs. "I have found everybody to be very helpful and everyone is happy to help." After the crash Leanne was revived at the side of the road three times. A bus carrying two Italian doctors proved to be her lifeline. They took over until she could be taken to hospital by helicopter.

A combination of powerful drugs, exhaustion and shock has erased much of Leanne's memory of her time in hospital. "When I first came round I was terrible," she recalls. "I was so emotional when I found out about my legs. "I was terrible because of the drugs. But I am one of those people who thinks, 'Tell me how it is and I can deal with it; don't pussyfoot around.'" Like her outlook, the view from her hospital room window was one of a kind.

"There were zebras, wildebeest and buffaloes walking past the window," she laughs. "It was very strange." She laughs about things other people may find uncomfortable, such as her reading material both before and after the crash - Frank Gardner's autobiography. Gardner was shot while reporting for the BBC in Riyadh. One of the six bullets hit his torso and left him paralysed from the waist down. "I finished his book eventually and decided you can't get embarrassed about anything. You have got to remember where you have come from, so whatever you have to go through, just get on with it. Worse things can happen."

One of Leanne's biggest passions are the statement jewellery pieces she designs and crafts using old metal and stones found in a lot of the region's souqs. Her work is sold and displayed at high-end jewellery shows in Australia and other countries, many of which are by invitation only. Because of the accident she is unable to make the pieces herself, but is determined to put pencil to paper and continue designing and hunting down materials.

"I will get back into it, it's all going around in my head and later this year I will start," she says. "I like the relationship with the person who is drawn to it, they want to know the story behind it." Despite the challenges ahead, Leanne retains a positive outlook, and even plans to return to South Africa one day to finish her trip. "I laugh about things, I am lucky to even be here," she says.

"I think things will get better in Dubai, it will just take time. As long as I have my friends around me to have a laugh with, I am happy." munderwood@thenational.ae