“I was paralysed at 19, and doctors didn’t know if I’d walk again”

Her world was shattered when she had a stroke - but this woman defied the odds and is inspiring others with disabilities.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Her world was shattered when she had a stroke - but this woman defied the odds and is inspiring others with disabilities.
My Reading Room

It’s a glorious sunny day at the beach as Angel Dixon takes a careful step. She grips her husband Scott’s hand tightly and braces before jumping over a wave, with a huge smile on her face. Seven years earlier, it seemed impossible Angel would ever make it to the beach again, let alone walk across the sand and into the ocean to catch a wave, after an unexpected stroke at 19 left her paralysed.

She refused to let her sudden disability define her. Instead, Angel surprised everyone, and amazed her doctors, by learning to walk again. Each year on the anniversary of her stroke – a day she calls her “stroke-iversary” – Angel celebrates her ever-increasing mobility by setting herself a goal and achieving it.  “I realised the date could become a negative thing, and I didn’t want that to happen,” says Angel, 26. “We have a pretty adventure-packed life anyway, but we always try to do something I haven’t tried yet.

“It’s fun to challenge myself by setting big physical goals, but it’s just as important for me to take the time to observe my own resilience and how far I’ve come so far.”

Struck Without Warning

On April 10, 2009, Angel woke up to pains in the top of her right leg. “Two hours later I had stabbing pains in my back, too, but I didn’t think much of it at first.”

As the day went on the pain worsened, and Angel’s upper body went numb and tingly and her arms became weak. She was rushed to the hospital for treatment.

“Doctors diagnosed a slipped disc and sent me home with painkillers,” she recalls.

“The next morning I tried to get out of bed to use the bathroom – but I couldn’t move.” Angel was paralysed from the neck down, with tests revealing she’d suffered a spinal stroke. “The doctors didn’t know if I’d ever be able to walk again,” she recalls.

But miraculously, her muscle tone started to get better. “A month after the stroke, I was able to walk around the ward with a walker,” she says. “My doctors were amazed.”

Angel was able to go back home again after three months. A year later – after giving her body ample time to heal – she began an intensive physiotherapy course.

She left the programme able to tie her own shoelaces and fasten her bra – small things most people tend to take for granted. And just 21 months after her stroke, she celebrated completing rehab with a 4 km run.

“I used my cane to walk the course, but ran the last 20 m across the finish line with my mother and physiotherapist holding me up. It was such an achievement.”

Kicking Goals

Over her seven “stroke-iversaries” so far, Angel has shown her thirst for life and unbreakable spirit by ticking off a list of physical and mental achievements. “The first year we just went for a nice meal,” she says. “But we’ve since gone paragliding, hiking and climbing.”

In 2015, when the couple was living in San Francisco in the US, Angel marked the day by walking through the busy city streets to meet Scott for lunch. And next year, she’s planning a hiking trip in Nepal.

But Australian beach lover Angel’s biggest goal was getting back to the beach, and into the water again. “It took a while for me to be able to walk on sand without a lot of help. Just before I left the hospital, Scott took me to the beach on a day release,” she says.

“He carried me to the sand and stood me up, and I fell straight on my bum!”

And yes, Angel has made it back in the ocean. “It isn’t exactly surfing, because I can’t make it to my feet, but I’ll often hop on a surfboard with my husband for a ride, and I love ‘kneel-up’ paddleboarding.”

The inspiring survivor is also a disability advocate, and in the process of developing her own line of walking canes. She even walked in LA Fashion Week this year, for the inclusive fashion brand Bezgraniz Coutoure.

Though you may not suspect she has a permanent injury just by looking at Angel, everyday life can be a challenge.

She’s regained a lot of mobility, but still suffers neurological pain from the chest down on her right side and has limited sensation. She’s unable to feel hot or cold or soft touch. “That’s probably one of the most annoying things I’ve been left with,” she explains.

Despite her daily challenges and setbacks, Angel is more determined than ever not to dwell on her limitations. “Every year I think it’s not possible to go forward any more,” she says. “But I always surprise myself.”