written by Mackenzie Wilson
If The Little Engine That Could was a person, it would be Alysia Kezerian. The 24-year-old, from Danville, California, hasn’t let anything get in the way of her seeing the world, not even a devastating injury. In 2015, Kezerian, then a student at the University of Oregon, was paralyzed from a fall at Smith Rock State Park near Terrebonne. She was bouldering up a 10-foot rock face and on the way back down, a section of the rock broke off, sending her to the ground. Adrenaline dulled her initial understanding of whether she was hurt. “I thought, oh I didn’t hit my head, I’m fine,” Kezerian said. “ Then I tried to move my legs and I couldn’t.”
It took rescue crews seven hours to get Kezerian out of the park because of the unforgiving terrain. Before going into surgery at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, an orthopedic surgeon told her she shattered her L2 vertebrae. “I remember just at out asking, ‘Am I going to walk again?’ He said it was very unlikely, that I had complete paralysis,” Kezerian said. Many people would have given up on their dreams of traveling. Not Kezerian—she has continued traveling internationally, inspiring other people with limited abilities through her Instagram page, Wheelies Around the World, to go on adventures and find ways to keep traveling. In 2016, she returned to the University of Oregon, but not for long.
She dreamed of studying abroad. The logistics were an uphill battle, but a counselor helped make it happen. “No one ever said, ‘ This is going to be too hard. Don’t do it,’” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘ This might be hard, but we’re so up for the challenge.’” Kezerian traveled internationally before her injury, but knew it would be different after. She says a lot of the problems that come up for her while traveling now would surprise able-bodied people. “The biggest piece with traveling for long periods of time, for people with spinal cord injuries, is making sure you’re not sitting on your bum for too long,” Kezerian said. “For some people, there’s no muscle tissue down there so it’s easy to get pressure sores.” She said all airplanes are supposed to have an aisle chair that can help people who use a wheelchair get on and off the flight and allow them to have access to the bathroom during the flight—but in her experience, not everyone is fully trained to use them.
“I personally will just hold it for eleven hours,” Kezerian said. If that’s not an option, she’ll book a layover to make sure she has proper access to a bathroom during her travels. While studying abroad in Vienna, Austria, Kezerian found it to be more accessible than many places she visited in Europe. “I stayed in a vacation rental in Paris where there was an elevator, but it wasn’t wide enough for my chair … my friends were super resourceful, though. I would stay in the elevator and the boys would meet me at the top with my chair,” Kezerian said. The “top” was six flights up. Bathrooms in Europe were a constant struggle for Kezerian. Most the time they weren’t accessible and even if they qualified as accessible in the particular place, Kezerian said the requirements weren’t the same as in the United States. “Most door widths in the U.S. are just wide enough to fit the size wheelchair that I have,” Kezerian said.
“In Europe they are way smaller, so sometimes I’d have to pop a wheel off of my chair and have someone help me through.” The struggles she’s had traveling all seem insignificant against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, the Swiss Alps or the canals in Amsterdam, but they did inspire her to create a platform for people who use wheelchairs to share their experiences traveling. Kezerian launched Wheelies Around the World on Instagram in July 2017 and built a following of nearly 5,000 people. She’s received messages from people who never thought they’d be able to travel internationally again. “Helping people see that the entire world is there, you just have to approach it strategically, that’s been very fulfilling,” Kezerian said.
The page also gained a following from able-bodied people. “I didn’t make the page with the thought of creating any sort of social change, but it’s cool how that has sort of come along with it.” Since her injury, Kezerian has graduated college, traveled to thirteen countries and now works as an administrative assistant in San Francisco. She’s also baffled doctors by taking steps on her own. At St. Charles in 2015, she noticed her hip flexor twitching, but doctors told her that was normal. She didn’t get her hopes up. “I took what they said to heart. You know that it happens sometimes—signals get through,” Kezerian said. That twitch was always in the back of her mind, and now she’s regained use of about twenty muscles in her legs. Doctors can’t tell her why she’s regained the use of some of her muscles. “Spinal cord injuries are probably one of the most ambiguous injuries you could possibly get,” Kezerian said. “ There’s just not enough research to give a definitive answer.”
Now that she’s taken steps on her own and even climbed flights of stairs, she’s unsure of what her future holds. “I feel like my head is sort of being split between two worlds right now—the world of accepting being in a wheelchair and learning to love it and celebrating that … but then also really wanting to walk,” Kezerian said. One thing she’s sure of is that there’s no end in sight for Wheelies Around the World. “I’ll always have a part of my life where I was in a wheelchair and I know what it’s like to be treated differently, and I know what it’s like to try and travel in it,” Kezerian said. “So even if I did start walking again, there’s a huge part of me that still can really empathize with people in that situation.”