As someone who lives with an inherited connective tissue disorder, chiropractor Cara Woods knows her patients’ pain all too well, but her courage and determination has seen her graduate with a Master of Clinical Chiropractic with Distinction at the recent CQUniversity Brisbane Graduation.
Cara, 38, endured a heart operation and had a baby during the nine-year journey to complete her Master of Clinical Chiropractic.
But support from CQUniversity and The Walter and Eliza Hall Trust Opportunity for Students with a Physical Disability Scholarship helped her finally cross the stage on 25 August 2023.
It was just one year after Cara was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome that she heard about the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust Scholarship provided to eligible CQUniversity students.
Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome affects connective tissue, primarily the skin, joints, and blood vessel walls.
Symptoms include overly flexible joints that can dislocate, and skin that's translucent, elastic and bruises easily. In some cases, there may be dilation and even rupture of major blood vessels.
“It still feels a little bit surreal [receiving the scholarship]. I’d only been diagnosed with my condition for a year before I applied. It was still a fairly new diagnosis,” Cara said.
“I was in the process of trying to get my head around that I had a disability at the time, and then when I got the phone call to say that I had received the scholarship I think I forgot to speak, and possibly even forgot to say thank you! I was just overwhelmed. It’s just phenomenal to feel that synchronicity – that it was all meant to happen for a reason.”
It was when Cara became involved in gymnastics as a child that the first symptoms of the syndrome appeared. She suffered constant pain, joint injuries and even blackouts. At age 12, she was taken to a chiropractor and received relief – and inspiration – at her first adjustment.
“I fell in love with chiropractic at that very first adjustment and I knew it was what I wanted to do,” she said.
Cara completed the Bachelor of Science (Chiropractic) and moved into Master of Clinical Chiropractic part-time. The scholarship however allowed her to attend professional seminars outside of her university studies on ‘low-force’ techniques – a style of treatment which had helped her.
“The funds helped me hugely. Most people associate chiropractic with pushing and cracking, but that wasn’t what suited me as a practitioner and certainly not as a patient myself,” she said.
“So I attended as many seminars as I could, and I spent time with low force chiropractors who used really gentle techniques and by the time I got to my clinical year, I was really proficient in these techniques. It gave me an edge at university because I was equipped to see patients who might not have been suited to more ‘traditional’ methods, or it wasn’t safe to adjust them manually.”
Cara balanced her studies alongside her condition, a heart surgery, a pregnancy, motherhood – and even at one point, six months in a wheelchair.
“For me, being in a wheelchair was terrifying – which was just before I received the scholarship – (because) I had been an athlete, performer and dancer, and I remember sitting there thinking ‘this is my life now’,” she said.
Fortunately, Cara has had some medical progress and the heart surgery has alleviated some major concerns. She hasn’t needed the wheelchair for some time.
In addition to starting her own practice, Cara has an associate position with another chiropractor who has 30 years’ experience in low force techniques. She said CQU’s training, and the scholarship helped her develop the skill set to secure the position.
She said she hopes to continue to tackle the stigma around invisible disabilities.
“I struggled with the question: ‘Could I still be a chiropractor - who is ideally supposed to be a picture of health, fitness and function- when I have health issues and joint problems of my own? The answer is absolutely yes, because patients don’t want to sit in front of you and hear that you’ve never had pain or illness and that you have no idea what they are going through,” she said.
“The more I share my story, I find the more people resonate with that and they are often so relieved that I’m a ‘real’ person. To be able to validate their experience with lived understanding is a really beautiful thing.”
“CQU’s culture of helping others and being involved in the community aligns beautifully with the chiropractic ethos of serving others. It’s bigger than me and I am beyond grateful.”
“I wish there were stronger words than ‘thank you’. I’d like the Trust to know the impact of their gift, and that it’s a lifelong gift. It’s given me the ability to connect the part of chiropractic I fell in love with at 12 years old with the way I want to practice moving forward.”
“It’s been a beautiful full circle moment because the disability not only led me to chiropractic, but it’s shaped the way I take care of others. It’s led me exactly where I was meant to be.”
The CQUniCares Scholarship program changes lives and CQU is grateful to partner with The Walter and Eliza Hall Trust who share the University’s passion for making a difference in the lives of our remote students, their families and our communities.