After a Traumatic Brain Injury, Brave Woman Goes On to Climb Mountains—Literally and Figuratively
“Losing sight to gain vision”: One woman’s motto to climb mountains in her own mind and summit peaks around the world.
Looking at the smiling Canadian woman in sunglasses on the top of K2 Pakistan, the world’s second tallest mountain, you’d never guess that Jill Wheatley was at her lowest low just a few years before that.
And if you listened to just the first part of her story, you’d never know out of what depths she had to climb to make it to where she is today.
Jill Wheatley had always been physically fit. A competitive cyclist and runner from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Wheatley worked as a physical education teacher. She traveled the world, visiting 60 different countries to teach physical fitness classes across the globe. It seemed like nothing could stop her.
In the Blink of an Eye, Everything Changes
Until a freak accident did just that. Wheatley was teaching a gym class in Germany when she was hit on the head by a baseball. Thus started an unbelievable journey through seven different hospitals in three different countries that lasted over two years. At one point, Wheatley was ready to give up.
“I really did not think that life was worth living,” she admitted.
Wheatley had suffered a traumatic brain injury that left her with 70% vision loss, including permanent blindness in one eye. She was left with no depth perception—a crippling blow to an athlete. During years of recovery, Wheatley lost hope. She just wanted it all to end.
“I would hide the medication and try to break the monitors and would pull the feeding tubes,” Wheatley said. She developed an eating disorder. “I tried everything I could to hurt myself, and to try to end it—so, that’s as dark as it gets.”
She Climbs Mountains With the Help of Family and Friends
But friends, families and doctors wouldn’t let her. They were by her side, day in and day out, reminding Wheatley of all the reasons she had to live.
“Hundreds of hands and hearts,” Wheatley says, “when all is said is done, who did not give up on me when I truly gave up on myself—those are the people, those are the reasons that I’m here today.” When Wheatley couldn’t see clearly, both literally and figuratively, those who loved her took her hand and heart and guided her out of the darkness. They were her eyes, and they gave her the reasons she needed to climb mountains.
Near the end of her recovery, Wheatley ended up in an intensive care unit in Colorado. She looked out on a beautiful view of the mountains just outside her window every day. “I remember thinking: ‘If they would just let me get out there, I can figure this all out,’” she said. Wheatley was determined to leave the hospital one day and to get out there into those mountains.
Not only did Wheatley accomplish that goal, but she has since gone on to be the first Canadian woman to summit six of the world’s highest peaks. She’s managed to climb mountains despite only having 30% of her vision and no depth perception. The inspiring athlete has found ways to compensate. She uses color and texture to make her way forward, as well as an iron-strong will and an inspiring ability to go with the flow.
“The only thing constant is change,” Wheatley points out, “so when the weather gets really bad or a storm is coming in or I’m struggling a little bit with altitude or energy, I know it is going to pass.”
No Hurdles She Can’t Overcome
Wheatley spent over two years in hospital beds, trying to regain her strength, but she seeks her true healing in nature. When asked how she could possibly go from her lowest low to climbing the world’s highest mountains, Wheatley said, “I had energy I didn’t know I had, maybe some strength in what is really challenging with the TBI (traumatic brain injury) as the reference point.”
She’s deeply grateful to those who helped her come out on the other side of her traumatic brain injury, and also for the opportunity given to her to not only start again, but to reach new heights. At every summit, Wheatley takes a video, saying, “so very thankful.”
“I call it serendipity,” Wheatley now speaks positively of her experience. “Sometimes it takes time to really learn or see the lessons, but there’s a reason things happen. I didn’t get to choose those, but I do have the opportunity to choose how I respond, and I’m choosing to embrace the life I nearly lost and challenging myself in ways that I once definitely never thought possible.”
And she’s not done yet, Wheatley is heading back to Nepal to summit the final eight of the world’s 14 tallest mountains, including Everest. She has a website called Mountains of My Mind, where supporters can follow and contribute to her project.
Like the people who pulled her out of her darkest moments and encouraged her to go on, Wheatley hopes to inspire others to overcome the hurdles before them and live their best lives.