It was sunny and warm on June 1, 2014 — a day Jess Lambert will never forget. She was just 20 years old and enjoying an afternoon with friends at a lake near Calabogie. Her friends were cliff diving but Jess was nervous about jumping 20 feet into the water below. “I was running and stopping, running and stopping, then around the fifth attempt I ran and lost my balance at the end of the cliff. I fell and hit a rock that was about a foot into the water,” says Jess.

Jess Lambert was treated at the trauma centre at The Ottawa Hospital in 2014.

Her friends rescued her from the water, but Jess couldn’t feel her legs. While one friend stayed with her, another went for help. It took time for first responders to access Jess in the remote area before they could transport her to an air ambulance waiting in a nearby farmer’s field.

When she arrived at The Ottawa Hospital Trauma Centre at the Civic Campus, an initial examination indicated Jess had no movement from the waist down. “I couldn’t wiggle my toes or feel anything,” remembers Jess. Test results revealed she had a lower lumbar spinal injury, and her organs were compressed against her spine. She was scared she would never walk again.

Jess faced two long surgeries in the days ahead. It was about a week after the second surgery, while in the Intensive Care Unit, when the gravity of the situation hit her. The surgeon who operated on her spine revealed she had a 60/40 chance of walking again. “That was hard to hear. My family was with me, but it was very hard news. I was just 20 years old with a life ahead of me,” remembers Jess. 

She credits her dad for being by her side and helping her through some dark times. “I remember waking up after my second surgery in the middle of the night and in pain. The nurse working that night allowed my dad to stay at my bedside. He was talking me through it and telling me to stay strong. He and my family were a huge part of my recovery,” explains Jess.

“The Ottawa Hospital has amazing caregivers, they’re an amazing team overall, and this is such a great cause to support. They do so much for the community. ”

Jess Lambert

However, Jess was motivated to move her legs again — and the hard work to make that happen began immediately. She started physiotherapy, using a swing to move her from her bed to a wheelchair. “Over those three weeks at the Civic, I slowly regained feeling in my legs. One of my most memorable stories is when my family came in every day and the test would be that they put their finger down by my toe and my goal was to touch the finger. One day, it happened. I could see the tears well up in my family’s eyes by my bed side. I could see how happy and proud they were,” says Jess.

Jess’s next stop was the Rehab Centre at the General Campus where she worked to regain her strength and achieve her ultimate goal of walking again. “We’d do physio and then weights. I was also gaining strength in my arms at that time. I would go around the track at the centre to build up that arm muscle.”

On July 3, only a month following the accident, Jess stood on her own for the first time. By July 17, she was walking around the gym at the Rehab Centre with canes. “By the end of August, I was strong enough to walk on my own without any support and I got to go home — ahead of schedule. It was amazing.”

Over time, Jess got her full strength back in her legs and, incredibly, she completed her first 5 km run just one year after her accident.

Last year, she registered to Run for a Reason to give back to those who helped her. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The Ottawa Hospital has amazing caregivers, they’re an amazing team overall, and this is such a great cause to support. They do so much for the community. “

This year, she will tackle a new challenge. She’s registered to run her first marathon, giving her a whole new reason to train and fundraise. “I couldn’t have asked for better nurses, surgeons, doctors — there were a lot of people who cared for me, and I’ll never forget how helpful they were. I’m extremely thankful for them.”

Today, Jess lives every day to the fullest and she encourages others to never give up their dreams or goals.

In 2021, Jess registered for Run for a Reason to give back to those who helped her.