ALYSIA KEZERIAN IS IN AN ELEVATOR AT THE EIFFEL TOWER,Â on her way to the top of Parisâs most iconicÂ monument. SheâsÂ visiting from Vienna, Austria, where sheâs studyingÂ abroad for a semester. Just one level from the top floor, KezerianÂ and her friends are stopped: She canât continue with the rest of her group, because the Eiffel Tower |Â isnât handicap accessible beyond this pointâand KezerianÂ is in a wheelchair.
The 23-year-old, born and raised in Danville, California, neverÂ expected to have to plan for this sort of obstacle while traveling. She hasnât always been in a wheelchair. KezerianÂ was raised in an adventurous familyâthroughout her childhood she enjoyedÂ family trips across the United States and to Europe. Curiousity about the world, she says, was deeply ingrained in her way of life.
In August 2015, KezerianÂ was taking summer classes at the University of Oregon, and every weekend, she and another adventure-loving friend would embark on an outdoor escapade. âThere are seven âWonders of Oregon,ââ KezerianÂ says. âWe were trying to hit all of them. We called it our âExplOregonâ adventure.â
Ironicallyâas KezerianÂ putÂ itâthe pair was hiking the the Misery Ridge Trail in Smith Rock State Park when she fell. âI was climbing about 8-10 feet from the ground, when the rock I grabbed onto broke. I fell, hit a ledge, rolled 30 feet, and shattered a part of my vertebra.â When KezerianÂ tried to climb back toÂ the trail, she realized that she couldnât move her legs.
âAfter a six-hour rescue process, I made it to St. Charles hospitalÂ in Bend, Oregon,â Kezerian says. âThatâs where I was told that I had sustained a spinal cord injury and that I would never walk again.â
That moment was the end of KezerianâsÂ life as she knew itâbut, she asserts, it wasnât the end of her life. âWhile I was falling,â sheÂ says, âI was thinking about all of the things that I hadnât done yetâall of the things that I hadnât seen.â When she got the news that she would be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, Kezerian thought, âThis sucks, but itâs going to be OK. Iâm going to make this work.â
And âmake it workâ she did.
After being released from the hospital, KezerianÂ spent 10 weeks atÂ a rehabilitation center at Craig HospitalÂ in Colorado. She underwent extensive training to strengthen her body and adjust to life in a wheelchair. It was there that she becameÂ determined to see the things she feared she never would as she fell from the ledge at Smith Rock State Park. And not only thatâsheâs determined to enjoy them, too.
When she returned to the University of Oregon just five months after her fall, KezerianÂ made the surprisingÂ decision to enroll in a study abroad program in Vienna, Austria. âI looked into the program and just felt confident that I would be able to do it,â she says.
Of course, she had worries about the difficulties of traveling abroad in a wheelchair.Â Will my chair fit through my apartment door? Will public buildings be accessible?Â Most of all, Will other students in my program want to travel with me?Â Kezerian was most afraid ofÂ being a burden to others, but she was confidentÂ that the skills sheâd been learning at Craig Hospital wouldnât just allow her to live independentlyâtheyâd also, eventually, enable her to travel. Having learned firsthand that life is both precious and unpredictable, sheÂ decided that âeventuallyâÂ Â would mean ânow.âÂ Â And so, less than a year after her accident, KezerianÂ went to Europe in her wheelchair.
âI visited 10 different countries in eight and a halfÂ weeks in Europe, including Austria, France, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, Italy, Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, and Ireland,â KezerianÂ says. âAnd I had an amazing time. It felt like I was getting my life back.â
WhenÂ she ran into inevitable roadblocks, Kezerian simply maneuvered around them. InÂ Paris, her group of friendsÂ wanted to visit the Catacombsâwhich she knew would not be wheelchair accessible. She encouraged the groupÂ to go underground, and KezerianÂ went shopping instead. She had difficulty maneuvering the cobblestone streets of Prague, Â but she made an effort to explore theÂ more easily accessible areas and made light of the situation.Â When she arrived in Bratislava to find a train station full of stairs with no ramps, she used the skills sheâd practiced at Craig to make her way to the exit. âI got a good ab workout, to say the least,â Kezerian quips.
âThere were even some perks toÂ traveling in my wheelchair,â sheÂ says. “We visited so many museums in Europe, which were free for meÂ and a guestÂ with a flash of my disability card. Also,Â my whole group was able to ride first class on the trains for the price of coach. It was kind of funnyâI had gone into this trip thinking I was going to be a burden, and it turns out, at times I felt more like an asset.”
When Alysia KezerianÂ found herself on the second level of the Eiffel Tower, unable to advanceÂ to the top with her friends, she admits she was disappointed. ButÂ she maintained theÂ positive attitude and determination that got her to that point in the first place.Â âYou have to be OKÂ with things not going as planned,â Â says Kezerian, who recently returned from her second trip abroad post-accident (this time to England, Scotland, and Iceland). âI think for anyone who sustains a spinal cord injury, thatâs already been instilled in youâI mean, nobody plans for this to happen. But when travelingâable-bodied or notâthings arenât always going to work out. You have a choice: You can be bothered, or you can go with âplan Bâ and enjoy the experience.â