Love taught me to walk again

Nathan’s doctors told him he’d never walk again. But he proved them wrong… and found love along the way.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
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Nathan’s doctors told him he’d never walk again. But he proved them wrong… and found love along the way.

For most of his life, Nathan Wilburn believed he was defined by his disability. After a catastrophic car accident left him a paraplegic when he was just two years old, Nathan was told he would never be able to relish the joys of an active, normal life. Then when he turned 30, Vicki Lanini moved in across the road – and everything changed once they met.

“Being in a wheelchair, I had become very overweight. I found out Vicki was a PT so I asked her to help me lose some weight,” says Nathan, 33. But Vicki turned out to be far more than a weight-loss consultant – she taught Nathan to walk, despite doctors claiming it wasn’t possible.

Right from the start, Vicki saw Nathan as someone with the potential to walk, rather than as a paraplegic in a wheelchair. And to make their fairytale ending even more magical, they fell in love. “We became very good friends very quickly. I felt like I’d found a friendship that I could really cherish,” says Nathan. “I have the strongest belief that anyone can do anything,” says Vicki.

“As soon as people say, ‘I can’t do that,’ I say, ‘Well, now you have to do it because you said you can’t. I don’t care if it takes two years, three years, five years or 10 years.’”

“Everyone was always looking to make things more accessible to me as a person living in a wheelchair,” says Nathan. “Not one doctor said, ‘Let’s try to get you walking.’ When I started training with Vicki, she asked me, ‘What can you do?’ I had upper body strength, so that wasn’t an issue. So we started working on my legs.”

“We started with basic stuff like standing,” Vicki adds. “We’d do that for 10 minutes and he’d be sweating and I’d have to catch him. I’d also get him to lie on his tummy and raise his feet to his bum. Nothing would happen, but I’d see his hamstrings twitch. That’s when I knew there was something we could work with.”

After months of exercise and with a lot of persistence, Nathan gradually learned to use his legs. “Vicki told me how things were going to be and I didn’t want to disappoint her,” says Nathan. “Doctors and physios always said I couldn’t do things, but Vic said, ‘You’re going to do it. There’s no option’.” “We got into disagreements over things she’d say I could do,” he adds with a cheeky smile, reinforcing that the road to recovery was not an easy one for him. Vicki’s positivity and belief in him paid off.

A few months ago, the boy known as “wheelchair guy”, who was teased at school for being a “cripple”, climbed Bali’s active volcano Mount Batur using just his legs. “There were times I thought I couldn’t go any further. There were times I wanted to give up and hoped that a helicopter could pick me up. Honestly, I cried quite a few times,” Nathan recalls.

But in his toughest hour, he had Vicki there in his mind, spurring him on. At the top of the volcano, he decided to leave “wheelchair guy” behind and just be Nathan – a man dedicated to giving people the support to know that anything’s possible through his role as a confidence coach. “I work with so many people who live with disabilities and that is their life.

They succumb to their disability,” says Nathan. “I was in that category for a very long time.” “I thought that’s all there was – the daily grind until you die. I didn’t think there was anything else out there for me. “When I met Vicki, she changed my life. She saw me as an able-bodied person,” he says, looking at his fiancee in awe.

Medically, Nathan will always be classified as a complete paraplegic. While he has limited sensation from the knees down, he says it’s growing rapidly. “I want to be able to walk better, because my walking style is very cumbersome right now,” he says. “I want to do the bridal waltz at our wedding and not be sitting in a wheelchair. I want to carry Vicki through the door of our hotel room.”

And Vicki doesn’t doubt for a moment that he’ll achieve his goal. “Nathan always says how grateful he is that I came into his life, but the truth is we inspire each other.”

"I want to do the bridal waltz at our wedding, and not be sitting in a wheelchair. "

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From top: Nathan Wilburn in his wheelchair; Nathan with his fiancee and personal trainer, Vicki; months of training his legs helped Nathan back on his feet.

Text: Amelia Saw / PHOTOS: David Hahn/