How one rock climber found footing in online recovery

“Better we raise our skill than lower the climb,” —Royal Robbins, a pioneer of modern rock climbing. And so it was that Vanessa Cameron,35, was leading a rock-climbing party of friends in Oregon. She had made the climb before, so she was familiar with the terrain. “We were doing a traditional climb,” she explains, and I was leading the route.” Cameron says she was in an overhang area, about to place her next piece of climbing safety equipment, “and my foot slipped. I fell, and I crashed backward into the rock behind me.”

Misplaced footing

In piecing together the events of the accident, Cameron’s husband Tony and their friends surmised that she hit the rock that broke her shoulder blade, which subsequently crashed into her spine, broke it, crushed her spinal cord, and cracked her ribs. She suffered a T4 SCI, initially classified as an ASIA A. In her climbing party was an ICU nurse with wilderness first aid experience. Cameron was transported to a hospital in Oregon where her spine was decompressed, stabilized, and she was readied for the journey home to Leavenworth, Washington State, a beautiful, Bavarian-Esque town the Cameron’s intentionally chose to settle in because it offers all the outdoor activities they cherish.

Forgive Yourself

“Afterwards,” she backtracks, it took me about nine months to realize that there wasn’t anything I did wrong to cause my fall,” she says. Climbers pride themselves on safety, and for Cameron, coming to a place of acceptance was as difficult as the physical rehab that lie ahead.

Finding The Optimal Route

Time and time again, we hear stories about the rehabilitation services for spinal cord-injured patients that don’t meet the needs of the individual, whether due to insurance or policy constraints. In Cameron’s case, her insurance was adequate: However, the inpatient rehab’s policy was a strict program of getting the patient ready to live with their new body within a short timeframe. She spent 3.5 weeks in inpatient rehab at The University of Washington in April 2021–when hospital facilities were still locked down due to COVID-19 restrictions and visitors weren’t allowed. “My husband was allowed in to see how to help care for me 48 hours before I came home,” she explains, “but at 3.5 weeks, I was terrified to go home with a body that was so foreign to me. I do want to say, though, the therapy was really good, and I soaked up every bit of it.” Her husband Tony, and seven-year-old son Jack, took Vanessa home and the three of them started to navigate her new normal.

Finding the Right Path!

In an odd coincidence, Cameron is an accomplished medical professional, having spent 11 years as a neuro-trauma nurse after deciding that her first choice, a medical doctor, wouldn’t afford her the patient interaction and care she desired from a medical career.

So, as any good climber does, she found a different path to her goal. “After shadowing some doctors and realizing I wanted more patient interaction from a medical career, I pivoted,” she explains. Cameron simultaneously earned her BSN in nursing and a Masters’ Degree in 2012. “Most of my time at the bedside was spent in a neurotrauma setting,” she smiles, the irony not lost. But she wanted more leadership and professional development, and so earned more professional development certifications. Cameron was running the residency department at the hospital in Leavenworth, instructing other nurses on best practices with ER situations, especially those dealing with neurotrauma, when her accident happened.

Back on “The Ropes”

Admittedly, she went back to work too soon: “Only four months after my injury,” she says, “but I was going stir crazy, and I needed exercise for my mind and body.” The hospital allowed her to work out with the adaptive rehab equipment, and her position as an educator enabled her to return to work in much the same capacity as before the injury. “I feel really fortunate that I had a job in nursing that I was able to return to after getting injured,” she says. “It would have been a lot harder, and I felt very fortunate. I had a job and a team in an environment that I could go back to.”

“Nurse, Heal Thyself!”

But for a body that was at peak physical condition, with the knowledge that more could be done, Cameron, an educator and a lifelong learner (she was enrolled in a Ph.D program before the accident), started researching alternate methods of SCI healing. Through Instagram, Cameron found Stephanie Comella and ZebraFish Neuro five months after her accident. “I started seeing some of her posts on Instagram and just starting to see a little bit more about what that was like,” says Cameron.

Instagram Motherlode

ZebraFish Neuro is the brainchild of therapist Stephanie Comilla and SCI patient (and MIT student) Theo St. Francis. “Both Theo and I were frustrated with the current model that was available for post-insurance-covered options,” explains Comilla. In a nutshell, Comilla and St. Francis started putting ZebraFish Neuro’s program together in 2015, which bridges the gap between traditional therapy, high-intensity fitness, and gait training.

Get on The Ground

They published their book, “From The Ground Up,” in 2020, and in 2021 Cameron saw some of the online classes Comilla offered and took some of those, posting her results and tagging ZebraFish Neuro on Instagram. “I saw their “Practical Posture” workshop online and took it, posting my results and tagging them,” says Cameron. “We started seeing her posts and results,” says Comilla, “and through a series of conversations, Vanessa came to Oregon and spent six days developing a program with us tailored to her needs and goals,” continues Comilla.

Always Climbing

The results have been gradual but measurable, says Cameron. She combines the work she developed with ZebraFish Neuro with a few other online subscriptions–all while taking care of “her kiddo” Jack, working at the hospital, and continuing with her Ph.D studies. “I also get in an exoskeleton session once a week at the hospital,” she laughs, “just to mix things up.” “And you know, I would say that my improvement has been incredibly slow, which is so frustrating,” admits Cameron. Cameron opines that the amount of time and energy, and effort that she has put into this recovery is unlike anything else she’s ever done. “In comparison, if I had ever tried this hard at anything else, the amount of difference you would see would be huge!” she laughs. “So it’s all about perspective, “she cautions. “I’m trying to remember that, but I said, I think that everything that I’m seeing is really because of the home program that I’m doing, which is primarily based on my research.” But as any climber will tell you, there are times on the rock that the path seems insurmountable until you take a different approach. Vanessa Cameron is able to find the different routes to her summit.



Vanessa Cameron’s Shalieve Wisdom

Get out of Your Own Head. Find something that gives you purpose or direction and allows you to get out of your physical self a little bit. That has been incredibly helpful and it has reminded me that there's also a lot more to life than whether or not my legs work

Remember, This is a Marathon: Something that I still struggle with it sometimes, but it's helpful for me is remembering that this is a marathon. It's not a sprint, and there is no value in comparing your recovery journeyto somebody else's because we all have different injuries, and the way our bodies react is going to be different.

Find Ways to Connect With Others: I think that finding ways to connect with other people is also really important. That was something I was missing for a long time, and I didn't see the importance of it quite enough until more recently.