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24-Year-Old TikToker Paralyzed on College Ski Trip Uses Humor to Share Story: 'It Helps Me Cope'

TikToker Rebecca Koltun suffered a spinal cord injury while skiing during her senior year of college

<p>Audrey Koltun</p> Rebecca Koltun before and after her spinal cord injury.

Audrey Koltun

Rebecca Koltun before and after her spinal cord injury.

Rebecca Koltun had been looking forward to the trip. She and her friends from Binghamton University in upstate New York planned to spend the weekend at Stratton Mountain in Vermont to celebrate the final semester of their senior year.

It was the same mountain where she had learned to ski at 3 years old.

The last thing she remembers is getting picked up by friends the morning of March 13, 2021. Days later, she woke up in the ICU, paralyzed from the neck down and on a ventilator.

"I was told that I had a very bad fall," says Koltun, now 24, who lives in Long Island, New York. She says she was on he mountain for 10 minutes, and had no pulse when rescued. "Luckily, someone skiing by saw me," she says. They happened to be an EMT. He got ski patrol to transport me off the mountain."

She was transported to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire with a C1-C2 spinal cord injury, which is at the highest point of the spinal cord. She could no longer mover her arms or legs or breathe on her own.

Koltun recalls thinking that her life was over. "It took a few days to sink in because I was definitely on a lot of medication, and then my body was in shock.

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But now, three years later, she's found solace in sharing her story on social media using humor.

"It's just part of my personality to make jokes about serious topics," she explains. "It helps me cope, especially with my injury. Many of my TikTok videos have a darker humor tone."

Looking back on her journey, Koltun reflects on being in the ICU for 17 days before being discharged to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, a specialized facility for spinal cord injury rehabilitation.

There she underwent intensive therapy for four and half months, and eventually received a diaphragmatic pacer, which allowed her to breathe independently without a ventilator. She encountered numerous challenges along the way, including pneumonia and stomach problems, which lowered her morale. "Yeah, I wanted to give up. I was mad at the world, mad that someone had saved me at a certain point," she says.

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<p>Audrey Koltun</p> Rebecca Koltun at Disney World.

Audrey Koltun

Rebecca Koltun at Disney World.

To help, she turned to painting, initially to improve neck strength and mobility. "They just did it to get my neck moving and strengthen my neck," she says. "I was frustrated because I couldn't do anything because my neck was so stiff. It was hard for me to do, but I got better at it."

After her time at Spaulding, Koltun spent an additional four months at Glen Cove Hospital on Long Island, where she continued to paint. "An art therapist would hold the canvas in front of me. I have a mouth stick that I attach the paintbrush to. From there, it goes in my mouth, and then I paint."

To this day, she still paints. She shares her work on TikTok, and also sells them online. "Etsy in bio!😜," she captioned one TikTok video of her paintings.

<p>Audrey Koltun</p> Rebecca Koltun painting with her mouth.

Audrey Koltun

Rebecca Koltun painting with her mouth.

It was during her third hospital stay that Koltun got the idea to post about her story on TikTok. She worked with her occupational therapist to create a running list of video ideas. She was surprised to see how many people were interested in her story — many of her videos have been viewed more than 1 million times.

"It's just been nice to talk about people who have been through something traumatic like this and life-altering, and they understand the difficulties of seeing your parents go through something so difficult and having everything taken away in a second," she continues.

And she is not letting her injury hold her back. "I go to physical therapy twice a week," she says. "I do a bike for my legs and my arms, not just to keep the muscle tone and get blood flowing and stuff and get a little bit of cardiovascular exercise. Emotionally, I keep going every day. I don't have a choice. I want just to move forward and not dwell on the past and just try to stay positive."

Koltun has also refused to let her disability prevent her from doing what she loves. In May 2023, she attended Taylor Swift's Eras Tour at MetLife Stadium. "Checkmate, we couldn't lose," she captioned a photo of her at the concert wearing a silver bedazzled top.

Earlier this year in February Koltun traveled to Disney World in Orlando with her family. On Instagram, she shared pictures and videos of her on rides. "Have a magical day," she captioned the post.

"I have so many friends that support me and to be able to do all these activities that I do. I didn't think it would ever be possible," she says. "It is weird knowing that I'm like three years out. It is bittersweet. It feels so far away, and I don't want to forget the memories of all the fun things I used to do, but also the same time, I am proud of how far I've come in three years."

On March 13, Koltun posted a TikTok marking third anniversary of her injury. In the video, she sits in front of a dessert with a candle in it. Then, someone removes the tube from her ventilator and points it at the dessert, which blows it out. "March 13, 2021-I'm still here!," she captioned the TikTok.

"The laugh I let out 😭 happy survival-versary!! 🥳" one TikToker wrote on the video.

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